Higher Education

Race panel speaker: OU games celebrate white supremacy

April 5, 2022

Ray Carter

During a recent program touted as a “conversation about race and race relations in Oklahoma,” one featured panelist declared that football games at the University of Oklahoma involve repeated “celebration of white supremacy.”

“The University of Oklahoma, their mascot or their whole thing is the ‘Sooners,’” said Sarah Gray, director of movement building and organizing at IllumiNative. “So, what is the Sooners, the Sooner State, or what is the Sooner State? Like, you went and you did the Land Run and you stole land from Native people. And so every single time that OU scores a touchdown, you see the Sooner Schooner take off across the field, it’s a celebration of white supremacy. And everybody’s out there, they’re so excited.”

Gray’s comment was one of several offered during a panel discussion on “advocacy” during the March session of Advancing Oklahoma, which is described as “a lengthy conversation about race and race relations in Oklahoma.”

The presenting sponsor for Advancing Oklahoma is Paycom, joined by a dozen other foundations and state businesses who serve as lower-tier sponsors. The program is offered to the members of Leadership Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Academy, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

Gray was among the panelists featured at the March session of the program. IllumiNative works to increase the visibility of, and challenge narratives about, Native nations. Gray’s biography says she has also worked as a campaign manager and political consultant.

Gray’s criticism of OU aligns with elements of a diversity training program that the university made mandatory for students in the 2020-2021 school year.

“Settlers called ‘boomers’ believed they had the right to settle these lands, despite the land being settled by Native Americans,” the OU training program informed students. “During the Land Rush of 1889, settlers who rushed to claim the land before the signal (a cannon blast sounded at noon on April 22, 1889) were called ‘sooners.’ This dubious history of the phrase ‘Boomer Sooner’ has led to several Native communities to decry the use of this phrase, citing its origins based on the disenfranchisement of Native Americans.”

Other actions taken by OU in the name of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) were dismissed as empty gestures during the Advancing Oklahoma session.

“We talk about ‘performance activism’ where you’ve got folks out at the protest taking selfies and they put it on Instagram and they bounce,” Gray said. “Now we have companies who (do) performance advocacy. And we don’t need that. Like, it’s great, but it’s kind of like a land acknowledgment at this point. It’s nice that you said that, but now what?”

OU has made “land acknowledgments” a major part of its DEI public-relations efforts.

For example, the website of the OU college of architecture includes a land-acknowledgement statement that says, “Long before the University of Oklahoma was established, the land on which the University now resides was the traditional home of the ‘Hasinai’ Caddo Nation and ‘Kitikiti’sh’ Wichita & Affiliated Tribes. This land was also once part of the Muscogee Creek and Seminole nations.”

The statement goes on to say that the property on which OU now exists was once a hunting ground, trade exchange point, and migration route for the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and Osage nations.

“Today, 39 federally-recognized Tribal nations dwell in what is now the State of Oklahoma as a result of settler colonial policies designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples,” the OU land acknowledgement states. “The University of Oklahoma recognizes the historical connection our university has with its indigenous community. We acknowledge, honor and respect the diverse Indigenous peoples connected to this land. We fully recognize, support, and advocate for the sovereign rights of all of Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations.”

Similar statements are posted on other OU websites, including one for the writing center.

The Advancing Oklahoma session began with a disclaimer stating that the program’s sponsors “are not responsible for, and do not endorse, any content published or disseminated at Advancing Oklahoma meetings or events.” The disclaimer also said that sponsoring organizations “take no responsibility for, and make no endorsement of the materials, presentations, opinions, statements, articles, or social media postings of speakers or participants in Advancing Oklahoma. The expressed views or opinions of participants in Advancing Oklahoma meetings or events are the views and opinions of the speakers alone and are not the views of any organization.”

But Ashley Holden of News 9, who moderated the March panel, separately informed participants, “We also want to mention that Advancing Oklahoma is made possible through the generosity of 13 sponsors from around the state. In addition to financial support, these sponsors have also helped with program content and speaker recruitment. Special appreciation to our presenting sponsor, Paycom. Thank you for your leadership.”