An Open Letter to Women of Color Considering Panhellenic Recruitment

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 - 8:12pm

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Cover Illustration by Shane Achenbach

 

In August of 2013, I flew across the country from Los Angeles to Ann Arbor and stepped onto a campus surrounded by thousands of individuals I had never seen before. I anxiously prepared to begin my adventure at the number one public school in the nation.

Most of the freshman girls I came into contact with asked me the same question in my first week at the University of Michigan: “Are you gonna rush?” At first, the answer was “I don't know,” because I really didn't, but everyone seemed to be doing it, so maybe “Why not?” I thought. Don't people think sorority girls are annoying? Pretty? Fun? All of these girls walked around campus flaunting their bright letters on their matching tank tops over their bikinis, with their long blonde hair and summer tan skin; I couldn't help but want to be a part of it. The idea of being a sorority girl intrigued me. I was part of a cheer team for 10 years, I thought, It has to be similar right? The “I’m Shmacked” videos looked wild and fun (possibly concerning, now that I think about it). And Michigan is notorious for its tailgating, which I assumed necessitated being part of Greek life.

A few days went on.

I told my parents my decision to rush a sorority, and in the moment I was beyond thrilled. They acted completely supportive of my decision, but I knew they were far from it. “Are you sure?” my dad said, and “Have you really thought about it?” which was followed by, “Is that what you want to do?” by my mom. I didn't understand why they were concerned. I wanted to be a sorority girl. I wanted to be pretty and cool and fun — and at that point in my life, being in a sorority was the only way.

It only took about three long, tiresome, uneasy weeks for me to understand my parents’ concerns. I may have been naïve, but I didn’t think my race would play a part in my experience in Greek life. Coming from a white suburban neighborhood and attending predominately white public schools my whole life, I knew that I was comfortable in majority white spaces. I assumed that my life at the University wouldn’t be much different than my experiences at Beverly Hills High School. Little did I know, an African American woman rushing in Panhellenic recruitment was a pretty rare sight. Now I understand why.

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For those of you who do not know how sorority recruitment works, I will do my best to break it down.

There are 16 Panhellenic sororities on campus. When the process begins, each girl goes to every house and has conversations with multiple members of that sorority. After each “round,” you rank your choices, putting your most desirable houses at the top. There are three rounds, and then preference parties. Through each round, you narrow down the amount of houses you have through a “cutting system.” Normally, it decreases from 16, to 11, to seven and eventually to three for preference parties. The cutting system is mutual, meaning that in addition to the girls “cutting” the houses they don’t want, the houses can do the same. Girls don’t always get the houses back that they want, which is completely normal. However, I felt as though my case was extreme. After the first round of cuts, most girls had 11 houses. I was left with only five. After the second round of cuts, most girls had seven houses. I was left with only two. This meant I didn’t even have the complete amount of three houses for preference parties.

My self-esteem was shot. I didn’t understand why I was not being given a chance in any of the sororities. I asked myself, if I couldn’t even find an accepting house, how I would be able to make friends at such a large school. First, I attributed all of my “cuts” to my hair being frizzy, which I was already self-conscious about (it was my first summer in humid Ann Arbor). I constantly ran a straightener over my hair, trying to make it as flat and straight as everyone else’s. Other than my hair, I thought I was doing fine with the process. I am perfectly capable of having a genuine conversation, and I felt as if I brought great qualities to each house. It was evident that some of the girls in the houses may not have agreed. Soon, I came to realize that my brown skin may have not been the “look” these girls wanted in their homes. Nothing explicit happened to make me feel this way, but there was a sort of uneasiness I felt when heads turned as I walked into the houses. During conversation, it seemed like these women weren’t particularly interested in learning more about me; in some cases, I knew I would be cut the second I walked out of the front door. I began to understand my parents’ concerns, and even though I refused to admit it to them — or anyone around me — I knew they were right.

I did end up getting a bid (or, an invitation) to join a sorority that I enjoyed through the process. Once I opened that envelope and saw the name, I jumped up and down with pure joy. However, my excitement wasn’t because I got a bid to my dream house, it was because I finally felt wanted. I realized that by the end of recruitment, I was no longer looking for the house that was my best fit; I was looking for any house that would accept me, and that was the problem.

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Once I was in the sorority, I immediately tried to assimilate to the culture of Greek life. Given its isolated nature, I easily broke ties with anything non-Greek. I only sat with people in class who had Greek letters on their laptops, my weekends consisted of parties with only a few select fraternities and I wouldn’t dare go to the dining hall without my sorority sisters. I never hung out with people of color. In fact, in my sorority of over 200 girls that currently attended Michigan, I was one of very few women of color and the only Black woman.

Throughout my freshman year, I was very happy. I experienced some of my best memories thus far, made great friends and fell in love with this University. But, in retrospect, I am now aware that I wasn’t able to fully be myself in many ways. It seemed impossible to show my true colors while simultaneously fitting into a sorority. I felt trapped. I don’t think I befriended anyone outside of Greek life until the end of that year.

During my sophomore year, I started learning about the Black community at Michigan and found ways to get myself involved. I made more friends and attended Black events for the first time. This was happening while I was living in a three-story sorority house with more than 60 girls, where I was the only African American. Once I started going to Black events, I realized the range of possibilities that Michigan had to offer. There was a whole world that I had been completely oblivious to, because I was so caught up in my sorority. When I started doing things outside of my sorority, I was questioned. A lot of the girls were completely unaware that Black Greek life existed — they did not understand why there were spaces that belonged to minorities. I found myself always explaining where I was going, saying things like “Yes, there are all-Black fraternities” and ignoring comments such as, “If it’s only for Black people, will they kick me out?” Some of the people around me were constantly curious about how they would be perceived if they dared enter an all-Black space, while they were insensitive to the fact that I spent a great amount of time being the only Black person in a room. I grew accustomed to laughing off hurtful comments that were meant to be funny, and quickly got sick of having to offer an explanation for my outside actions.

On other hand, when I did put myself into the Black community, I received very shocked responses to my Panhellenic involvement. People would ask me why I decided to join and, “How is it living with 60 white girls?” These conversations also made me uncomfortable — my choices were being judged. I understood that it was out of the norm for a Black girl to rush a Panhellenic sorority, but I did not understand why I was being criticized for it. It got to a point where I completely separated my sorority life from my Black life. I stopped mentioning my involvement in the sorority altogether. I was not at all embarrassed to be in my sorority, nor was I ashamed of all of my friends in the house, but for me it was easier to say, “No, I am not in a sorority” than to prepare for the potential feedback of my Black peers.

This is when I began to realize that, for my own sake, it would be better if I was not tied to a Greek organization. I do not blame the system for why I felt this way; I blame myself for taking the easy way out by assimilating to a culture that wasn’t my own, rather than being bold enough to embrace my Blackness in a white space, or to embrace my sorority involvement in a Black space.

I made the decision to deactivate, completely disassociating myself from the sorority. Now, I feel comfortable going to events without being judged or questioned. I've joined multiple organizations and found diverse groups of people on campus. I feel much more in touch with my own culture knowing that I have the freedom to express myself and my interests. Since leaving the sorority, my social life has done a complete 180. I am involved in both Black and white communities on campus, and I enjoy being in both environments. I still have my best friends from the sorority, whom I love endlessly, and they are more than accepting of my lifestyle. Despite the negative stereotypes associated with Greek life, and despite my inability to find myself within the system, there are definitely positive aspects within the organization. Greek life allows you to get directly involved with philanthropy, which I loved. And I met wonderful people and sustained friendships that I wouldn’t have today if I hadn’t gone through the rush process.

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With this being said, to any women of color considering rushing a Panhellenic sorority, here’s my advice to you:

I hope this piece does not deter you from rushing, but encourages you to stay confident through the process and keep a tight hold onto your culture.

Don’t settle for being accepted in one out of 16 (or however many) houses and don’t lose yourself through the process by assimilating into white communities.

Connect with the women of the houses that will appreciate all that you bring to the organization; don’t let contentedness overcome you.

And if people are oblivious to your background, have the strength to make them understand. It’s important to know how to teach others to love your culture, but that starts with you loving it first — don’t hide it.

Walk into a room and let people stare if they want to — because yes, you are a beautiful woman of color, and yes, they must deal with it.

Find a balance between engaging with your Greek community and connecting to the communities of color on campus. You should not feel like you need to keep these spaces separate, nor should you feel ashamed of one or the other.

Lastly, don’t let the perspectives and opinions of your sorority sisters deter you from connecting with your community. But don’t let the thoughts of your community of color convince you that being in a “white sorority” is wrong — you are powerful and smart enough to make your own decisions, including choosing to immerse yourself in multiple communities.