After considering his apology for leading SAE Fraternity in the racist chant at Oklahoma University, I’ve come to understand why Levi Pettit never considered the possibility that he was a racist.
It’s part of our culture of denial. And denial is normal. We want to think of ourselves as good. We want to see ourselves as a model of goodness. And, we want to feel good about ourselves. Freud talked about this in his theory of denial.
This bent towards denial happens everywhere: we deny our feelings about things. We are told that various emotions are bad, so we learn to deny our emotions. We might be pissed off at coworkers, parents, spouses, children…but we learn to bury those emotions, put on a good face and say everything is “ok.”
We think of ourselves as good people and want to be considered by others as good. We want to feel good about ourselves and the things we think, do and say. So, when we’re presented with evidence that we fall short of that goodness, we deny the existence of those realities…allowing ourselves to continue feeling good about ourselves and convinced of the goodness of our ideals.
Racism is no different
So when Levi Pettit stood at his press conference and said that he “never thought of (himself) as a racist,” I believe him. I mean: why would he? Most White people will tell you they never thought of themselves as racist. Most have never even considered that to be a possibility. It is a denial that allows Whites to continue feeling good about themselves and to have faith in the Society they built (even if on the backs of others).
Yet, the SAE Fraternal Chant is a perfect example of the danger of denial as it pertains to racism. It highlights why reconciliation is so elusive for America. And it provides insight to what must be done if Whites and Blacks (and all people of color) are ever to reconcile.
I don’t blame Levi Pettit for the culture of denial
Before this incident, he probably never had to face the realities of racism. To him – and to most of us – racism/slavery/Jim Crow segregation exist on two sanitized pages of the history books.
You see: the denial of racism is taught to us through our educational system. And it is reinforced by those who have been successfully indoctrinated. To maintain mainstream White America’s pleasure with itself and to buttress the superiority of (White) American Exceptionalism, they must past the blame to those who they have always determined are inferior.
So when rapper Waka Flocka Flame decided to cancel his performance at Oklahoma University in response to the SAE chant, Morning Joe expressed White America’s denial:
“The kids that are buying hip hop or gangster rap, it’s a white audience, and they hear this over and over again. So do they hear this at home? Well, chances are good, no, they heard a lot of this from guys like this who are now acting shocked.”
They blamed the victims and survivors of racism in order to preserve their feelings and notions of goodness. But what Joe Scarborough failed to understand is that the lack of discussion about racism at home is precisely the problem.
Based upon the statement by Levi Pettit’s parents, they are seemingly hurt by their son’s ignorance of his words’ impact. They “raised him to be loving and inclusive” and surrounded him with “a diverse, close-knit group of friends.” Yet, they never exposed him to the harsh realities of racism.
So, it’s quite understandable that Levi Pettit could cherish his Fraternal Chant, presumably teach that chant and lead others in it, while still never considering the possibility that he is racist. He grew up in a culture of denial.
Much of White America grows up in this culture of denial
It’s reflected in the protestations of Whites who not only claim to not be racist, but also in the protestations of those who refuse to see the privileges they inherit simply because they are White. And it is this denial that allows racism to thrive in America despite all the sociopolitical gains of the American Civil Rights Movement.
To Levi Pettit, hanging niggers from trees was simply a phrase. Yes, he likely knew what it meant. But it was likely an abstract phrase that lacked historical context. He probably considered it harmless. He knew he would never hang anyone, but had no concept for the terror and emotional trauma evoked by his words.
Some have said that if he had never been caught saying that chant, Levi Pettit would still be using it and not apologizing for anything. That’s probably true. But, thanks be to God he was caught. For the Prophet Ezekiel tells us that the Lord wishes not the death of the sinner but that he would repent and live.
Many have learned to just not get caught
Others have been lucky enough to not be caught. They then go through life harboring racism in their hearts. They perfect their denial. And so, they don’t say anything to blatantly offend. Yet they continue to act in ways that uphold racist systems and traditions.
If we are ever to “overcome, someday,” we must first give up our denial of racism. We can never overcome something we don’t even acknowledge. Maybe more people need to be caught and exposed. And God willing, those who are caught will have the courage and humility to abandon denial and repent of the racism they mightn’t have even know was in them.
In response to Levi Pettit’s press conference, some have scoffed at the idea of him being courageous. They say that courage would have been for him to root out the chant from his fraternity and stop others from using it. That would be true if he knew how wrong the sentiment of that chant was.
Yet the culture of denial in which he was raised taught him that sticks and stones break bones; words don’t hurt. Denial was his problem. And, he denied racism for fear of acknowledging that he was not “good.” He denied racism in himself for fear of not feeling good about himself. He denied the power of the words he chanted for fear of admitting the invalidity of his ideals.
He could have continued in denial. Even after being expelled from Oklahoma University, Levi Pettit could have simply seen the ordeal as unfair. He could have cried out about a perceived injustice. And by virtue of his White Privilege, he could have moved on with his life and remain unchanged.
Surely, there are members of SAE on other University Boards. Surely, one of those Board Members could have quietly admitted him to another university, allowing him to complete his education and land a well-paying job. More than likely, that well-paying job would have come with the authority to punish those representative of the injustice he felt from Oklahoma University.
Yet, he didn’t follow that track. He chose – it seems – to remove denial and face the resultant fears. Is that not courageous?
It takes courage to overcome our culture of denial
Any psychologist will tell you that it takes courage to abandon the denial we use to protect us from our fears. And if Levi Pettit has begun to face his fears and acknowledge himself to not be the “good person” he once considered himself to be, then that is indeed courageous. Through abandoning denial he opens himself to the potential of becoming a better person, more in line with his higher thoughts of himself.
If only the rest of White America could abandon its culture of denial when it comes to racism in this Country. Would that not be a beautiful thing?