Category Archives: Greek Life

What is institutional racism, and how does it manifest itself on Greek Row?

The cast of the ABC Family show “Greek.” Studies show people of colour account for only 3-4% of membership in traditionally white Greek organisations. (Image: ABC Family)

Last Tuesday, I published a blog discussing the institutional racism inherent in Greek-lettered organisations. The response was heated, with several of my Greek acquaintances and friends chiming in with a rousing chorus of #NotAllGreeks, chalking this up to a few bad apples. This was a sentiment echoed on Twitter, where some people took to using #SAELovesYou to defend the fraternity (and Greek system) as a whole:

But, as Matthew Hughey told John Sutter, writing at CNN.com, the system is more of a “bad orchard,” calling it a type of “American apartheid.” He goes on to say that “largely, these organisations reflect a supersegregated and unequal system that is made up of college and alumni members all over the world.”

Hughey’s words are heavy, but so are his credentials; an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, he studies race and Greek life academically. This week he penned an op-ed for the New York Times indicting Greek letter organisations for the widespread institutional racism I wrote about on Tuesday. His research turned up several examples of how institutional racism manifests itself in Greek life, in everything from recruitment to resources. One of the most jarring facts Hughey came across in his research was that only 3%-4% of Greeks are people of colour in historically white houses. Those who do successfully pledge, he writes, “live a harsh existence of loneliness and isolation”.

Which brings me to my friend Ethan, the “Asian SAE” I mentioned in the opening paragraph of Tuesday’s blog, answered my question about how he reacted; I’m paraphrasing, but essentially “we’re not all bad, and that is not the SAE I know”. His experiences, as relayed to me, do not mirror the ones Hughey mentions, for which I am incredibly relieved and glad. (I offered Ethan a guest post on The Curious American, but he did not respond directly to the request. The offer stands.)

In fact, most of my acquaintances who posted said the same thing. This wasn’t their chapters. They didn’t see any overt racism in their houses, and if they did, it was addressed. There was a knee jerk reaction to defend themselves and their letters, and in response my knee jerk reaction was to try to convince them that they just weren’t looking hard enough, that they didn’t understand. Tempers flared, and despite one Greek alum who now works for his fraternity’s national headquarters asked me for some pointers on how Greek organisations can improve, an important conversation became a vitriolic diatribe.

I’ve stewed over this for a few days, because I left that conversation incredibly disappointed in a lot of people whom I had (and still have) immense respect for. These people, many of whom publicly posted about their outrage at the death of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner seemed suddenly blind to institutional racism. How could my progressive friends, with their good politics, not see what I see?

Finally, two possible explanations dawned on me: either my friends weren’t here for the struggle in the ways that I had previously thought and were unwilling to challenge whiteness on all fronts, or my progressive friends, with their good politics, didn’t see institutional racism in their chapters because in those instances, it was so muted it avoided detection. (I won’t say it was non-existent, because in America the white power structure and anti-Black racism exists literally everywhere.) I choose to believe the latter.

And this makes sense; why would these people stay somewhere that so blatantly stood against their core values, even if those values weren’t the ones they started when when they rushed? If there had been overt racism in their chapters, I believe—at least, I hope—they would have left. But they didn’t. And those are their experiences. And their experiences are valid.

But their experiences, even their individual chapters, do not an institution make. And this is where the differences in overt racism, such as that expressed in the SAE video, and covert racism, such as crossing the street when you see a Black man in a hoodie, are important. Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates had a conversation about this very issue on Hayes’ MSNBC show, and they bring up several relevant points about how white people use instances like what happened at OU to let themselves off the hook for institutional and structural racism.

The “ritual cleansing” (to quote Hayes) we go through as a county whenever something so obviously racist surfaces allows us to absolve ourselves of any guilt we have either as individuals or as white people as a class. We’re not using racial slurs and singing about lynching Black people, so we’re not racist. But this thinking, this belief that racism has to be ugly and obvious, is “an essential part of white supremacy remaining with us,” Coates says.

And that’s the crux of the issue here. We have a fundamental misunderstanding of racism, not just as Greeks (and the people who love them), but as Americans. Unless we see a cross burning, it’s not racism. And that completely ignores the microaggressions which keep Greek row (and for that matter cities like Chicago) segregated.

I got together with Ethan to further discuss and debate this issue. There were two key points raised which I want to address here, as well as an ancillary point which merits further discussion:

1. Is Greek life institutionally racist, or is America just a systemically racist country?

2. If America is a racist nation, is it really fair or even useful to pick on fraternities and sororities?

America is a country founded on white supremacy, and that legacy lives with us today. We would be hard pressed, I told him, to find an organisation in this country that isn’t institutionally racist. But does that then mean we shouldn’t speak of specific organisations or institutions which have demonstrated a particularly sad history and pattern of racist behaviours? Absolutely not. White heteropatriarchy isn’t going to fall over night, and if we want to ever refashion a truly egalitarian world, we’re going to have to start somewhere. Greek life—particularly fraternities—are as good a place as any to start, considering they often serve as conduits for the intergenerational transfer of white privilege and power. “Not four years, for life,” as they say, and these men and women pass down their values to their little children who become their literal “legacies” who often get preference in bidding, which adds further exclusion to an already exclusionary system.

And that can be hard to hear, because nobody who is a decent human being wants to think of themselves as complicit in oppression. Sometimes that oppression isn’t a slur, or a burning cross, or a song about lynching, though. Sometimes it’s so insidious that we don’t even notice until a pattern emerges (which it has).

Institutional racism is covert racism. It is sneaky and works in ways that aren’t obviously racist, which makes it so much easier to miss. And we don’t want to see it—in ourselves, our friends, our institutions—because of what that might say about us. But to ignore the problem, or to prioritise or centre our feelings in the conversation, is not only counter-productive, but makes us even more complicit in oppression. And nobody wants that.

Advertisements

This isn’t just about SAE. Greek life has a problem with racism.

Photo: Flickr

Photo: Flickr

Content warning: racism, racial epitaphs, lynching, and violence against Black people

One of my dearest friends, Ethan*, is a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (colloquially known as SAE). He is also a person of colour. So as I watched the Oklahoma Kappa chapter gleefully chanting they’d lynch a Black man before they’d let him pledge their fraternity, my friend—someone I’ve known since we were freshmen living in the same residence hall, someone who has stood by me for over a decade now, whom I’ve grown even closer to since we both moved to Chicago, someone I’d rank as the sweetest, kindest man I know—must have felt when he saw the sheer vitriol and unadulterated racism of some of his brothers:

Warning: this video contains graphic, racist, violent language; viewer discretion is advised

I’ve frequently written about Greek life in my career. When I was working at Rise Over Run I did a feature on a sorority’s homecoming queen candidate. I interviewed a closeted fraternity president. And after the now-infamous (and largely discredited) Rolling Stone piece on rape at UVA, I dissected Phi Kappa Psi’s response. I consider myself something of an expert.

This is also because, as I wrote for Salon earlier this year, my college years—spent in Kentucky, not Oklahoma—were defined by Greek life. I rushed, but never pledged, encountering a different bigotry (homophobia) along the way. But I stuck around. My best friends are sorority women. My ex-boyfriends are fraternity men. Aside from paying dues and participating in ritual (some of which I still learned; drunks like to tell secrets), my collegiate experience was the Greek experience. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.

Which makes me wish I could say I was surprised by the SAE video. That would be a lie, though. Because the truth is that white Greek life, at least in the South, is a bastion of white privilege and segregation.

I say white Greek life because there is also Black Greek life. The “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council were founded at the turn of the last century to redress the racial segregation enforced by white chapters. Today, most of the houses on Fraternity Row belong to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, while the National Panhellenic Conference serves as an umbrella organisation for what can safely be called the “historically white sororities.”

And never the twain shall meet. It wasn’t until some time into my college career that the Divine Nine began participating in Greek Week, which was still largely dominated by the white organisations. At some point after the university began selecting Homecoming pairings, white and Black Greek organisations would team up, but before then there was little mixing and mingling. I don’t remember a single instance of a mixer between an IFC fraternity and an NPHC sorority or vice versa.

There were a couple white kids in some of the Divine Nine organisations, and a smattering of Black people in white houses, but they were rare enough to become somewhat famous simply for existing; everyone knew who the Black AOP was, even if we didn’t know her name. There was, after all, just the one. And I can’t count the times I’d mention Ethan, only to get blank stares from white faces until I rolled my eyes and said “the Asian SAE?”

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Chrystal Stallworth, a mixed-race woman, found it difficult to impossible to rush white sororities at the University of Alabama. “I started noticing when I would see all the girls in sororities, there were no minorities,” Stallworth told Marie Claire last year.

There was a reason for this, according to AOP Yardena Wolf: “We were told we do not take black girls, because it would be bad for our chapter—our reputation and our status.”

In what now feels like some great irony, it wasn’t until Stallworth, who is originally from Oklahoma, spoke to a friend from back home that she realised what was really happening, though. “I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have a best friend who is in a sorority at the University of Oklahoma. Her sorority is so diverse… That was the point I realized, Whoa, people still do see race here.”

Which brings us back to SAE, which has a long, sketchy history of racism as reported by Think Progress yesterday. However, on my campus they weren’t known as the racist fraternity (that dishonour went to Kappa Alpha Order, which cites Robert E. Lee—yeah, the Confederate general—as their “spiritual founder”). They were the rich kids, the sons of the upper-middle-class; dressed in Ralph Lauren polos, chino shorts, and Sperry Topsiders, they were basically ripped from the pages of (what I hope to God is the satirical) website Total Frat Move. They were the rich kids, with a reputation for being somewhat snotty and a little coked out. But not racists.

That changed in my mind one night towards the end of my time in my college town. The fraternity house I spent most of my time at was right across the street from SAE. There was a Black pledge at the time, and while I’m not sure what prompted it, I remember sitting with him as he tearfully explained that the SAE’s across the street had started shouting the N-word at him. The entire group was incensed, but I don’t remember anything ever really coming of it, perhaps because it never got reported. I honestly don’t know.

I also don’t know the SAEs who called that kid the N-word, and I probably never will. But I do know Ethan. And I know several other SAEs from my alma mater and elsewhere, and I count a few as friends (and at least one was a brief romantic liaison). They are good men, stand-up men whom have shown me friendship and kindness.

This isn’t (I hope) about them. And that’s important to note, because I don’t ever want to see #NotAllSAEs trending on Twitter. In some ways, it’s not even about the young men from Oklahoma who sang that despicable song. It is, rather, about an institutional racism which is executed and perpetuated through a system of segregation and white supremacist thinking, as Derrick Clifton recently catalogued at Mic. This isn’t an isolated incident. This is a wider issue effecting white Greek life across the country.

Which makes this not just about individuals—though those in that video certainly need to pay—but about the culture which allows this type of bigotry to thrive, from the House Mom who shouts off the N Word all the way up to Nationals, which celebrates SAEs founding in the antebellum south without seeming to consider exactly what that means. Indeed, the message I’m getting is “We deplore racism, but we’re proud to have been founded in a time and place where Black people were chattel.”

It’s as much about these boys’ parents, many of whom were probably SAEs too (legacies, we call them), who in the South at least raised their sons with the expectation of Greek life and the entitlement of white privilege. It’s about the wider Greek system, an institution built on exclusion and supremacy and itself one of the most pernicious and blatant manifestations of white heteropatriarchy in modern America. This is about a nation that has long made killing Black people a national sport, something to be turned into a catchy little ditty sung by some of the most privileged people in our society.

But on a more focused level, if white Greek organisations want to eliminate the racists in their ranks, they’re going to have to first address the racism at their core.

*Not his real name

So, let’s talk about Phi Kappa Psi’s statement on Jackie, the Rolling Stone article, and rape at UVA

Photo credit: WVIR-TV/NBC 29

Photo credit: WVIR-TV/NBC 29

A lot has been made about the Rolling Stone article chronicling the rape of Jackie, who during her freshman year, alleges she was gang raped by a group of men at a University of Virginia fraternity house. Rolling Stone has since distanced itself from the story, which has kicked up a firestorm of controversy, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on social media, as well as fuelled rape denialism and apologism.

What prompted the Rolling Stone apology? Apparently, some factual inaccuracies found by the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, as well as the fact that they never reached out to her alleged rapists, in particular the one she accuses of orchestrating the attack. We can debate whether Rolling Stone should’ve reached out to Jackie’s unnamed alleged attacker, but what I find more pernicious is that Phi Kappa Psi’s assertions have gone unchecked and unscrutinised. They’re taken as fact.

What most of you don’t know is that, for the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a piece about my own experiences with Greek life. I hope to see it published nationally here in the USA soon. But the fact is, I am somewhat of an expert, by virtue of my own lived experiences, on the fraternity system and fraternity life in particular. I wasn’t Greek-that’s part of the point of my article-but I was an outsider firmly on the inside. As such, let’s talk about Virginia Alpha chapter’s rebuttal of Jackie, the woman allegedly raped at their UVA chapter house:

First, the 2012 roster of employees at the Aquatic and Fitness Center does not list a Phi Kappa Psi as a lifeguard. As far as we have determined, no member of our fraternity worked there in any capacity during this time period.

So this is pretty damning, obviously, and something that was easily verifiable by Rolling Stone. At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. But what we now know is that Drew, the alias by which Rolling Stone identifies the man Jackie alleges raped her, may not have been a Phi Kappa Psi at all. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for members of other fraternities to attend a party at another fraternity house. It is less unusual for GDI-goddamn independent, or non-affiliated students-to wind up at these parties; I was one of them. So Drew might not have been a Phi Psi, yet the assault could still have taken place at the Phi Psi house. This means Phi Kappa Psi would have some liability. Could Jackie have mistaken Drew for a Phi Psi? If he talked a lot about it and hung out with a lot of them, yes. I was regularly mistaken for an active member of the fraternity I hung out with by people unfamiliar with the chapter or Greek life. Jackie was a first-semester freshman who clearly knew little about college life, let alone fraternities and sororities. It’s possible.

Second, the Chapter did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012.

This one actually made me laugh out loud. On my campus, and so many of the campuses I visited, wet events were banned at fraternity houses by the national organisation and by the university, for obvious legal liability reasons. That Phi Psi’s nationals would know about every party that happened at that house is ludicrous. In fact, the active chapter would probably be at great pains to make sure nationals didn’t find out. A date function or social event, such as a mixer (a party featuring them and a sorority), a formal (which almost certainly would have been a destination dance, not something held at the house), or other registered party would be tame by comparison, because Phi Kappa Psi doesn’t want to get sued. Any party like the one Jackie described is extremely likely to be an unofficial function not appearing in the official records of the fraternity. That means, even two years later, the local chapter could say there was no date function or social event during that weekend, without having to admit that yes, actually, there was a party. These terms have specific meanings.

Third, our Chapter’s pledging and initiation periods, as required by the University and Inter-Fraternity Council, take place solely in the spring semester and not in the fall semester. We document the initiation of new members at the end of each spring.

This is interesting, but not necessarily a defence. Formal pledging happens in very structured and specific time frames, but informal recruitment (even if the men rushing have to go through the formal process) happens year-round, particularly with freshmen who may have missed the pledging process the year before. I’ve seen it happen, men who somehow befriended one or two active members and then decided to join their sophomore or even junior year. The time frame of when rush, pledging, and initiation happens at UVA is neither here nor there, because much like the party, year-round recruitment may well have been something not on the official records, but that is nonetheless a part of the routine and everyday life of this and many, many fraternities.

Moreover, no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim.

I 100% believe this. Ritualized sexual assault, I can say with total confidence, is not a part of Pi Kappa Psi’s pledging or initiation process, nor is it a part of any other North-American Interfraternity Council member organization’s ritual. If it were, we’d have heard about it by now, full stop.

But here’s where things become less clear. It is not unusual for individual chapters to have their own traditions and rituals. It could be as innocent as adopting a penguin as your mascot, or it could be something more odious, like the “hell night” I once saw a freshman pledging a fraternity notorious for hazing come back from. The bruises on his back and abdomen terrified me as an RA. I can guarantee you that’s not part of any national initiation ritual too, yet I witnessed the results. Reading back through the Rolling Stone article, it could be that these men were simply egging one another on by saying they all had to do it, even if they didn’t. It could be that Jackie doesn’t remember the details of what was said, which studies have proven victims of trauma such as sexual assault find difficult to piece together. Or it could be that this local chapter has a very dark ritual unto itself, one, again, that nationals would know nothing about. Until it did.

The fact is that the national Greek organizations, the headquarters, can only be so responsible and know so much about what’s happening at their individual campus chapters, run by 18-22 year olds with limited adult oversight. This means, invariably, that a lot of what actually happens doesn’t make it onto the official record, and doesn’t become part of the historic narrative. The chapter may have no record of the party Jackie attended, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party that night.

And it also remains that what Phi Kappa Psi has said in their statement is only half the story. Yes, what they said may all be technically true, but it doesn’t mean that things didn’t transpire exactly, or close to, as Jackie described to Rolling Stone. Anyone who knows Greek Life will know this, even if they’re loathed to admit it.

We can talk about journalistic integrity and whether it was a dereliction of duty and due diligence for Rolling Stone not to contact Jackie’s accused rapists or look into some of these details themselves. But what we’re not going to do is cast the veil of doubt over Jackie’s account while letting the rebuttal by Phi Kappa Psi and others go unscrutinised.

The fact is, there’s a lot of wiggle room Phi Kappa Psi has given itself. They’ve done a good job of bringing Jackie’s account into question, but they have done it with the hope and the knowledge that most journalists don’t know the realities of how Greek life works on a grassroots, day-to-day level, and with the hope that no one would question this because, well, facts. But their facts give way to reality, and the reality is that what Phi Kappa Psi said in its statement is only the official truth. The actual truth is much more convoluted, and likely much, much closer to Jackie’s story than they’d ever care to admit.

Update, 5 April 2015: Today, the Columbia School of Journalism published its report on the journalistic lapses of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus,” and I wanted to make sure those were included here. Back when this blog was initially published, Rubin Erdeley’s reporting was just being called into question and the story only starting to unravel. What the CSJ report has found is a complete dereliction of duty. Make no mistakes: this report is damning. Rubin Erdely, her editors, and Rolling Stone should have and could have done better.

As a blogger, essayist, and especially as a journalist, accuracy matters. While I stand by my overall analysis of and commentary on Phi Kappa Psi’s statement from December 2014–the gist being that things on Greek Row are not always what they seem–it has become very clear and unequivocal that things likely did transpire closer to what Phi Kappa Psi claims than to what Jackie told Rubin Erdely.