Maybe it isn't Greek Life; maybe it's us

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 - 9:08pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

The first time I was ever drunk was my first night at the University of Michigan in August of 2016. I wasn’t “cool” in high school. I was the lead in the school musical, the yearbook Editor-in-Chief and on the cross country team. I was well-liked and happy, but I wasn’t popular, and I definitely wasn’t out every weekend drinking. When I committed to the University of Michigan, I promised myself I would take advantage of opportunities to get out of my comfort zone when I arrived on campus. My first act of business was to dip a toe in the exciting social life I’d never really had. Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend much time looking. Walking down Hill Street during Welcome Week freshman year felt like waking up on Christmas morning when I was six years old. And instead of dipping a toe in, as I’d anticipated, I voluntarily dove off the high-dive. The pool below? 

The murky waters of Greek Life. 

My college experience was, in some ways, defined by my affiliation with Historically White Fraternities and Sororities, or HWFS, at the University of Michigan. I joined Greek Life looking to find a community outside that of the theatre students I’d be spending most of my time with and to be exposed to a new perspective. By way of my sorority affiliation, I was able to create the longest lasting friendships of my undergraduate experience and found a best friend I’ll have for the rest of my life. On the other hand, my involvement paved the way to a moral tug-of-war regarding my hybrid stance on the institution of Greek Life — not just at the University of Michigan, but in America. As a freshman, I was hesitant to join Greek Life, as I’d consistently maintained that being in a sorority wasn’t a “me” thing to do. Yet, Greek culture seemed like an attractive and simple way to find instant friends for an out-of-stater, so I changed my tune. At the end of my sophomore year, I decided to drop my sorority affiliation after participating in an extremely shallow rush process, while also feeling ostracized and disliked by members of my chapter. It was likely my fault that I’d distanced myself from the other women, but we didn’t share the same priorities, which became clear to me after recruiting a new member pledge class my sophomore year. I felt out of place, uncomfortable and sad living in the sorority house — which was mandatory for sophomore members.  

I’ve been sitting on my hands for four years, holding my tongue from writing about Greek Life to prevent myself from releasing a hasty, unfinished argument for how I feel about the community. The truth is, I’ve been caught in an ethical mind game regarding my mixed stance on the institution. Greek Life made a huge campus much smaller, gave me a freshman year social scene and a best friend, but I also saw the dark corners that don’t appear in bid day photographs and game day apparel. I’ve spent time and energy calculating an argument, researching and reading and compiling different anecdotes of both the benefits and harmful effects of Greek Life — and now, I’m ready to speak up. In a time in America where elitist, exclusionary and discriminatory institutions are being called into question, I ask myself the same questions I have had since I joined Greek Life: Why is Greek Life so attractive to young American college students? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Is Greek Life the problem, or is it a microcosm of a much larger American issue regarding classism, elitism, white privilege and discrimination? 

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The first month of my sophomore year at college, I spent the majority of my time participating in sorority recruitment. Recruitment consists of a process in which thousands of freshman girls file into sorority houses at colleges around the country ready to “speed date” with members of the chapter to become one of nine million  Greek-affiliated college students in the country. As a sister, a proud feminist and yet a perpetrator of the harsh, exclusionary tactics I was taught to recruit new members, I felt guilty and malicious for participating, and angry at what some would call a broken system.

The Panhellenic Association at the University of Michigan boasts a values-based process of mutual selection which seeks to place women in the house with the most like-minded women. But each University has an unspoken Greek Life “tier system” which places the sororities and fraternities in lists from best to worse, often published on popular website greekrank.com. At Michigan specifically, the “top” three sororities are chock full of homogenous women who generally fall under the typical standard of societal beauty and worth: they have impressive resumes, are well-traveled, are desirable to boys and envy-worthy to girls. They are women who often fit the heteronormative, Western stereotype of ideal Barbie doll beauty. It isn't a coincidence that the sororities at the top of these phony lists recruit 60 conventionally attractive freshman girls a year. Rather, one could insinuate that these sororities are specifically recruiting based on external attributes — looks, name brand apparel and body type. The idea that stereotypically beautiful women are more desirable is something that I thought, in modern times, was ancient and outdated — but my intuition was naive.  

Kaitlyn Tom, who rushed sororities and received a bid from a Greek organization at Michigan before deciding she did not want to become a member, spoke to the homogeneity of Greek Life.

“Sororities and fraternities, as you go up the tiers become more homogenous in terms of race, sexual orientation, and economic background.” Tom said, “That’s a problem when your best fraternities and sororities are only those types of people. What are you saying then about society as a whole? There are definitely sororities with way more diverse groups—people of different races, body sizes, and those are the ones that aren’t at the top.” 

To confirm the idea that the top tier sororities at Michigan exclude women who don’t fall under the category of societally or stereotypically “hot,” the former rush chair of Alpha Phi (a “top” sorority), released a 20 page public document in 2018 describing the tactics used by the women of her chapter to ensure that the pledge class they recruit is beautiful, thin and rich. The document lays out the exact details of the external pre-score based recruitment process from the inside—a system in which the rush chairs pre-rank all 1,200 freshman girls based solely on Facebook and Instagram profiles, weeks before recruitment begins. 

“We must ask a series of important questions, created by nationals (or the national organization which oversees each chapter of the sorority), of her public photos that will determine her “External Prescore” on a scale of 1-10:  1. Is she naturally pretty?, 2. Does she look like your current sisters?, 3. Is she trendy?, 4. Would you want to see her in your letters?” The piece reads. 

Though not as intense, my chapter had their own version of this tactic of ranking. We were taught a ranking system that some sororities utilize to rank the Potential New Members (PNMs) after meeting them, on an iPhone app called select-a-sis or bidlily. As the group of potential new members left our house, we convened in small groups to talk about them, utilizing the app to rank each girl one to four, one being the worst, and four, the best. If our sorority did not want you as a member upon the first, ten minute meeting, we could ensure you aren’t invited back by giving all ones for a score, better known as “oneing her out,” in my sorority’s vernacular. The ranking system was not disclosed until our national advisor left the room. 

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In the recommendation powerpoint, each slide has a photograph, her name and a few descriptive words or phrases about her. Examples include: seems cute, tier 1A (meaning she’s too hot for us), travel, has a wild side, very cute, super passionate about political activism but not in your face about it, trendy, hooks up with ten guys in one night, criminal, well connected, wears LF — the list goes on. All of the descriptors insinuate that the type of girl my chapter was looking for is beautiful and cool, trendy, not too slutty or obnoxious, but still interesting, with extra points for being well-traveled. 

The idea that a girl will be more highly valued for her name brand clothing, past travels or Instagram pictures is blatantly elitist and discriminatory. Not only did I sit there silently, watching the PowerPoint, I also participated in my chapter’s recruitment process without saying a word about how it made my stomach turn. I justified our actions by telling myself that the girls who my sisters claimed, “weren’t our type” or “the right fit for us” would find a better home elsewhere. But that didn’t deny the truth. There is no argument to justify that the process I witnessed is not at some level based on looks, class or conventional beauty. By being silent and participating, I was complicit. 

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My freshman year, I would have maintained the position that Greek Life does more good than harm. I was provided with a weekly email of social events and an instant community to feel a part of — I was suddenly social — discarding my high school self in my closet like my prom dress. The Greek community was easy for me to slip into, like an old sweater — being that I fit into somewhat of the archetype of what I was supposed to be. But I became aware of the ways in which sorority culture did not seek to elevate the voices of marginalized communities, and those who are at risk of being harmed or ostracized by a community that makes surface level judgements to qualify belonging. This is a privilege. 

HWFS is not just historically white —  it’s presently white. Though most Greek organizations choose not to release their University demographics, Princeton University released the makeup of their Greek organizations in 2017. From the class of 2010, 77% of sorority members were white, despite being only 49% of the undergraduate population. Likewise, less than 10% of Greek Life members were from middle or low-class families (below $0-75K). Over 25% of Princeton Greek members come from the top 1 percent. 

Though Princeton University chose to be transparent in releasing the demographics of their Greek community, most colleges and universities choose not to do so. This inaction serves to deny the race and class disparity within the community, perpetuating an elitist, homogeneous sphere of existence on college campuses. Though Greek organizations may not formally exclude or segregate people of color, destructive cultural appropriation, mockery and racist behavior could lead to people of color choosing not to join these groups. We seek out spaces, specifically socially, that reinforce our ideals and beliefs, support and respect us and make us feel good. Greek organizations who choose to promote exclusionary and discriminatory tactics from day one of recruitment through party culture without repercussion reinforce racist ideas, perpetuate the unacceptable lack of diversity in HWFS, and lack accountability. 

Greek organizations have been known for their racist party themes as well. This is not to say that all Greek organizations and parties are racist—it's not mutually exclusive. Rather, I seek to investigate what seems like a trend of racist party themes within Greek spheres. In 2014, Arizona State University’s Tau Kappa Epsilon was under fire for throwing a “thug party” to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, in which Greek members dressed up in basketball jerseys, drank out of hollowed-out watermelons, flashed gang signs and posted Instagrams under the hashtag hood. This appropriation and mockery of Black culture led to the suspension of the fraternity. Despite the action by the University, it was a long-overdue punishment. Members of said fraternity have already been individually suspended months before beating a Black student on campus. 

Fraternities and sororities have been no stranger to cultural appropriation and racism within their social events—between California Polytechnic State’s Thanksgiving “colonial bros and nava-hoes” themed party to Columbia University’s 2014 beer olympics in which a sorority appropriated Mexican, Japanese and Irish culture. 

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For Karis Clark, a Beta Theta Pi pledge at the University of Michigan, his Greek experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Though he acknowledged the stereotype of a lack of diversity in Historically White Greek Life, he found a home within Beta Theta Pi, which gave him the ability to branch out from the theatre community on North Campus.   

“There’s definitely a stereotype for traditionally white frats, you don’t really expect a lot of people of color to be involved with them, but I was invited to rush (as a POC) and I went and all the guys are really chill and really friendly and accepting… Beta is actually pretty diverse compared to the other white fraternities,” he said. 

Within his experience in his fraternity, Clark has felt consistently empowered and supported — a sentiment shared often by fraternity members all over the country.

“On my birthday — it was like two days before everyone left for the pandemic, I was having a tough time, and we had this event where we (the pledges) all had to spend the night at the house. We talked about our fears, and our emotions and it was a space that I hadn’t really had on our campus before, where we were allowed to be vulnerable and talk about things we had experienced. I really enjoyed that,” He said.

While fraternities make headlines for promoting toxic masculinity, hazing incidents, sexual assault allegations and rampant alcohol abuse, the media and society often fail to recognize the ways in which a brotherhood can provide an intimate and emotional place for young men to connect. He also recognized the potentially destructive aspects or downfalls of Greek institutions overall, speaking about a University-wide need to hold systems of racial discrimination and elitism accountable.

“I feel like in terms of abolishment or looking at a post-Greek life University, a lot of that can’t be done without addressing the ways the University reproduces those systems of inequality and discrimination,” Clark said.

Clark’s Greek experience in a historically white fraternity overall has been a space for vulnerability and acceptance, and though he mentioned he couldn’t speak for the other fraternities on campus, he has consistently felt positive about his fraternity experience. “Greek Life makes people feel a part of something.” Clark said. “And everyone wants to be a part of something. That’s the whole reason people come to Umich in the first place.” 

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Greek organizations certainly make people feel a part of something. The sense of belonging and community is a sentiment shared by many, but comes with a hefty price tag. In 2016, US News reported that the average USC sorority cost around $1,800 a semester. Even with the opportunity for scholarships within Greek communities, it is oftentimes still difficult for many to afford the financial aspect of Greek Life as a whole — from social functions to philanthropic contributions, fines for missing events and the pressure to sport new dresses, shoes and outfits for rush and date dances and parties. 

Maggie Barilka, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia chapter of Gamma Phi Beta’s little sister in her sorority had to disaffiliate from their chapter due to the financial strain it placed on her life. 

“My little told me that she had to choose between paying her dues and buying groceries some weeks. I told her she had to choose groceries, that we would still be friends, of course,” Barilka said. 

The cost of being a part of recruitment, even if one does not receive a bid or decides not to join Greek Life, can be up to $100. 

“You have to pay to participate in rush. It was like a 30 dollar fee. I was really annoyed. I was like, what am I paying for? Your dress for the preference round is expected to be a new dress. It’s not like you can find dresses in Ann Arbor that are nice and less than $50,” Kaitlyn Tom said. 

It’s no surprise that sorority house lawns, in the weeks of rush, are full of manicured girls with flawless makeup and name brand outfits. The price of sisterhood, friendship and belonging is making yourself up to be the most beautiful version of yourself. And it’s common knowledge that fluffy beauty treatments—from acrylic nails to expensive lip gloss to spray tans aren’t cheap. 

The classism in recruitment involved helps to promote white privilege. Likewise, the scholarships available could be accompanied by tokenism often executed by HWFS when they recruit BIPOC members. In 1949, many HWFS still had bylaws that stated they would only recruit members of the caucasian race—but in the 1960s to modern-day, this discrimination has often been discarded for the token BIPOC member in Greek organizations. The issues of discrimination and tokenization in HWFS could be a reason POC may opt for multicultural Greek organizations such as the historically black National Panhellenic Conference (NPHC) and the Intercultural Greek Council (IGC). These organizations popped up on campuses in the 1980s when more students of diverse backgrounds began to enroll in college and found that they had limited resources and networks intended to guide and support them. 

Greek life prioritizes the societal ideal of perfection reinstates an age-old concept that the rich, white, thin, and beautiful are the elite. If the ‘best’, most desirable Greek organizations on campus are full of white, thin, and beautiful individuals, what is that saying on who and what we value in American society? 

Hundreds of thousands of writers have called for Greek Life abolition, have written thorough alphabet lists of -isms, and attempted to dismantle an institution embedded deeply into the foundation and fabric of undergraduate education. 

I’ve surmised that in a hypothetical post-Greek Life world, years after the adjustment period of a lack of Greek Life on college campuses, students would find other ways to make friends, to create a sense of  community and to network. When fraternities are kicked off campuses (are forcibly disaffiliated from the University) and move “underground,”  they prevail, sans Interfraternity Council rules, which can be even worse. For college campuses with Greek Life, immediately following abolition, University administrators would have to keep a close eye on underground recruitment and the underground existence of Greek Life on campus. But we could allege that eventually, the concept would fade away as the students who were once a part of it graduate. Recently, some University of Michigan students hopped on the “Abolish Greek Life” trend — creating an Instagram account advocating for the abolition of Greek Life at the University. 

There are hundreds of college campuses around the country that don’t have a Greek Life community, and those students manage to enjoy their college experience, find community and social lives without Greek Life. These schools include Boston College, Fordham University, the University of Notre Dame and hundreds of others. A lack of Greek Life does not mean students do not have communities or parties — they manage to figure it out by joining clubs and organizations, which generally don’t require phony, looks based recruitment processes or thousands of dollars in dues. 

We hear, constantly, that Greek Life is historical. That it’s tradition. But I wonder,  If we — today — posed a new class-based, selective, exclusive system which groups collegiate freshmen into a social hierarchy based on insincere qualifications, which they pay money to be a part of, would anyone comply? Probably not. There would be protests. There would be backlash. Thousands of people would say this idea is outdated. That it wouldn’t be tolerated on their campus. Why then, do we tolerate Greek Life now? Just because something is traditional or historical doesn’t make it right. 

This is a microcosm of a wider American issue of societal distaste for being different and compliant with privileged, heteronormative spheres of life. Greek Life just exists as a hotbed for exposing the truth of the shallow recruitment processes and discriminatory tactics. When we continue to allow historically white Greek institutions to have the authority to segregate based on socioeconomic thresholds and other exclusive means while maintaining their foundation of elitism and discrimination, we perpetuate a cycle of exclusion on college campuses, and in society. Until we take action, we will continue to see “Should Greek Life be Banned from College Campuses?” headlines that detail racist party themes, dangerous binge drinking antics, alleged sexual misconduct and discrimination in recruitment with no action taken to switch lanes. 

Universities do not have much agency to regulate the activity of fraternities, or the culture of sorority rush. Instead, this job is left up to the Interfraternity Council, or the Panhellenic Association. Most of the malicious behavior is executed by breaking rules, or by circumventing national regulation. Administration usually does not have the legal standing to meddle in the doings of Greek organizations, as seen in a recent Yale University Greek Life case. Greek Life arrived on college campuses in their earliest days with the intent to create communities for college students, but also, even if covertly, to discriminate. The earliest fraternities had both implicit and explicit racist practices to exclude—the formal regulation was called a “white clause” and excluded any racial and religious minority members from joining. 

Greek Life is a mirror to our nation, our society and the values we have as American citizens. Our elitist, privileged, white supremacist way of constructing the institutions and communities have become ingrained in the fabric of our nation, hailed and adored, when we need to be taking a second glance at why these organizations exist: to create homogenous echo chambers where we surround ourselves with “people like us,” stifling progress toward a more united America where equality is valued. 

But maybe it is not Greek Life that is the problem. Maybe it is society. It isn’t black or white, good or bad. Greek Life does not exist in the grey area, it is the grey area of American society. 

When I sent the email to disaffiliate from my sorority, I discarded the large, elusive brick sorority house, weekly social emails detailing exciting themed party plans and fraternity boys. But I took with me the best friend I’ll ever have, and a plethora of experiences that left me feeling disappointed and oftentimes miserable. Greek Life isn’t necessary. As college students, we’d get by without it. Many, if not most, do already. But the overarching problem is not Greek Life — it is that our American society allows a system like this to prevail on the basis of “history and tradition.” We’ve seen, in the last six months, the history and traditions of this country be dismantled and called into question more than ever before.

What’s stopping us from discussing this one?