Tag Archives: white privilege

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

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Skylar’s Naughty and Nice List 2014

Top row - UKIP in LGBT, Theresa May, Ferguson Police Bottom row - Vicky Beeching, Michael Sam, Laverne Cox

Top row – LGBT in UKIP logo, Theresa May, Ferguson Police
Bottom row – Vicky Beeching, Michael Sam, Laverne Cox

Santa’s going to be coming down (but hopefully not in) a million billion chimneys tonight, and whereas last year I was expecting coal in my stocking, this year I’ve been a fucking saint. Seriously, thanks to the FDA’s reuqirements that gay men only be celibate for a year before they donate, I can now give blood. It’s been that kind of year.

Some have been equally as good this year. Some, though, have been very, very naughty. And with that, I give you my annual naughty and nice list!

naughty

3. LGBT in UKIP

Where the fuck do I even begin? Well, there’s their Aunt Mary MEP who is against equal marriage. Or the time UKIP Leader Nigel Farage referred to him as a “great big screaming poof” when using him as an example of how they’re not homophobic. Oh, and the branch chair who said gay adoption was tantamount to “child abuse.” And the list of homophobic UKIP comments just goes on and on.

That UKIP doesn’t like LGBT people is not news. But the fact that LGBT in UKIP, the LGBT pressure group within the party, exists, is. And the fact that they’ve continued to support the party despite its large opposition to LGBT equality and offensive rhetoric is deeply troublesome. To their credit, they stood up to UKIP HQ when Kerry Smith referred to LGBT people as “poofters,” though he was speaking specifically of LGBT in UKIP at the time, so that may have been more a personal than principled reaction.

UKIP stands a good chance of entering Westminster en masse at the General Election, and it’s entirely possible they could hold the balance of power in a potential hung parliament. That LGBT people are backing an anti-LGBT party which could determine the future of Britain is not only mystifying, it’s infuriating.

2. Theresa May

Theresa May hates me. As a gay foreigner, she’s made that abundantly clear in 2014. Only this month, a lesbian refugee from Uganda was nearly deported, despite fears for her life; she received a last minute reprieve, but the allegations that the Home Office ignored evidence and medical experts is concerning. When considered along the myriad of other cases involving LGBT asylum seekers, it’s evidence of a systemic problem within the Home Office. In October, the Guardian reported that “more than a tenth of Home Office interviews of gay and lesbian asylum seekers include ‘intrusive or or unsatisfactory’ questions about their sex lives.” This came in a report by Chief Inspector John Vine, who found some of the questions so graphic even I blushed.

This comes in a year where May has taken a hardline stance on migrants, refugees, and even students. Most recently, she has backed tightening restrictions on foreign students in the UK, requiring them to leave the country and apply for a work visa, as opposed to the four months foreign graduates currently have to find a job and switch from a student visa to a work visa. You can study at our universities, May is essentially saying, but you can’t contribute to our society.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric towards immigrants coming from the Home Office is concerning, and it seems unlikely to temper as we approach the General Election, which means it’s a shitty time to be a gay person, a foreigner, or a current or future international student. As someone who ticks all three boxes, this is some bullshit.

1. The American Police

Tanesha Anderson. John Crawford. Michelle Cusseaux. Tamir Rice. Yvette Smith. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

These are but a handful of the unarmed Black people to be killed by American police this year. We need to have a national conversation about institutional racism within the ranks of the American police forces, and we need to have it now. We need to talk openly about white privilege and white supremacy, and how Black bodies are inherently viewed as criminal through white eyes. We, as white America, need to look in the mirror and see the ugliness of our own racism.White supremacy and structural racism are problems as old as America itself. Older, even, when you consider the transatlantic slave trade began more than two centuries before slaveowning Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. These are not problems America has solved, because they’re the problems America was built upon. Racism is not just a founding principle of America, but the foundation of American society. It is handed down, generation to generation, an inherent trait in the American bloodstream. This country was stolen from the Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Yet white America denies it, denies it, denies it.

This year was no different, except we were forced to confront it. The institutional racism inherent in police forces—which are, in the end, agents of the state—was finally exposed. White America, and the police in particular, were quick to bury their heads in the sand as they continued blowing the heads off Black men and women. Instead of grappling with the realities of institutional racism (which, by the way, doesn’t mean all cops are racist), cops like New York City’s Patrick J Lynch, who heads that city’s police union, has been quick to cast blame—on Garner, on the mayor, on activists, basically on anyone but the police.

We have to attack institutional racism in this country, and police forces are as fine a place as any to start. Until we do, we will never truly get to an equal society.

Dishonourable mentions: The NFL, Russell Brand, Boris Johnson

nice

3. Michael Sam

Michael Sam shocked the world when, as an All-American football player who was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year, he came out. Sam went on to make history, becoming the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. Things didn’t go so well from there; Sam was cut from the Saint Louis Rams and, later, the Dallas Cowboys. His future in the NFL remains to be seen, and what role homophobia played in slashing his prospects, first in the draft and now in the league, is hotly debated.

All of this matters. But none of it matters as much as Michael Sam matters, simply for existing. By coming out in the macho, misogynistic world of the NFL, Michael Sam provided hope and inspiration to countless young gay boys throughout America, and even abroad, who were struggling to reconcile their masculinity and sexuality. He became a role model over night, and blazed a trail which future openly gay athletes will follow. He also opened up a conversation on institutional homophobia within sport, one of which gay, lesbian, and bisexual athletes will benefit from in the years to come.

2. Vicky Beeching

Like Michael Sam, Vicky Beeching blazed a trail for LGB people this year. Long a public ally of LGBT* people of faith, Beeching sent shockwaves throughout Christian media when she came out in August. In the subsequent weeks, she has shown herself a tireless and effective advocate against the institutional homophobia of the Church, as her Channel 4 debate with the homophobic preacher Scott Lively shows. She has also been pivotal in reframing the conversation about the role of LGBT* people in Christianity, all the while teaching a more inclusive interpretation of the scripture.

In a year where the religious right redoubled its efforts to combat equality, in which LGBT* Christians fought to reclaim our own narratives, Beeching’s brave stand, and her subsequent tenacity, have been invaluable. She has shown what it means to live faithfully as an openly gay person, and she has opened a dialogue between LGBT* Christians and our sisters and brothers in Christ who wrongly condemn us. She is interested not just in advancing the cause of LGBT* people, but building bridges and mending fences, tasks for which she is uniquely qualified. Her importance will only grow in 2015, and I look forward to it, as she continues to offer fellowship to both those margianalised by the Church, and those responsible for it.

1. Laverne Cox

The Transgender Tipping Point.” That’s how Time described it when Laverne Cox, the Emmy-nominated star of Orange is the New Black, made history as the first openly transgender person on that esteemed magazine’s cover. 2014 has been the year of Laverne, culminating most recently when she became the voice of reason—by which I mean, intersectional feminism—in a debate on racism on The View. Laverne has consistently raised the concerns of trans* people of colour to the mainstream in a way that few, if any, others have.

She is, in many ways, a transformative figure, as Time pointed out. But she also seems so remarkably down-to-earth, the woman next door who says hi every day, and maybe pops over for a glass of wine and a Scandal binge. Laverne’s politics are on point, but its her personality—her wit and her warmth—which has endeared her to the American public.

2014 was big for Laverne, and 2015 looks to be even bigger, with a starring role in the film Grandma. As her star continues to rise, I look forward to seeing more of her talent, and hearing more of her succinct, biting cultural analysis.

Honourable mentions: Anitia Sarkeesian, the Ferguson Protestors, Owen Jones

I think we can all agree it’s been a shit year. But through it all, you lot have stuck by my side. For that, I am entirely grateful. I want to take this opportunity to thank a few of you in particular: Sara, Kellee, Vanessa, Michelle, Kayla, Jenna, Elizabeth, Nick, Robyn, Peter, Lily Jayne, Alex, Nathan, Wes, Derrick, Parker, Michelle, Sarah, Kat, Bryan, Kevin, and as always, Mamaw and Papaw. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me. Your friendship and support has been most humbling.

Now Happy Christmas you lot!!!!!

White Privilege and You: A few quick thoughts on Ferguson

michael-brown-darren-wilson

I landed in London this morning. While I was in the air, a grand jury in Missouri decided not to charge an armed agent of the state for shooting dead like a dog an unarmed teenage boy. He is but one of many innocent, unarmed Black people being gunned down by American police every year, as Derrick Clifton succinctly explains here.

I knew the decision was coming before I took off, and I knew what it would be before I even landed; there was no way Darren Wilson was going to be indicted. America doesn’t care about Black people, and we’ve shown it time and time again. But it’s not just the state. White America, our racism is showing.

I’m friends with a lot of white people. Like, literally thousands. And scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’ve seen so many-far more than decrying the death of an innocent 18-year-old-criticising the riots in Ferguson. “Go ahead and destroy your town you fucking morons, that’ll make a point” is the basic refrain.

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?

White America, here’s the point.

  Here’s you.

See how you’ve missed it?

If you’re more concerned, and more vocal, about the isolated rioting in response to endemic racial violence; if you’re more interested in policing Black responses to oppression rather than policing the police who kill Black people; if you’re more worried about protecting the rights of property owners than you are protecting the lives of Black teenagers; I need you to A) check your privilege and B) actually fuck off.

I know. I know. You think you’re being reasonable. You think you’re being pragmatic. How can rioting solve the problem? Why can’t we all join hands and sing kumbaya? Isn’t that what Dr King would’ve done? Huh? Huh?

Maybe listen to him. You know, that bit about how the silence of “allies” was more damaging and devastating than the words of enemies? Or that one time he talked about how deadly silence is?

White people who think themselves “colour-blind” need to wake up and see that colour still matters in America. Those of you who are posting statuses condemning the riots in Ferguson but had nary a peep to offer on the actual death of Mike Brown (or the myriad of other Black Americans gunned down by white police officers or white people) need to understand that this is not just a bunch of “thugs” (the modern day N-word, by the way) rioting. This is the steam blowing the lid off the crucible of racism and white supremacy which Black Americans are forced to live and, as Mike Brown shows, die by.

This is about oppression. Real oppression.

Instead of condemning the throwing of bricks, condemn the killing of unarmed Black Americans. Instead of condemning riots, condemn the racism. Instead of condemning the reaction to oppression, condemn the actual fucking oppression.

Otherwise fuck off with your privilege and racism.