Beginning Monday morning in below-freezing temperatures, students at Oklahoma State University started gathering for a demonstration in protest of recent racist posts on social media.
Some students carried cardboard signs condemning blackface and asking for their voices to be heard.
“Blackface is never funny,” one sign read.
“President Hargis, hear our voice,” another said.
“Black Lives Matter,” a sign read.
Sunday night, a photo of a white OSU student in blackface surfaced on social media with the caption, “When he says he only likes black girls.”
The photo compelled the university’s African-American Student Association to organize a march from the Student Union to Whitehurst, the administration building containing OSU President Burns Hargis’ office.
About 30 students formed a line on the sidewalk outside Whitehurst. On his way into the building, Hargis stopped to shake the hands of those in protest and offered to meet with students.
“Us students here on campus, we don’t feel safe, we don’t feel comfortable,” said Alicia Johnson, an OSU senior and Miss Black OSU 2016.
“We shouldn’t have to wake up and be disturbed in the middle of the night, studying, trying to get a degree, because we have to become cultural activists and political activists for our people,” she said.
This is the second issue regarding blackface at OSU since the spring semester began about a week ago.
On Jan. 16, a group of students posted a controversial Instagram photo with the caption, “Celebrating our first MLK Day off of school!!!!” Two women in the photo were in blackface.
Hargis sent a message to students about the incident last week, saying “any behavior, language or symbols representing or reflecting intolerance or discrimination has absolutely no place at OSU.”
The students issued an apology and met with university officials.
“Our actions were thoughtless and harmful,” the statement says. “We also now see how easily social media can cause heartache and pain. We would like to extend our sincerest apologies to our entire OSU family and beyond as well as genuinely ask for your forgiveness.”
Some students said they believe apologies aren’t enough.
“I don’t think it was an apology at all,” Johnson said of the students. “I think you’re sorry for being caught, I think you’re sorry for social media spreading it. If you were sorry, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”
Johnson said OSU needs to have a policy in place detailing how racial issues should be handled.
“There always needs to be consequences,” he said. “Without consequences there would be no change.”
Kealyn Oliphant, an OSU senior from Dallas, said he believes the students should have been suspended at the very least.
“I feel like there’s no excuse that you don’t know about MLK Day, there’s really no excuse for that,” Oliphant said. “Social media is way too big right now.”
Hargis issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the university is working with the students involved in the incidents “to help them understand the consequences of their inappropriate actions.”
In the statement, Hargis said intolerance or discrimination of any person or group is not acceptable at OSU or in society.
“I met with Oklahoma State University African American student leaders today to discuss recent racially insensitive posts on social media,” the statement states. “These students are understandably frustrated and concerned, and so am I. On behalf of the OSU family, I apologize for the hurt these incidents have caused.
“I commend our students for their peaceful protest outside my office today. Their reaction should be an example of how the campus can move forward in addressing the matters of inclusion, diversity and equality. And, we are committed to working with our students to develop more effective training in diversity.”
Hargis met with four protesting OSU students Monday morning to discuss recent incidents and ways to move forward.
“Hargis was very nice enough to meet with us today and we started the conversation on how to change the cultural competency of this campus,” said Terrance Williams, an OSU junior and OSU Afro-Am vice president.
“We are definitely in the process of making these changes to our institution as well as working with the administration to make sure we feel safe on this campus and comfortable.”
The students said Hargis was attentive during the meeting it would be the first of many.
“This is definitely not just our fight, this is OSU’s fight,” Williams said. “This is a fight to fix a traditional problem (at) OSU. I think that it’s not just on the African-American community to fix. Anybody who supports our cause, anybody who is willing to stand up and be a force for change, we definitely need you.”
Some students said they received backlash from individuals affiliated with OSU on social media after speaking out against the posts.
“I’m getting comments right now saying, ‘You guys should stop crying, like shut up,’” Johnson said. “But you know what? I’ma keep pushing. I’ma keep pushing because this is what I believe in. Small numbers will do big things.
“I know there are many other people that actually agree with us, that actually believe in us. We all need them to be here to speak up but the majority don’t do that. So, if we have to stand alone that’s what we’ll do and that’s what we’ll continue to do until we get an answer.”
Anthony Hardimon, an OSU senior and Mr. Black OSU 2016, said he experiences racism daily at the university and wants to see more support for minorities.
“If this administration is going to accept black dollars, our dollars, then they have to support black people,” Hardimon said.
Johnson and Oliphant agreed OSU needs better diversity training and said it should be mandatory.
“I feel like OSU should overcompensate for how much diversity training and inclusion of all the races on this campus,” Oliphant said. “There’s not a lot of (minorities) on this campus already. So, OSU should be doing whatever they can in their ability to make it feel more comfortable.”
Dillion Johnson, an OSU senior and president of OSU’s Student Government Association, attended the demonstration and said it was a disappointment to see the posts from people in the OSU community.
“It’s disappointing because I think we’re better than that as OSU students and this community,” Dillion said. “I’m behind (the protesters) 100 percent.”
He said he plans to meet with the Afro-Am executives to discuss what SGA can do to support the students.
“I think the biggest thing is just being here and letting them know we’re here for them,” he said.
Oliphant said the students will continue to take a stand until change is brought to the OSU campus.
”We’re not going to let this die down,” Oliphant said. “If the school doesn’t want to do something, we can bring the media here. We can make this a bigger issue.”
Incidents at other universities
The University of Oklahoma has also had several recent incidents of racism.
In November, a University of Oklahoma professor said she found racist fliers in the Physical Science building at OU.
Kathleen Crowther, an associate professor of the history of science, posted a photo on Twitter of a flier titled “Why White Women Shouldn’t Date Black Men,” with the hashtag “yOUr bad.”
— Kathleen Crowther (@Sacrobosco2013) November 14, 2016
The flier states statistics on women being more likely to be abused by black men, black men having lower IQs and being more likely to carry STDs.
Crowther’s colleagues also found fliers titled “Race and Intelligence: the Facts.” The poster lists reasons why intelligence varies based on race.
The OU Daily, the university’s newspaper, said at the same time students reported finding copies of the fliers placed inside the day’s newspapers.
In an emailed statement in November, Corbin Wallace, university spokesman said the school doesn’t condone the posters and fliers.
“They are contrary to one of the university core values of acceptance and respect of all people,” the statement said. “The university if currently looking into the origin of these posters.
“The posters are being removed and anyone seen putting them up should be reported to OUPD.”
The fliers were the second racist incident linked to the University of Oklahoma that week.
A student at the University of Oklahoma was temporarily suspended while the university investigated racist messages sent to several black University of Pennsylvania freshmen.
The investigation was closed in November and the student involved is no longer enrolled at the university, a statement from the university says.
“As our university has clearly demonstrated in the past, we have zero tolerance at this university for those who would engage in racism,” OU President David Boren said.
“We will maintain at our university a strong sense of community which values and respects every single student.”
Penn students were added to a GroupMe message , called “Mud Men” that included references to lynching, racial slurs and messages such as “Trump is love.” GroupMe is a social media phone app that lets users communicate via text with large groups, which people can be added to without their consent.
In a letter, the University of Pennsylvania’s president, vice president and provost called the messages “simply deplorable.”
“We are absolutely appalled that earlier today Black freshman students at Penn were added to a racist GroupMe account that appears to be based in Oklahoma,” the letter states. “The account itself is totally repugnant: it contains violent, racist and thoroughly disgusting images and messages.”
The University of Pennsylvania launched a criminal investigation into the incident and determined no Penn students were involved.
In a statement, the university said it appears three students from Oklahoma were found to be linked to the GroupMe message. One of those students was found to be linked to the University of Oklahoma.
The statements also said several Penn staff members are offering support to students who were targeted by the racist messages. The university contacted all deans Sunday, telling them to ensure faculty are sensitive and responsive to students.
“Finally, we call on everyone to recognize that the events of the past few days are a tragic reminder of the overt and reprehensible racism that continues to exist within some segments of our society, and that we all need to unite together as a community and a society to oppose,” the statement said.