It’s hard to surprise us with stories of racism these days, when the world seems like it’s on fire. But the latest news item making the rounds has many jaws dropping from the start: A college recruiter in Oklahoma began his visit to a high school with an “icebreaker” that involved sorting the 11th-grade kids by race.
“He was like, ‘Let’s play a little game,’” Harding Charter Preparatory High School junior Korey Todd told Oklahoma City news station KFOR last week. “He said, ‘Okay, everyone now line up from darkest to lightest skin complexion.’ ”
The man in question was Cedric Sunray, who was working as a recruiter for Oklahoma Christian University. He divided the children into four groups and then asked them to sort themselves by hair texture and skin color.
“He told us to line up nappiest hair in the back and straightest hair in the front,” Rio Brown, another student, told KFOR.
“That’s when I felt uncomfortable like, ‘Okay, I don’t think this is right.'”
Brown said the exercise made some teachers so uncomfortable, they left the room crying.
“What led from the session was an exercise involving inappropriate and hurtful statements, which will never be tolerated in our school community,” Steven Stefanick the superintendent and principal wrote on Facebook days after the incident. “The sequence of events are that the staff members of Harding Charter Preparatory, stunned and distraught with the students, were quick to react by going to school administration immediately while some staff remained with the students.”
It was so outrageous that Oklahoma Christian fired Sunray immediately. University president John deSteiguer visited the high school to apologize in person.
“I’m very ashamed and embarrassed,” he said. “I’m mad about this. This doesn’t represent Oklahoma Christian, so I just want to apologize to the students.”
We are aware of this story and are currently investigating the matter. Please watch our social media platforms for updates. https://t.co/w6fSiv7XpY
— Talon News (@OCTalon) February 29, 2020
But how could this even happen? Why would a school even hire such a person?
The answer, it appears, is that Sunray thought he was doing the right thing. And oh, was he wrong.
“From the largest afro to the tightest braid to the blondest with blue eyes, they all want to know they are valued and warranted, and that is what I provide,” Sunray told KFOR of the exercise, which he said he has done 87 other times this year.
In a meeting at Oklahoma Christian, deSteiguer revealed that Sunray had been under investigation after an earlier such exercise on February 13, according to the student newspaper Talon News.
“I think where we failed miserably is this recruiter should have been sidelined,” deSteiguer said. “He should not have been going and making presentations during the investigation.”
Now, the university has pledged to require diversity training of its faculty and staff (um, it’s about time?).
In a lengthy essay published by The Christian Chronicle, Sunray explained that he is not just the white man that he appears to be but also an American Indian member of a tribe (though this has not been verified), and the husband and father of American Indians. He also said he grew up in Black and Latino communities.
“Nothing I spoke at Harding Charter Preparatory during an initial ‘ice-breaker’ session had any intention of promoting a racist agenda,” he said. “My presentations are the opposite. They are intended to take a hard look at issues such as this. The most dangerous things in education are those we are unwilling to discuss. And sometimes when those discussions occur, misunderstanding and even anger can be the result.”
That may be true enough, but the fact remains that the students of color in the school saw a white man organizing them by race. What could such an activity have been teaching to Black kids who no doubt have been treated differently because of their skin color and hair texture at some point in their lives? Not only did Sunray fail to explain what he was doing, but it’s completely unclear why he felt the need to conduct this exercise while trying to recruit students to a university.
“I accept who I am and what I look like,” student Korey Todd told KFOR. “I don’t need an exercise from a college recruiter to tell me that, personally.”
Of course, students should learn about race and racism. But that type of education should be conducted in the right setting, not by surprise, and by a professional who is trained to do just that.