By Matt Welsh
Walking around the South Oval on a school day, you can find a tour guide talking with a group of high school students, a student group protesting racial inequity on campus and in the world and students returning to their dorms. Depending on the day and time, Destinee Dickson could fit any one of those categories.
Dickson, a senior studying political science and women’s and gender studies, is a resident adviser, campus tour guide and member of the Black Emergency Response Team. Dickson holds different titles in organizations across campus, but she has a singular goal: using her perspective and voice to create change at the University of Oklahoma.
“There needs to be a welcoming place for people to come here,” Dickson said. “I think I see myself as somebody that needs to take the responsibility that students of color feel welcomed here.”
Dickson was not originally committed to attending the University of Oklahoma. After an admitted students’ day at another institution, Dickson decided the tour that caught her attention was worth more than just a thought and moved to Norman as a part of the 2016 freshman class.
Dickson came to OU feeling ill equipped to handle the racism present on campus.
“I went to a predominantly white high school in Oklahoma. I knew racism was a thing. I knew it occurred on a daily basis. I received racial slurs. But I guess it really didn’t occur to me to make a change at that time,” she said. “I didn’t really know how activism worked or how to be a person of change or challenge the system or status quo until I came to college.”
As Dickson grew in college, she explored her identity and cultural belonging.
“I’ve looked at my identity as ‘I am black. I am white. I am Native American, and I am Hispanic,’” Dickson said. “Most of my life I’ve just identified as black and white because it’s easier that way to explain to people. I’ve never had a way to be culturally a part of those other two groups.”
As she explored her identity in college, Dickson joined the Black Student Association her sophomore year, a student organization that represents African American students on campus.
In January 2019, a video filmed by a Tri Delta sorority member posted on Twitter showed a student using a racial epithet with black paint on her hands and face. BSA responded with a press release stating, “We are not surprised by the actions of the two students in the video, in which one portrayed herself in ‘black-face’, nor are we surprised by the use of an abominable racial slur against black people.” The following week, a man was seen on Campus Corner and the North Oval wearing blackface.
The blackface incidents were a part of a series of events that garnered headlines at OU. In 2015, a video on social media showed Sigma Alpha Epsilon members chanting racist epithets. David Boren, then president of OU, evicted the fraternity from its house on campus and threatened to expel two members who lead the chant, who ultimately withdrew from the university.
The recent blackface incidents, compounding challenges after the SAE incident, spurred Dickson to elevate her involvement in BSA.
“I didn’t see myself as a person ready to make change when I got here at OU. I saw myself as a student in a transition year,” Dickson said. “But specifically, when the spring situation occurred, I realized something needed to be done.”
Dickson drew upon her identity and newfound skills from her time in school to become a proponent of change.
“I’ve never been a person that can just sit there. So, I knew something needed to be done,” she said. “My voice needed to be used through a platform because we need to challenge the narrative here at OU.”
Dickson was asked to join the Black Emergency Response Team, a team created to confront the racist events that occur on campus and open dialogue with university officials to achieve change.
While the blackface incidents made news, they did not shock some in the community.
“It’s always upsetting but it’s not surprising,” said Teara Lander, director of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
A common refrain in the response to the recent blackface incidents from the black community is that they are exhausted and tired of the racist atmosphere at OU.
“A piece of folks being tired or being upset or this recurring emotion is that we keep having to fix our own marginalization. Not only is it our job to deal with what is happening to us, but it also our job to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, when it really shouldn’t be. It especially shouldn’t be the role of our black students,” said Lander, who holds a doctoral degree in educational leadership.
While Lander does not think it should be the role of black students to ensure racist events do not happen again, she understands the importance of their work.
“I think student activism is really important. I don’t want to be confused like saying ‘oh, these students shouldn’t be doing this’,” she said. “If it’s their passions, it’s what they want to do, anybody should be able to do whatever they want.”
“I’m really proud of the students. I think that it takes a lot of courage to be a student activist because you didn’t come to school to be an activist, you came to school be student, to get a degree and to further your future,” Lander continued. “So, adding this on top of it is an added stress, it’s an added responsibility, but historically, as someone that’s studied higher education, a lot of social changes that have happened come from colleges and universities and gone mainstream.”
While Lander is proud of what student activists have done, she says the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been at work on university initiatives that include student perspectives.
“Student supported what faculty and staff, or the office, had already been trying to do. I just don’t know it was that visible in January. Actually, I know it wasn’t as visible in January because our office had basically started over from scratch.”
As the office has grown, Lander says, student activists’ work, such as Dickson’s, has been included in diversity and inclusion efforts where they can.
“Knowing that they want to do it, I think, as an administrator, that is where we kind of meet them halfway, and say, ‘Hey, what can we do to support you, how can we help?’ We have those conversations that we can have where its spaces where they don’t have access,” Lander said.
Dickson has been an active member of BERT, but she has also been a team lead as a tour guide in the OU Recruiting and Admissions office. Despite her different job titles across the different organizations, Dickson still maintains her singular focus.
“I work for the University of Oklahoma, one, financially as a first-generation student, I need the income,” Dickson said. “But two, specifically why I work in the Office of Admissions and Recruitment, is that I want more students of color to find their home and opportunity here.”
“Having Destinee in our office is really great because she connects very well with prospective students and families,” said Swayde Watson, Dickson’s supervisor and graduate assistant for campus experience in the Office of Admissions and Recruitment. “She is also very great at vocalizing her commitments and her ideas and beliefs with the university in a positive light. She has a great way of advocating for students here at the university.”
Dickson views her position as a method of growing the OU community and empowering the student body to fight against racist behavior. But, the paradox of selling a university experience while criticizing the university’s treatment of minorities is apparent in the way Dickson approaches her pitch to students.
“I don’t want to lie to anybody. One of the biggest things that we talk about in the Office of Admissions and Recruitment is don’t sell fantasies. Don’t sell dreams, specifically for students of low-income, first-generation minority students of color,” Dickson said. “Don’t lie to them and say that OU is butterflies and rainbows, when obviously the university is not butterflies and rainbows and unicorns.”
Watson said Dickson is an asset to Admissions and Recruitment through her focus in recruitment and emphasis of her own experience.
“She is a great resource both for the tour guide program and the diversity enrichment program just because she is able to not only recruit some of the best students in Oklahoma, Texas and around the country, but making sure that she is able to recruit students from underrepresented populations as well,” Watson said.
Watson said her voice on the racist incidents in the past help potential African-American students understand their potential experience at OU.
“With her being an African-American student, there have been times over the last year and a half where students who identify in that way haven’t always felt like they have a place here,” Watson said. “But Destinee has done a really great job of showing that she still has a home here at OU, and she has a support system by OU, and that other students should be able to have that exact same experience that’s she having as well.”
While Dickson is careful not to exaggerate her praise of the university, she also describes how the OU community answers the university’s shortcomings.
“I tell (students) my experiences aren’t perfect, but no experience is going to be perfect at any institution,” she said. “I tell them why the resources that were provided for me, and the people that I know that care about me, are greater than the people that are posting blackface or don’t want me here.”
The dichotomy of her different roles is manifested in her recollection of her time at OU.
“It’s not that I hate the University of Oklahoma. I found home. It’s been the best almost four years of my life. But it’s not perfect, nothing is going to be perfect in our life,” Dickson said. “Instead of sitting here being upset or leaving, how about I work for change? I have had great moments here and I want those great moments to also help those students of color. But I have not had the best of moments here.”
The duality of her experience at OU is explicit in her favorite and worst moments.
“We had the Better Together March last spring. It was probably one of my most happy experiences or my most disheartening experiences. It was disheartening because why did we have to have this march, why did we have to have this movement?” she said. “But at the same time, it was one of the greatest moments of my life because there was so many people there that wanted to support us, that wanted to make change to our institution. It showed OU that we are better here together. It wasn’t just black students there that day.”
Dickson views what many views as opposing roles as complementary perspectives to an evolving issue. Empowering future students as an answer to the current issues is Dickson’s drive in her role at Admissions and Recruiting, while her role in BERT holds those currently in the community accountable.
“The Civil Rights movement did all this radical change that has made this place for a person of color a lot better,” Dickson said. “We hope to, maybe not on the same scale, do something like that at OU.”
Dickson feels a deep sense of belonging to her community at OU. This belonging supercedes what many would perceive to be a division between jobs, perspectives and roles in the OU community at large. For her, holding the university accountable through BERT protests performs the same function as her recruiting job.
“Me standing on those steps… was more my responsibility, my duty and obligation to my community here at the University of Oklahoma to tell people how we feel, what’s going on and what needs to happen going forward.”
Dickson is set to graduate in May as a double major in political science and women’s and gender studies. She aims to spend a gap year working for the Democratic presidential campaign or on Capitol Hill as a fellow for a public policy institute before matriculating to law school. Her goal in her last year as resident adviser, tour guide and BERT member is “to make a lasting impact, not necessarily to be remembered, but making an impact that I did something that changed the climate of this institution and changed the culture of OU so that this place is better for next student of color walking through it.”