The ‘Exempt’ Society

The ‘Exempt’ Society

Black Honor Society Cries Foul, Ignores Own Culpability

Adam Abraham

by Adam Abraham
December 2003/January 2004

SACRAMENTO – In the ongoing conversation on race relations in America, there is strong agreement that racism remains a bane to the realization of the principles that the country was founded upon. However, agreement tends to weaken when we get down to specifics, because some people are considered almost de facto racists, while others consider themselves “exempt” from racist behavior, or otherwise “above the law” of public opinion, with regard to their own accountability. This ideological schism was demonstrated on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Members of Onyx, the black senior honor society at the University, recently voiced concerns about racial slurs that were directed at the group during this year’s induction ceremony. Elizabeth Todd, vice president of the society said, “This happens regularly, every year during the ceremony.”

By these statements, some readers might be quick to surmise that a group of black people gathering together at Penn, a predominantly white academic setting, are still likely to encounter racial hostility. But that’s where assumptions can get us into trouble, or needlessly perpetuate it.

The Onyx Society induction ceremony is for old and new members to tour the campus and visit landmarks that feature black achievement. This is an honorable idea that, if you ask me, would be of interest to all students. However, the scenario goes as follows:

One Tuesday evening, between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, when most people (even students) are studying, sleeping, or far more likely to appreciate and seek quiet than they are noise, a group of Onyx members gathered for their tour. There was little if any, effective prior public notice of their plan. As the tour concludes, the group heads its way back to DuBois College House, chanting, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. Who? Onyx? What?”

This ceremony occurred on November 4, and was reported in the Daily Pennsylvanian (November 19, 2003). According to the Onyx Secretary, Afiya Mangum, there were mixed responses at first, as curious students, whose peace had been disturbed, came to their windows to see what was going on, and in some cases, lodge their protest. As the Onyx members progressed toward the middle of the Quadrangle – still chanting – a now very irritated student yelled, “shut up, niggers!” multiple times.

The Onyx students didn’t respond directly to the slur; they simply decided to yell the chant even louder.

As it is currently practiced, this ceremony has shaken one or two irritated slurs loose over the past few years. Yet it has happened with enough consistency for the Onyx members to brand the entire University as a racist environment, while excluding themselves from any culpability in inciting the response. What’s more, the real purpose of the ceremony, which was to honor achievement, was sullied by the disruptive, defiant, antagonistic, and totally unnecessary chanting.

It is the height of redundancy for a black person or group to walk down a street at night chanting, “I’m black…” Do you think there is anyone who wouldn’t know that by simply keeping his or her eyes open? Do you think others feel safe, included, considered, respected, or otherwise welcome when groups of black people, even honor students, gather under such circumstances and demonstrate such behavior? If the group was white and did the same thing, would they not be run off campus, most likely by black and whites together? Why do we ignore this double standard? Who or what does it serve?

The Onyx Society could have had their ceremony and done several things differently. They could have turned it into a tradition that the entire university honors, not only its black members. They still can. They could have notified the people along the planned route of their ceremony, and invited all to attend. They still can. They could do it during the daytime, and even do outreach inviting children from elementary and high schools to the campus to join in and learn. They still can. If they wanted to “affirm” something about their race, they could have thought it. They still can do that too. There was no need to “shout,” distract, upset, and disturb the area, raising tensions for the night and putting a racial tint on it that lasts far longer. I suspect if they do these things, the racial slurs would mysteriously stop.

If the Onyx Society members were walking peacefully, showing respect and consideration for others, and not initiating a disturbance to the peace at that moment, then it would be correct that unprovoked antagonistic statements by a “wacko” were probably racist. But so what? It would have come from a wacko, and everyone would most likely agree.

What’s really disturbing is that the inconsiderate racialistic actions of the Onyx members, that set the isolated “loose mouth” off, are, in general, passed over as contributory, if not causative factors when in fact, the group set itself up for the response. However, it is passing the blame everywhere else. That’s not smart.

Adam Abraham is author of I Am My Body, NOT! and A Freed Man: An Emancipation Proclamation (Phaelos Books), and host and producer of An Equal America. Mr. Abraham can be reached via email at, or through his web site,

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