The black president of a white-majority fraternity at the University of Oklahoma said his school had been unfairly tarred as racist on the basis of a single video featuring a small number of people.
“The actions of the members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity have deeply saddened me and the rest of the OU community, though I do not feel they represent the views of the entire OU Greek community and the university,” Tyrone Speller, Phi Delta Theta chapter president, said in a statement.
Speller said the racist, profane song depicted in a video made public last weekend, in which members of SAE chanted that they would never let a black person join the fraternity, was the action of “children” too immature to know better.
“The actions of the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were rooted purely in ignorance,” he said. “It saddens me to see our Greek community being painted as ‘racist’ according to the media and even fellow OU students.”
University of Oklahoma officials swiftly shut down the fraternity and expelled two SAE members, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, seen on the video leading the chant. The University of Texas said Wednesday that it was looking into claims that its SAE chapter used the chant as well.
Speller, who came to Oklahoma from central Florida, said in an interview that the Greek system made him feel welcome on campus. "I heard and saw all the good things they do on campus, and I wanted a full college experience, and a positive college experience, and Phi Delta Theta has helped me to achieve that,” he said.
“Greek life is a huge part of this university because of how many leadership roles are filled by fraternity members -- how many philanthropies they put on, how much money is raised by the Greek system for charity,” he said.
Last week, he said, OU students, mostly fraternity and sorority members, raised more than half a million dollars at Soonerthon, a philanthropy benefiting a children’s hospital.
At OU, the video has prompted formal and informal dialogs among students about the role of race on campus. With about 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the university is a little less than 6% black.
In his statement, Speller talked about divisions that have emerged on campus in recent days. Speller said he heard from fellow fraternity members that threats were made to members of the Greek community, some of whom had their tires slashed or other property vandalized.
Speller said that he had always been welcomed by his fraternity brothers and that his house includes Latino and Muslim members.
“I think my fraternity brothers have learned from me and we’ve learned from each other," he said in the interview. "It’s predominately white, but we have … all different races, and we’re not the only fraternity on this campus that is diverse.”
He said he had never “felt out of place” even in his dealings with members of SAE. In his statement, however, he also acknowledged a strange balancing act.
“Being a person of color in a [predominantly] white fraternity has helped me and my fellow brothers learn much from each other by sharing our different backgrounds with one another,” Speller wrote. “But the divisive reactions from many different groups on campus to this current situation has left me feeling as if I am being torn between two major components that make me who I am.”
Duara reported from Norman, Okla., and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles.