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Being White Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

How the Oklahoma frat scandal exposes a racial double standard

AP Photo/Brandon Wade

Protests against racist policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri and all throughout this country have largely been peaceful. Yet the shooting of two Ferguson police officers last week—a shooting that has not been clearly associated with the protests—has been used to discredit an entire movement, to cast a whole wave of social justice activism as violent and sinister.

A few states away, in Oklahoma, a video showing a white American fraternity chapter singing with reportedly drunken glee about how excluding and enacting violence on black men has laid bare anew a core truth about race in America: being white means never having to say you’re sorry.

The actions of the University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers have resulted in the university cutting ties with the fraternity, but for the most part, the focus has been on the men in the video. Not on their fraternity brothers, or on other chapters of the fraternity, or on the gender- and race-exclusive institution of Greek life. For a largely black protest movement, the ripples of damage spread, touching the entire body of the movement. For the white men of SAE, the laws of physics are different, and the ripples don’t spread in the same way. The conservative gospel of “individual responsibility” is, in this case, a luxury that white people enjoy, but that black people are denied.

When black people break the law or flout social norms in the United States, the public conversation immediately turns to the broader concept of blackness itself. What does this one person's behavior tell us, we ask, about the supposedly corroded and corrosive state of black America? What is wrong, we ask, with African Americans?

When white people misbehave, however, they rarely represent more than themselves, even when they're members of an organization like, say, SAE. But just the responsibility of being held accountable for how one's individual behavior and thoughts is still too great for so many of the white people who have been caught out engaging in racist behavior. They are routinely defended with excuses of inebriation, misspeaking, and unintentional bigotry. Even then, being white often means doing wrong without the perception of bringing your entire race into enough disrepute that it has consequences for you. This is what privilege is: to speak and act only for yourself, and even then only when you feel like it.

Parker Rice, one of the two men in the video who were later expelled from OU, said in a statement, “I am deeply sorry for what I did Saturday night. It was wrong and reckless.” But he added a caveat and an excuse for that wrong and reckless behavior. “I made a horrible mistake… sadly, at this moment our family is not able to be in our home because of threatening calls as well as frightening talk on social media,” he wrote. “I know everyone wants to know why or how this happened. I admit it likely was fueled by alcohol consumed at the house before the bus trip.” The parents of Levi Petitt, the other student identified in the video, went the Our Son Isn’t a Racist route. “While it may be difficult for those who only know Levi from the video to understand, we know his heart, and he is not a racist,” they wrote in a separate statement.

As Briallen Hopper wrote last week in the Huffington Post, the men and their parents apologized, but not really. “Instead of acknowledging their own racism, they denied it or sidestepped it,” Hopper observed. “Instead of reckoning honestly with the harm they have done to others, they framed their family and friends as the real victims. Both of these troubling and inadequate ‘apologies’ were written to emphasize the essential goodness and/or victimhood of the white people involved.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by this unwillingness to properly apologize, or by Pettit’s parents’ unwillingness to acknowledge that their adult son is anything but a saint who screwed up this one time. You don’t have to apologize if you aren’t in the wrong—and white people, as this episode demonstrates, are never seen to be really wrong even when they clearly are.

The current wisdom about whiteness on the right and in certain parts of the left is that the white existence, particularly the white cisgender male existence, has become an endless series of apologies. That wisdom holds that to be a white man in America is to be constantly chastised for being racist or sexist or both, with a few other -ists thrown in there just to make you feel extra bad for daring to label them as such.

The SAE incident and subsequent non-apology demonstrates quite the opposite. A little more than one week after the video came to light, the news media has largely moved on. The expulsion of the two men will almost certainly be challenged. For the most part, the controversy is fading. Rather than ask what it is about fraternities and about white supremacy and the toxic brew of sexism, racism, and elitism that was on display in that video, we ask ourselves if these men whose individual hearts we cannot know are racists. They are punished for now, and then the story ends.

As a social scientist, I often find myself pleading with people to think systemically. I want them to consider how individual actions are shaped by collective beliefs and cultural pressures. The battle to get people to think systemically about these and other questions, more often than not, feels like a losing one. That’s in part because that kind of thinking is difficult.

For one thing, it requires of us certain level of humility. We need to have an understanding that we aren’t special, unique, and different, but subject to the same forces as everyone else in our sociocultural group. Attached as many are here in the United States to the mythology of rugged individualism and to the ideology of American exceptionalism, that humility doesn’t come easily. It comes even harder for white people here, the principal beneficiaries of manifest destiny and of rugged individualism.

It’s convenient to write incidents like this one off as isolated and to blame these men’s actions on drunkenness, or stupidity. Systemic thinking, when it comes to immensely privileged people like these men, extends only to scapegoating fraternities or male adolescents. Doing so is far easier, far less confronting, and far less challenging to white supremacy.

As public conversations about blackness demonstrate, though, we are able to think systemically in the service of blaming blacks for their own disadvantage (and sometimes to explain how white racism is caused by rap). We know how to mobilize this kind of thinking about culture and economics to diagnose black pathology and to freely generalize about cultures of crime, and shiftlessness, and inadequate commitment to family. But when it comes to white misconduct, systemic thinking goes out the window. We seem to lose the capacity to ask how a culture of white supremacy might shape a white fraternity brother’s decision to sing, on camera, about how he’d rather see a black man killed than admit him into his social circle. In short, we know how to think systemically best when it serves the interests of white supremacy.

As a culture, we are desperate to see white racism as a string of isolated incidents, but determined to see black misconduct as proof of pathology. One violent black man represents a movement, but a group of white men singing racism represent only themselves and later get to claim that they’re the real victims here. It is the definition of a double standard. By entertaining that standard, we ensure that blackness in America continues to be understood as inherently wrong, and that no matter what song you sing, being white means being right. After all, why apologize, why change, why think about how your culture really works, if you believe that you have never done anything wrong?