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Never Back Down From Racism

Some of my fondest memories attending the University of Oklahoma were whipping up on frat boys on the intramural football fields and basketball courts in the mid-to-late 1980s. They couldn’t stand me. I was their antithesis. I was a brash and arrogant Native American who was a mile ahead of them athletically and wouldn’t sit idly by and take their subtle racism against the Indian kind.

I remember when they were calling one of my Native flag football teammates by the moniker “chief.” He was actually in their Delta fraternity and I could not, for the life of me, understand why. After every touchdown I scored or threw as quarterback in our 20-point win against those Greeks I would ask them, “How do you like that, chief?”

By the second half they stopped using the term “chief.” I assume our playing ability (and my cocksure attitude) shut them up. To his credit, my Native friend later left the fraternity because of what he terms “similar attitudes” as those captured on video last weekend – a video that went viral and gave my school a black eye that will not soon fade.

Let’s examine these Sigma Alpha Epsilon members (and other students) from OU who were captured on cell phone video spewing racist chants about African Americans. “You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me. There will never be a n***ger SAE.” I know almost exactly who these guys are. They’re cut from the same mold as the frat boys who threw firecrackers under the door of my friend’s dorm room during my freshman year in Norman. They thought it was funny and thought nobody knew who pulled the prank.

Me and my buddy, who was studying chemistry, figured out how to get them back; and we succeeded. We built a floating balloon bomb out of sulfur, helium, a medical glove, a string (for the fuse); and whatever else was needed for the well-thought-out concoction. I take partial credit for building it, but not designing it.

It was not a dangerous bomb, but a prank that would scare the crap out of the two frat brothers. They were pledges, but it was no big deal or concern of mine until they jacked with my friend first. I even went into their dorm room to make sure their windows were open before we set it off – big dummies. No one was hurt, but the frat boys knew who the culprits were and why we responded in such a way.

So the Independents (students who did not pledge to a fraternity or sorority) had tied it up 1-1. But we didn’t stop there. I’m too competitive to be satisfied with a tie. Our next mission, after overhearing the plans of the two frat brothers, was to somehow disrupt their newly concreted fraternity basketball/tennis court.

They were complaining all day about how they would have to stand guard from midnight to daylight while the newly poured concrete dried. It was the perfect setup. Some fellow dorm buddies, who also didn’t like frat boys, thought long and hard about what mischief we could create and finally came up with a plan we could all live with.

We bought a case of Schaeffer’s beer from the local convenience store and downloaded a few before sneaking over to the frat house and began launching the remaining 12 oz. cans over the tops of the 30-ft. high cedar trees, over the 20-f.t high chainlink fence and right into the middle of the drying cement – it didn’t hurt that I was a quarterback with a strong arm. We could hear the splat of the cheap beer and the cussing of the guards. We sprinted back to the dorm and exhorted our exploits.

Here’s my point. We all make mistakes. We all wish we could take back and do over certain actions and decisions in our lives. Lord knows I have my share. I feel bad for the two SAE members leading the chant who issued public apologies this week (one through his parents) and were expelled for their exploits. I feel bad for them because obviously their parents didn’t teach them any better. But to me, there’s a difference in actions that are part of the college experience and the competition therein, and outright racism.

What’s especially concerning is that, in my opinion, these boys (and the other students) did not think that what they were chanting was racist – or that it would be exposed. They didn’t think that it was hurtful. That’s the part of white privilege that I’m not jealous of, but instead, what I’ve tried to make more people conscious of and sensitive to as a journalist in my professional career. Where does juvenile play end; and when do real mean actions and words begin?

I am a proud member of Phi Beta Kappa (founded in 1776) awarded by the University of Oklahoma on May 10, 2002, in recognition of “high attainments in liberal scholarship.” That almost makes me a frat boy, but since I graduated in 1988 and since Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest honor society for liberal arts and sciences in the United States, I have to recuse myself and proclaim that I am not a frat boy.

Okay, I had a great time in my nine semesters at OU. I went home a lot because I needed the emotional and spiritual support. But I never felt threatened by racism at the university. I never felt scared of racism. I knew that those frat boys were just as uncertain about their futures as I was. You never back down to racism. You never back down.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.