The SAE Frat Song Apology: Using the Passive Voice to Dodge the Issue

This gets a little English-teacher, but it's important. As a general rule, you want to avoid the passive voice when you're writing. Not, "The ball was hit into center field," but "Jim Smith hit the ball into center field." The ball didn't get there by itself. Usually, the passive voice is bad writing.

But the passive voice is a favorite with politicians and others in the limelight when they screw up. When you're caught, always say, "Mistakes were made" rather than copping to it yourself. The passive voice says no one is to blame. Somehow, that mistake just fell from the heavens like summer rain.

So, to the story at hand. A group of Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat boys at University of Oklahoma were joyously singing a song on the bus which said, in essence, it's better to lynch an African American than to let him join the fraternity ("There will never be a ni**** in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me"). Two of them were expelled, and one of them, Parker Rice, issued an apology. But that doesn't end the problem, even if more of the students apologize or are expelled. This isn't simply about Rice or the other frat boys on the bus. It's about the wider culture that accepts underlying racism as a part of our lives, then when it's exposed, condemns the specific actors and moves on without addressing the larger problem that runs like a cancer through our society.

Listen to the passive voice in one part of Rice's apology: "Yes, the song was taught to us." Who taught it to them? Rice didn't say, nor did he say whether the song is sung regularly at the University of Oklahoma chapter, whether it's sung by other chapters, whether it's one of a number of racist songs, chants, jokes and slogans which are part of the fraternity's culture—and whether, as some African American students at the university have said, this is part of the pervasive racist culture they are forced to deal with daily. Ignore those questions and you end up clucking your tongue at the bad behavior of a few drunken frat boys and ignoring the larger issue.

University of Oklahoma should set up some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will allow other fraternity members on the bus to talk about what they know about larger issue of racism on campus. If any of them hem, haw and tell anything other than the unvarnished truth as they know it and their dissembling is discovered, they should be expelled. If there is a racist underbelly at the university, let it be exposed and addressed for the sake of the institution and its students — and for the sake of our country which too often refuses to acknowledge its pervasive problem of racial discrimination and inequality.

A NOTE ABOUT THE SONG'S ORIGIN: Something about that chant beyond its horrific racist message and imagery—invoking lynching as preferable to letting an African American into the fraternity—made me sick, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It was something about the joyous triumphalism of the melody and the singing. And then I understood what it was. They were putting racist lyrics to the children's song, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands (Clap! Clap!)" "There will never be a ni**** in SAE (Clap! Clap!)" "If you're happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it." "You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me." The perversion of one of the happiest and most innocent of children's songs into a hateful racist chant, and the childish, gleeful tone of the singing, add another chilling aspect to the scene and makes the whole thing feel that much more vile.