In the past month, I have observed friends and peers drop their fraternity and sorority life memberships due to the historic and current racism embedded in the institution. Every year, there are more videos of historically white fraternities and sororities (HWFS) chanting racist slurs or being exposed for racist practices in their rush strategies. As a new member, there have been many mandatory educational trainings on not being a bystander when it comes to sexual assault or alcohol abuse, but I was never educated on racism in Greek life. It was never prioritized in our discussions on what needed to change.
Greek life members must understand the institution they are associating themselves with and supporting. When HWFS were first establishing themselves on college campuses across the country, there were few people of color permitted into higher education institutions. However, even as the population of students of color grew, rules and regulations were put in place to keep on-campus organizations, including Greek life, white. For example, codes of exclusion were added to many fraternity and sorority charters, mandating that members be white and Christian.
Even before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in the 1950s, many states enacted anti-discrimination laws that pushed fraternities and sororities to desegregate. While official practices of exclusion based on race were removed by the 70s, national chapters never pushed for diversity. Through favoring legacies in recruitment, requiring hair to be done a certain way for events, rushing for girls that “fit into our group” and not prioritizing diversity, HWFS have remained — for the most part — white and from a higher social class.
At the University of Alabama, there was only one Black woman offered a bid into a historically white sorority from its founding in 1904 up until 2013. Moreover, in 2015, a video surfaced of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant that uses racial slurs and supports lynching. Just recently, fraternity members at the University of Arkansas mocked the death of George Floyd.
Many organizations on campus are made up of people that have similar backgrounds, cultures and values. It is human nature for people to want to congregate with people they relate to. So what is wrong with Greek life being this way? The difference between Greek life and other organizations on college campuses is that Greek life events often make up the majority of members’ social and philanthropic activities. When members live with their chapter, party with their chapter and do community service through their chapter, they aren’t simply surrounding themselves with people from the same background: They are only surrounding themselves with people from the same background. This environment allows members to live in the glorious ignorance of white privilege and face little to no consequences for their racist and oppressive actions.
When I joined Greek life, I made a promise to myself that I would not allow it to take over my entire life. I am involved in other clubs, have separate groups of friends and have made my chapter only a fragment of my university life. So, I had to ask myself, what harm am I causing by supporting my national chapter, both physically and financially?
A social media post has circulated from a Duke University anti-Greek life Instagram account that discusses the “FratPAC” — a political-action committee dedicated to increasing Greek life presence in Congress and to “enhance the fraternal experience.” The post claims that Greek life membership dues are going to this PAC. The FratPAC donates to both Democrats and Republicans and claims to be unbiased. However, the list of senators receiving donations in the 2020 cycle is predominantly white. Pushing for more Greek members in government is pushing for more white people in government.
Another issue with the FratPAC is the legislation it lobbies for. One example is the Safe Campus Act, which would prevent universities from being able to independently investigate sexual assault allegations or punish the accused until the case is closed by the police. Not only does this violate Title IX, but criminal cases can take years and this would allow the accused to remain in their chapter with the opportunity to continue to perpetuate harm within the campus community. Other legislation they have lobbied for includes a requirement of more proof for sexual assault cases, tax breaks for Greek houses and less punishment for hazing measures.
What the social media post from Duke does not acknowledge, however, is that it is individual donors and chapters who donate to the PAC, not national Greek organizations. While your chapter may be donating to the FratPAC, being a member of Greek life does not automatically mean your money is supporting this committee. Linked is the list of donors for the 2020 cycle. Members of Greek life have the power to demand that their chapter does not donate.
I have not dropped Greek life because I believe members have the power to cause a change in the organization. While I cannot speak for other chapters, I am proud of the internal changes and efforts my chapter has made in recent months. These changes include forming a guide with petitions and educational resources, a new Diversity and Inclusion chair position, a list of classes that members feel have helped them gain new perspectives, a fundraiser for The Bail Project and Detroit Justice Center and the formation of a book club to support artists from different cultures/backgrounds.
This is not to say that my sorority is different from the “bad ones” or is not a part of the problem. This is to say that members of Greek life who choose to remain members should support change, inclusion efforts and diversity in their chapters and condemn their chapters when change is being rejected.
For Greek life to truly change, however, there must be efforts at both the local and the national organization level. The national headquarters of HWFS need to make inclusion and diversity a priority in their efforts moving forward. Educational programming should include training on white privilege, supremacy and racism. Social media accounts should not just be a plethora of white faces in expensive clothing on vacations.
If Greek life wants to remain on college campuses, they need to not only accept change but be a part of the effort. Racism is a rampant issue in America, and while Greek life is not the root cause of it, it does currently perpetuate segregation, white privilege, ignorance and racism on college campuses. Members of Greek life across the nation need to change the structure and culture of the entire institution by holding their chapter, organization and peers accountable for conscious progress towards inclusion and against racism.
Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.