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'These things add up': OU students weary of repeated expressions of a racist nature

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OU professor to leave class, take training after using N-word OU professor apologizes for using racial slur OU professor allegedly uses racial slur in class

The chrysanthemum gardens on the Van Vleet (South) Oval are shown in full bloom in 2017 at the University of Oklahoma. [The Oklahoman Archives]
The chrysanthemum gardens on the Van Vleet (South) Oval are shown in full bloom in 2017 at the University of Oklahoma. [The Oklahoman Archives]

NORMAN — A professor’s use of a racial slur sparked outrage at the University of Oklahoma, where several incidents of racism have mounted frustration in recent years.

“It is definitely tiring,” said Janae Reeves, a broadcast journalism senior. “I don’t feel that it’s my job to educate people as a black person when we have access to the internet and you can open your mouth and have those discussions with people about those experiences.

“I do think that if me and my community, if we continue to stick together with our allies and hold these faculty and staff members accountable, we definitely can get some things done.”

Reeves was in a Journalism, Ethics and Democracy class on Tuesday when her professor, Peter Gade, used the full N-word during a lecture, as he equated the generational term “boomer" to the racial slur's offensive nature.

The Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication notified students on Friday that another faculty member would teach the class for the rest of the semester. Gade agreed to take a month of culturally competent communication training, and he will meet with the OU Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion throughout the semester.

Gade apologized to the class in an email Tuesday evening, calling his use of the phrase “inappropriate.”

“I realize the word was hurtful and infuses the racial divisions of our country, past and present,” Gade said in the email, which students shared with the OU Daily newspaper. “Use of the word is inappropriate in any — especially educational — settings. I offer my deepest and most sincere apologies. In the coming weeks, I will strive to show you that I am an instructor and teacher who is trustworthy and respectful of all. Please give me that opportunity.”

Gade did not return a request for comment from The Oklahoman.

The incident occurred about a year after two students left the university in January 2019 after filming a video wearing blackface and using the N-word. Though the video drew a strong reaction at OU, a video of another person wearing blackface on campus surfaced on social media soon after.

After the two incidents, student leaders formed the Black Emergency Response Team, or BERT, to respond to racism and advocate for OU’s black community.

OU experienced yet another blackface controversy on Sept. 22. A student posted a picture wearing a mud mask and appeared to mock previous incidents of blackface at the university.

The OU Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity made national news for a racist chant in 2015. The fraternity chapter at OU was shut down, and two members leading the chant left the university.

With OU making headlines again, dozens of students, particularly those of color, took to social media with the hashtag #OUrexperience. Many posted they were exasperated that another on-campus incident had left them feeling marginalized.

“All these things continue to happen,” BERT co-director Jamelia Reed said. “You have students who think it’s OK to mock our culture.

“These things add up. If you have these little microaggressions and then you have these things going unanswered that are happening on the bigger scale, imagine what that does to a student. You’re telling them to pay to go here, but then they have to go through pain and trauma to stay here.”

‘Fundamentally offensive and wrong’

On Thursday, students from Gade’s class met with officials from the Gaylord College and the university administration. Reeves said the conversation was productive, as students voiced their concerns and ideas for future action.

The students didn't hold back in the discussion, said Belinda Hyppolite, OU vice president of diversity and inclusion.

"They expect us to do a better job," Hyppolite said. "They expect faculty to do the same work that they have to do as students to continue to educate themselves. One student said it best: ‘Faculty have stopped learning.’"

Not only will Gade take cultural sensitivity training, but so will all faculty and staff of Gaylord College, Dean Ed Kelley said in a statement to students.

Many in the class had requested that another professor teach the remainder of the course. Some asked to have an open dialogue with Gade to explain their personal experiences and feelings to him.

“We do think that it will be beneficial for him to take some time to learn (and) go through some trainings,” Reeves said. “But it wouldn’t be fair for us to sit there and face him again for the remainder of this semester going forward.”

Other students refused to return to the class if Gade remained — even if it put their graduation at risk.

Gade taught the only section of the Journalism, Ethics and Democracy class, a senior capstone course that all journalism students must pass to graduate. A faculty member of the Gaylord College since 1998, Gade will receive the same compensation despite leaving the class, as he has other responsibilities in the college.

Instead, Associate Dean David Craig will teach the capstone course. Craig's compensation also will remain the same as before.

Gade’s class was having a discussion about changes in journalism when Tuesday’s incident occurred. A student said older reporters should keep up with younger journalists, who often use technology and social media with their reporting. Gade appeared to take offense, Reeves said.

He responded, “That’s like saying ‘OK, boomer’ to me.”

“OK, boomer” is a catchphrase young people have used to dismiss and mock older generations, referencing baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. Gade compared the phrase to a racial slur.

“Calling someone a boomer is like calling someone a (N-word),” Gade said, according to student accounts to the OU Daily newspaper.

The incident drew widespread criticism from students and OU administrators. Many criticized Gade not only for using the N-word but also for equating “boomer” to the highly offensive racial slur.

“We are not surprised by the actions of the professor who ironically teaches Journalism, Ethics and Democracy,” the OU National Association of Black Journalists said in a statement. “Nor are we surprised that people still don’t understand that insults like ‘OK, boomer’ do not create the same uneasiness that the historical slur (the N-word) does.”

OU Interim President Joseph Harroz said the professor’s actions “hurt and minimized those in the classroom and beyond.”

"While the professor’s comments are protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom, his comment and word choice are fundamentally offensive and wrong," Harroz said in a statement Tuesday.

Reeves said she and her classmates were shocked when their professor said the full slur with a hard “r” at the end. One student stood up and said Gade’s use of the word was inappropriate and unacceptable, Reeves recalled. Others walked out of the room.

She said Gade became upset as students left.

“He said, ‘I’ve never been so disrespected in my life as a professor here,’ because people were walking out of his class, yet he just disrespected us,” Reeves said. “I think that’s what really got all of us. It was what he said and how he acted after he said it.”

A university spokeswoman said OU offers optional training on diversity and inclusion to faculty and staff, and officials are looking into a new model that would make some training a requirement.

Hyppolite praised the class’s response to their professor’s behavior.

“No student, no individual should ever have to experience what they experienced in that classroom on Tuesday,” Hyppolite said. “It’s an institution of higher learning, and they should expect more of us, and we should deliver more to them.”

Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›

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