Dear Oklahoma University and Other Institutions of Higher Learning: Sexism Also Creates a “Hostile Educational Environment for Others”

Tear It Down

A recent story in the UK press relates the challenge of a little girl who was prevented from buying the sneakers she wanted because they were designed “for boys”. At least that’s what she and her mother were told by a Clark’s employee when they went to try on a pair of these shoes, called Stomp Claws. Take a look. Pretty cool, right? Embedded in the heel is a three-toed dinosaur-ish skeleton foot plastic inlay. Stomp the shoes in soft soil, and wow, it looks like a dinosaur (or giant rhea) has been roaming around your schoolyard. What’s not to love?

The prospective purchaser and her mum contacted Clark’s. It turns out Stomp Claws are made for anyone whose feet are small enough to fit children’s sizes. Clark’s apologized and promised to retrain their employee.

If only it were that easy to turn things around when racism and sexism rear their equally ugly heads.

Oklahoma University (OU) is giving changing the former the old college try. Faced with a busload of tanked-up Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) frat boys who sang incredibly offensive songs with racist lyrics – one song dismissively referred to lynchings – the OU president went commando. This article contains a photograph of his letter expelling a member of the fraternity. Note its language. The young man was expelled for his leadership role in “a chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others”.

Goodness.

Bloggers have referenced First Amendment rights. They noted that OU receives federal funding. Others have retaliated, pointing out that free speech has limits. One cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example. And like most universities, OU probably created a handbook of expectations for students, expectations that were most likely explained during orientation or the first weeks of freshman year.

Indeed, the letter itself – one can see the lawyers’ hands here – accuses the student not of words, but of his role in leading a “chant” that “created a hostile environment”. Extrapolating, we might assume that had he led a group of students to create a banner depicting lynching (hanging from a tree until dead) in a lighthearted, LOL manner, he would have been similarly expelled. Even where no words were used. Or necessary.

The OU president has used a swift and sure hammer. He is backed up by popular opinion. Millions of people are outraged by what the chanters said and did. The discovery that (we all knew this, right?) OU’s SAE fraternity has been plagued by long-term institutionalized racism is a series of nails in its coffin. The suggestion that that particular chant emanated from an SAE chapter in Texas simply widens the net.

Here’s the question, though, examining what the students did with a different lens:

If their “chant” was derisive of the rape of women, if instead of using the N-word, they used the C-word, would Oklahoma University’s president have taken the same actions?

He should. Right?

Because it’s just as offensive. It’s just as likely to create anxiety and fear. Also just as apt to “create a hostile educational environment”.

So far, college leaders have not recognized the similarities between racism and sexism. Even when generations of writers have pointed to them. Including when the sexism is fomented by people who have racist slurs thrown at their heads. Just because you happen to be a target of racism doesn’t mean you cannot also be sexist. Often, there is potent use of “bitch”, “ho”, the C-word, and other words used with contempt and a deliberate attempt at insult.

Creating a “hostile educational environment” is not the birthright of racists. Anyone can do it.

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