Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Overcoming Racism

What’s happening at the University of Alabama has the potential to change the world.

Before I tell you why, let me tell you a story.

When I came to the University of Tennessee as a freshman in the Fall of 1997, I really had no idea what I was in for. That may sound cliché, but if you know anything at all about LaFollette, TN, then you know that pretty much anywhere else you go from there is going to be a culture shock, and at that time I had not been to many other places save a few 4-H meat judging trips to such exotic destinations as Manhattan, KS.

I was just savvy enough to get myself selected onto the SGA freshman council (I suppose I met their hillbilly diversity goal). At our first meeting, as we were playing the name game, people snickered a little when I introduced myself. At first, I had no idea what they were laughing at, but later figured out it was because of the way I talked (I had a strong rural Appalachian accent). They were all from places I had never even heard of (Brentwood? Germantown? Were those places in TN? Why had I never heard of them?).  Suffice it to say, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Word quickly spread among my 40 colleagues on the council that I was the resident expert on parliamentary procedure, and a few weeks later, when we elected our officers, I was elected to the executive board as the parliamentarian. I was one of four executive officers – a president, vice president, secretary/treasurer and me.  Part of me was elated – barely on campus for more than a few weeks and already assuming important, prestigious leadership positions. I was on my way!

But another part of me was horrified. You see, the president of our freshman council, Sharrie Williams, was black.

Why was I horrified? Bluntly, I had never been around a black person before. I had only observed them from safe distances. I had wonderful stories of being in Atlanta during Freak-nic and that time my pals and I stopped in Macon, GA on our way to Orlando and decided to watch “Waiting to Exhale” in a local movie theater. But I had never had any significant interactions with any person of color. And I was horrified that I would say something offensive or stupid or wrong without even knowing it or meaning to. I was a product of my environment, and LaFollette, TN was not exactly a bastion of diversity or tolerance.

Sharrie intimidated me. She was outspoken. She was smart. She was confident. She shattered any and all stereotypes I may have had in my 18 year-old mind. And for whatever reason, she decided that we were going to be friends. To this day, I have no idea why. But over the course of our first semester at UT, Sharrie and I became buddies. We had lunch together at least once a week. We would meet up in the University Center to chat about school and freshman council business. She even came to a few parties down at the AGR house.  We were quite the pair.

Now, fast forward five years. I was in the first year of my Higher Education/Student Affairs graduate program at South Carolina, in Dr.John Lowery’s student development theory class. At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Lowery asked us to write about how we were different at graduation compared to when we started college, and to what experiences we attributed those changes.  And guess who I spent a good portion of that paper writing about? If you guessed Sharrie Williams, you would be correct.

Later in that class, I learned about racial identity development theory, and my experiences with Sharrie began to make more sense to me. Growth and development come from being exposed to individuals and experiences that challenge stereotypes and expose differences and privilege.  I think I was able to quickly move through the “abandoning racism” steps of Helm’s White Identity Model because my first significant interactions with someone of a different race were so positive and impactful, allowing me to cast aside previous racist ideas and focus on my role in both perpetuating racism and abandoning white entitlement. My experiences with Sharrie had completely altered my world view, making me simultaneously more aware of myself and the issues of race surrounding me.

Thus Gentry’s First Law of Student Development: Any program or activity on a college campus is only as good as its ability to get students from different backgrounds interacting with one another in meaningful and significant ways.  My graduate students here in the UWF College Student Affairs Administration program know and can tell you all about Gentry’s Laws if you're interested...

Now, look at where we are today.  For 150 years, the Greek system at the University of Alabama has been a bastion of exclusion and intolerance. Last year, because of the courageous work of a handful of sorority members, those walls finally came crashing down.  And last week, 21 African American women, and dozens of other women of color, joined historically white Panhellenic sororities during formal recruitment.  I am willing to bet that the number 21 will represent the largest number of African American women pledging historically white sororities on any college campus in the Unites States this year. If any campus pledges more, I hope they will let us all know. To contrast, in my five years as Director of Greek Life at Alabama, I think the most we ever had was four African American women going through recruitment in any given year.  Think about that – from four (none of whom joined a sorority) to 21 (all of whom joined a sorority) in only a few years.

So, in one year, the Alabama Panhellenic community has gone from a bastion of racial exclusion and white privilege to a model for diversity within fraternity/sorority life (note, this movement has actually been building for at least a few years now, as noted here).  Alabama (yes, that Alabama) may actually become a destination school for women of color looking to join Panhellenic sororities. Imagine that! Roll Tide!

How did they do it? I’m not entirely sure. I suspect there is more to the story than we have been told. I hope someone, at some point, will tell us the full story, because it is a story that needs telling.

But here is why this is so important. For 150 years, students at Alabama have been able to come from their all white neighborhoods and their all-white private schools and immediately join their all-white sororities and live in all-white sorority houses and never have any interactions with anyone who was different from them.  No growth. No challenge. No significant interactions with those who are different - just stagnation and solidification of their world views. After a few years, they graduated and moved back to Mountain Brook or Fairhope or Greenville or Highland Park to the same gated communities and small towns from whence they came and they were no different, at least in terms of multiculturalism, than they were before. The University failed fraternity and sorority members by allowing them to limit their interactions only to those who looked, dressed, talked and acted like themselves.

Today, finally, that separation will not – cannot – happen anymore. Thousands of students – future leaders in our society – are going to come to college and have significant and meaningful experiences with people who are different. Stereotypes will be shattered. Myths will be busted. Racism will be turned on its ugly head. And those experiences will last with them long after their college experiences. After college, how will these experiences impact their civic engagement? Their philanthropic giving? Their political ideology?  Where they choose to send their children to school? Their world view?

Don’t get me wrong – Alabama, just like everyone else, has a long way to go. I’m not sure what is happening in Tuscaloosa today, but I am certain it is not a post-racial utopia. But the progress that has been made there is very real, and it has the potential to change thousands of lives. And if the Alabama Greek system can do it, anyone can.

How many young women at Alabama today will have a Sharrie Williams in their life? How many will grow and change in positive and meaningful ways because of those experiences? And how might those experiences transform their lives and, eventually, our society? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I look forward to finding out.


Sharrie and I stayed in touch after freshman year, but gradually drifted apart as she became more involved in the world of sports/news broadcasting and I became more involved in the world of fraternity life and meat judging. She is now an anchor on the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope she reads this and knows how much our friendship impacted the person I am today.

1 comment:

  1. This is what I tried to post on blog
    Welcome to color has no boundaries! By 2040, we will all be mixed of many races and we will become a beautiful world of diversity! As life changes, people can change! We all have our thoughts of the other races and even among our own race! Celebrate diversity, it would be a boring world if we were all the same! 
    And yes, Sharrie embraces it all with confidence! That's why we love her all the way from Memphis-Bartlett TN! 
    Educated-Open-No Fear-Yields acceptance of Diversity = Limitless Opportunities! Be unapologetic of who you are, but respectful to all! 
    ~LJ Organize
    LaJOYce Harris