Rushing your roots: Minority Greek life at the 'U'

Members of Zeta Phi Beta perform at the Annual Blue & White Stroll Off hosted by Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority at Palmer Commons and Saturday. (Ruby Wallau/Daily) Buy this photo

By Emma Kerr, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 2, 2014

For students of color, the Greek life experience can provide a community where cultural roots are shared and celebrated. Yet the barriers that separate students racially within Greek life on campus are also unwritten and unacknowledged. White students rush a Panhellenic sorority or an Interfraternity Council. Some Black students turn to the National Panhellenic Council — the historically Black Greek council.

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The National Panhellenic Council is primarily composed of historically Black Greek Institutions and the Multicultural Greek Council primarily serves ethnicity based Greek Institutions. Both are smaller and less widely known, and are not affiliated with Panhellenic or IFC.

Erin Fischer, an LSA senior and Phi Rho Alpha president, spoke to the different challenges students of color are presented with and particularly the obstacles she has faced over the past four years as one of very few Black women in her sorority. After taking a stance last fall against the Theta Xi “Hood Ratchet Thursday” incident, Fischer continues to see a long-standing racial divide within Greek life at the University.

“There’s this really weird segregation,” Fisher said, “I think coming into college as a person of color, if you are interested in Greek life at all, you either kind of disobey and leave that identity behind and join an IFC or Panhellenic sorority or fraternity, or you completely indulge in that part of your identity and join one of … those more historically Black or ethnic sororities. I think there’s this great divide where your identities don’t intersect and you have to kind of pick a side.”

LSA junior Sheetal Gade, a first-generation Indian-American and an executive board member of MGC, said a separation exists between minority fraternities and sororities and their Panhellenic and IFC counterparts.

“The reality of it is that most Panhel girls don’t even know what MGC is,” Gade said. “I don’t think they teach their pledges about MGC or NPHC, like that these are your fellow Greek sisters and brothers.”

While the endless train of freshmen snakes down State Street every fall with girls dreaming of walking in the footsteps of their mothers and fulfilling their legacy, for many women and men in the MGC and NPHC of cultural backgrounds, Greek life is not a familial tradition.

“I know in high school, all of my best friends were white girls and their moms were Tri-Delts and their grandmas were Tri-Delts — they were going to be Tri-Delts,” Gale said. “I know that for me, I’m a first-generation Indian, so my parents did not go to college here, so they don’t know what Greek life is. They still don’t understand what I do.”

Partly because of this, many of the Black students involved in Greek life are there because of the community, not necessarily to fulfill a personal legacy.

LSA senior Joshua Allen, one of the first of nearly 30 fraternity brothers to agree to speak on behalf of NPHC, is a member of Kappa Alpha Phi. He explained just how deep the Kappa brotherhood runs, and how that powerful network led him to join an NPHC fraternity.

“Years down the road, you can still ask us who our founders are, when we were founded, and we can still tell you just as quickly as we could from day one after we got into our fraternities and sororities,” Allen said. “A lot of people back home that were mentors of mine were Kappas, so it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of.”

The sense of pride, tradition and closeness these minority-based fraternities and sororities experience can be attributed at least in part to their fairly intimate size.

For the Kappas, their membership intake this year, which has been increasing, was at an unusual high of 14 new members.

“Because there are so few of us, I can see why we are more tight knit. There are sometimes pledge classes of IFC fraternities of 40 people and 40 people can give or take be our entire council so we’re tight in the sense that there’s not many of us so we definitely are really close with each other,” Allen said.

The fraternities and sororities that make up MGC are in a similar situation. There are 10 fraternities and sororities in MGC, four of which are Latina, four serve students of Asian descent and two serve Indian/South Asian communities. Beyond the logistics, the members of these and NPHC sororities and fraternities bond and commit to each other and their organizations in such a long-term way because they make a deeper connection with one another, one that emphasizes their roots.

“We really enjoy sharing that connection with our sisters ... Our language and culture is a deeper connection for us than just the superficial, ‘Oh, we like the same shows.’ That’s cool and all, but where you come from is something different,” Gade said.

Each fraternity and sorority is equipped with its own unique identity and mission. For members of the NPHC, that bond is palpable when you see these brothers and sisters perform together, particularly in regards to stepping. Stepping, an intensive mixture of movement, spoken word and physical expression is a huge part of the culture surrounding these historically Black fraternities and sororities — it’s intense, passionate and visually exciting.

The stepping that happens at Midnight Madness — a dance competition hosted by NPHC held on the Diag every September — is just a preview for the real competition, which happens in April and is not taken lightly. Stroll-offs are another tradition of NPHC fraternities and sororities that is unique. Every organization has its own traditions when it comes to stepping and strolling, movements that are unique to each fraternity or sorority.

“I really enjoy going to the shows and not only participating but watching what my colleagues come up with too, because we all try to be so creative. It’s really funny to see how far outside the box people try to think of it,” Allen said.

So why do minority students have their own separate councils and institutions— why not join IFC or Panhellenic? Cultural influences are part of the answer.

“I think, especially like stepping and a lot community service that a lot of the historically Black fraternities do, it’s a cultural thing,” Fischer said. “I feel like it is a very welcoming community, and I feel like especially if you come from a community back home where you’re surrounded by people who look like you, talk like you, act like you, and have the same background, it can be very comforting, especially in a predominately white University.”

For NPHC, it’s all about the support system, the connections, the bond and the mission. The Multi-cultural fraternities and sororities give students the chance to forge bonds with others who have experienced similar obstacles and share backgrounds. For many students, those backgrounds will have sweeping implications for their social circles at the University. Fischer grew up in a predominately white suburb, which she said may explain why she felt more comfortable joining a sorority that is largely white.

Despite that familiarity, there is still some divide within her sorority that’s hard to define.

“A lot of it is just that they are already so predominately white that you go in and you’re the only person who looks like you. Sometimes you can be the only person talks like you, uses a certain dialect, I think that there are a lot of assumptions about you,” Fischer said, “I know when I try to have these conversations with girls in my house, they say ‘Well we don’t understand, I accept you. I have lots of Black friends.’ That’s awesome, but it doesn’t mean we come from the same place and it doesn’t mean that we are going to see things from the same point of view.”

Gade said that despite growing up in a mostly white community, she joined a South Asian/Indian sorority in order to prevent her from losing her cultural heritage.

“You don’t want to forget your roots. I’m first-generation, but I’m an American citizen — I don’t want to forget, I wouldn’t want my kids to forget where they come from, their language, their religious festivals, any of that,” Gade said.

She added that this was a conscious choice for her — to either completely indulge in American culture and forget where she came from, or to keep her past a constant in her present.

The cultures and rich traditions that have grown in the NPHC and MGC communities serve students in a way that IFC and Panhellenic often can’t, by giving them a space on campus to call their own.