This University depends on frameworks of racism, elitism and ableism to maintain its prestige and ego as one of the premier flagship public universities in the country. An unsettling majority of its students go through the University without ever recognizing the multiple ways we embody and unleash these violent frameworks beyond this campus and beyond our time as undergraduates. Instead, what gets unconsciously recognized is the hollow contentment that comes with reproducing racism, elitism and ableism, perhaps most notably in the form of secret senior honor societies.
The University is home to at least three separate secret societies that are “open to all” rising fourth-year students: Order of Angell — formerly known as Michigamua — Vulcans, and Phoenix, formerly an all-women’s secret society called Adara. This piece will primarily focus on Phoenix and Order, although the critique may be applicable to Vulcans.
As a departed member of Phoenix, I write this piece so the prospective members of all secret honor societies have more access to an informed choice. The decision to enroll in any of these societies should not be made prematurely, but with as many opportunities for reflection and understanding as one can gather.
You might already be asking yourself: “What do they mean by tapping?” A tap is essentially an invitation. Like many invitations, you do not choose when, where, or if you get one. The invitation does not allow a plus one and must also be kept secret.
For Phoenix, everything is secret. Current and past student, faculty and staff membership, the overarching agenda, and even what public organizations they influence or have created is actively concealed from the rest of the student body. Phoenix refers to this practice as humility. The mission of Phoenix is to better the University of Michigan “with love and service,” all the while receiving no accolade or criticism for their work. However, their so-called humility is but a facade for something more troubling to anyone that deeply values transparency and accountability.
Before further exploring the oppression Phoenix reproduces against historically marginalized students, we must understand a little bit more about how Phoenix is sustained and why that maintenance counters our safety and peace of mind as (queer and trans*) students of color.
The “tap” is preceded with a generally baseless process of selection coupled with the subjectivity of twenty-five mostly white, mostly middle- to upper-class students and their faculty or staff adviser. The electing class assigns the qualities of good Character, high Achievement, and incredible Leadership and Loyalty for the University to a new group of 25 rising seniors. The judging gaze of Phoenix, based on their interpretations of a massive pool of third-years, accepts students in ways mirroring those practices of the University it operates within. Further, the limited number of these positions, the self-proclaimed 25 best of Michigan’s rising seniors, creates an aura of status; the very scarcity of these 25 spots is what provides them their value. The veil of anonymity is a necessary strategy to survive as an otherwise painfully ordinary student organization.
Unfortunately, the painfully ordinary can also act as a vehicle of extraordinary oppression. The “humble” secrecy of Phoenix absolves them of all accountability, a quality essential at the most basic level of operations to sustain a healthy organization of any kind. The humility Phoenix strives for can be realized when all of one’s acts, not simply one’s good deeds, are known publicly, and yet one is modest when praised for the good deeds that outweigh the indifference or harm of one’s other deeds. But, when all of one’s actions are hidden, like it is with Phoenix — one’s good, bad and indifferent — humility morphs into a refusal to stand accountable to the very communities we claim to serve.
With relevancy and significance stemming only from a self-appointed claim to resources, Phoenix relies on deceitful baiting that utilizes anonymity, mystery, oppressive traditions, and influence to entice students, particularly first generation students of color, into joining their allegedly honorable society. Before selecting to join Phoenix, it is crucial to understand that the burden of truth in regards to its success and worth should be on the organization itself, not sustained by the empty traditions of the past and the assumptions we are imposed to make with the little that is offered to us after a tap or during the initiating process that follows. In order for rising seniors to make a fully informed decision, it is necessary to understand the full, contextualized history of the groups that have tapped them.
Phoenix, and all secret senior honor societies, no matter how much they claim to have changed in their ways and are now “progressive” or “down with social justice,” were birthed from an abuse of power that selfishly reallocated precious resources to a fraction of the student body without the basis of an application or interview. Secret societies are not products of paradigms that value equity and justice; they are diametrically opposed to equitable and just paradigms beginning at their inception. Participating in these organizations is to conserve the very systems that made it difficult for people of color, especially cash-poor queer and trans* people of color, to enter this university as students in the first place.
There is nothing humble about Phoenix or Order, as their presence on this campus attempts to delegitimize our communally elected leaders by creating an artificial divide between those brilliant leaders that were not selected and those that were — announcing to the student body that some work and some bodies (those of athletes, especially) are more deserving of very exclusive resources and privileges as a senior.
Creating and collecting resources for a cohort of 25 seniors when there are students whose basic needs are wholly denied, is structural ableism. It suggests to us that the capacity to produce in the narrow ways productivity can be understood by such a privileged group should be better served and celebrated, prizing the emotional and spiritual exhaustion of some students over those that simply could not afford to funnel energy anywhere else but inward to survive. The presence of secret societies attempts to erase those of us that “produce” in harder to recognize critical paradigms. Those that simply resist every time they walk into a classroom as visibly trans*, visibly woman and Black, visibly gay and brown — those that cook communal meals for friends to ease their days, those that study and thrive with depression and anxiety, and those with families back home that are waiting for two-thirds of the paycheck.
Time within Phoenix frequently felt like an amplified time at Michigan. For my own well-being, I had to realize that a prolonged time as a member of Phoenix would have further entrenched a careless misuse of power I was already internalizing as a student of this University.
By creating a campus culture that is accustomed to ignoring cash-poor/houseless people, even if they are right next to one on State Street or in the Union, and by treating us marginalized students as the “other” when race, gender, class, etc. come up, the University teaches us to renounce our sense of belonging with the non-academic, cash-poor communities many of us come from. In other words, the University reinforces the myth that we are separate from where many of us come from, that we are the uniquely qualified of our people, that it is fair for us to have power over people, and if you are chosen for Order or Phoenix, you are an even more separate, more qualified cut of that group.
In this artificial separation, an air of exceptionalism festers and reinforces pre-existing privileges to a more malicious degree. Members of Phoenix and Order — many already vastly privileged individuals — believe themselves above the student body, the un-honored seniors, and certain policies and principles the rest of us adhere to. This mentality causes members to lose their connection to a profound way of caring and they are validated in that choice to stop truly caring by the capitalist notion that caring too much, feeling too much for oppressed communities we are all too familiar with, stains the professional role and holds one back. If this was not the case, secret honor societies would have perhaps already rallied around the diminishing enrollment and retention of Black and brown people or a scholarship exclusively for undocumented students from across the country, not just Michigan. Instead, they are distracted from Michigan’s most deserving and under-resourced movements and issues.
A few short weeks into our new positions as “Little Birds,” prior to initiation, a group of students that had never before heard of such a society, or little of it, were suddenly swelling with a pride and ego for belonging to an elitist group. The sudden manifestation of this willful bliss through the words and actions of my cohort conjured the same feelings I experience when white and class privilege rub against me, turning Phoenix into an increasingly toxic space.
On the first night I was tapped, Phoenix listed my achievements as a member of the Coalition for Queer People of Color, as a Diversity Peer Educator, and as a core organizer of the Latin@ Culture Show. I was praised for my efforts to carve out safer, more inclusive spaces for Latinx art and expression and for queer people of color, all the while deeply valuing coalitional approaches to fighting systematic violence. Their praise soon felt hollow when I saw my Phoenix class and the preceding class for the first time. I was one of two Latinxs, both of us cisgender men, and one of two openly queer people, both of us also cisgender men. Our class of Phoenix included no Black and/or Latinx women or Native students. Period.
The emphasis placed on my efforts to prioritize the needs of queer students of color and Latinxs was absent in the collective culture of Phoenix. The facade of a diverse and aware organization was supported on the shoulders of a few students whose work and presence was being co-opted as the only few students pushing for a real, systematic overhaul of the group and campus.
The “progress” Phoenix is making has and will continue to have massive breaks in its continuity that results in slow, extinguishable growth. This progress is so stifled by an obsession with prestige, secrecy, and each other, that it prevents the group from being relevant, at least to the communities I advocate within and work to empower. Phoenix does not and presumably will never have the tenacity, resources or connections to effect the change I want to see on our campus. The organizing and emotional labor that is valued by Phoenix is often distant from the goals of the overarching agenda and organizational culture. There is nothing Phoenix, Order, or Vulcans can do or provide for the Coalition, the Latin@ Culture Show, or the spirit of the DPE role that cannot be better produced by the incredible and inherent creativity of queer and trans* people of color on this campus, openly and communally. Beyond the hypocrisy, disconnectedness to reality and exploitative nature of Phoenix, the culture of my particular cohort was packed with triggering interactions that ultimately dissuaded me from continued participation.
Although Phoenix is constituted to have full agency as a class (in contrast to Order that operates with heavy alumni influence), it is common for the rising class of Phoenix to inherit a mainstay project of the previous class, often in the form of a new student organization or campaign. The class of 2012-2013 created the I Will campaign, a sexual assault awareness campaign launched last year. Without the collective consensus to do so, our cohort took ownership of I Will despite objections from self-determined sexual assault survivors in the room.
My last meeting with Phoenix was the most triggering. I did not expect to be triggered every Tuesday night by a group with little trust or bond when I accepted my spot in Phoenix. Learning that I Will was controlled by a hidden, exclusive force of mostly white, cisgender and straight students was frustrating. Secrecy, a refusal to be accountable, and a distorted sense of humility have no place in the ways we approach campus-based sexual violence. In fact, these oppressive frameworks are counterproductive and steeped in the very privileges that fuel rape culture. At this time, I began to re-interrogate my own legitimacy as an aspiring organizer.
I joined Phoenix firstly under the impression that I could leverage resources to the margins of campus I lived in, to the communities that hurt in ways similar to my own pain. I compared the psychological toll of this role to being an “insider” with a purpose, only to later learn that the self-congratulatory atmosphere was not at all equal to the exhaustion of people who truly know how to mold their tokenization into resources for underserved communities. Phoenix quickly revealed itself as an echo chamber of privilege, guilt and total indifference.
That all was realized when I noticed just how little Phoenix had to leverage out in the first place. The gain of any outside community was small in comparison to the eclipsing set of material and social privileges that came along with the membership. Whatever resource an “insider” may trickle down into the general student body is irrelevant when juxtaposed the remaining personal and social riches still hoarded within the group. Frankly put, a member of Phoenix, and surely those of the other two organizations, cannot claim to be “playing the system” for the advantages of a historically marginalized community since the list of opportunities and resources is firmly reserved for the twenty-five members.
My goal is not to invalidate the racist, misogynistic, classist and elitist attacks against those that remain in Order or Phoenix as marginalized students. I am, however, striving to bring to light the relative comfort, security, and advantages experienced by those who stay. The impression I had of Phoenix before I joined is a polar contrast to the Phoenix I discovered as time passed. The humility and greatness branded for my approval landed ultimately as unimpressive and ineffective.
It is critical for our historically marginalized groups to reconcile our ambition with an ethics of profound liberation. We must question why a tap from a secret society feels validating, why it can re-energize our work, and why we are so receptive to that particular brand of “validation” or “approval” from privileged systems.
Answering those questions meant asking more: What does it mean to love and serve the University of Michigan? What does it mean to love a corporate structure that has never reciprocated that love for me? When the collective of Phoenix unconsciously failed to answer those questions, the result was a glorification of the University’s symbols, traditions, and policies.
In her departure from Order in 2013, Zeinab Khalil redefined service and “a fight for Michigan” as a battle “against many of Michigan’s traditions, trajectories and policies.” She continued by using her commitment to redirect the decreasing enrollment and retention rate of specific communities of color and her efforts to persuade the University to divest from unjust companies as examples of a much healthier, far more relevant use of scarce resources. Zeinab’s ideas, which stem from a communal and humble discourse happening subversively across campus, are testament to our potential as it stands now. There is no alternation we need, no validation, and no support that we cannot produce for ourselves.
The growing irrelevance of these societies dominoed down from the first racially integrated and co-ed class. By pushing a shallow commitment to social justice, these societies have begun to tokenize marginalized students whose presence is defying the very exclusionary core of each society. As time progresses and these cultish groups try to open their gates broader, while at the same time attempting to remain entirely concealed, they begin to buy into their own distorted idea that an organization can be accepting, exclusive, forward thinking, elitist and (most importantly) relevant all at once.
The ending result of this thinking is the continued maintenance of a path of harmful logic that predates us. We are left with a skeleton standing only on the fragile limbs of the romanticized versions of stories of what secret societies used to or could accomplish and control. Current secret societies float by on the accolade from the creation of the Michigan League (Adara/Phoenix) and the Union (Order), and from the memories passed down from alumni about their enjoyed times in the Union Tower rooms.
The choice to join a secret society must ultimately be made at the individual level. This decision, however, will ripple across campus. Phoenix is not necessarily a malicious group. The friendships, the healing that results in those new connections, the skill and the insight to change the University is present in many of its committed members. But these abilities and values can exist without a loss at the expense of our peoples.
Greatness has and will continue to come forth from those who reject the offer. It is an expensive luxury for a final year at the University only. These elitist entities are not supplementary or essential for tangible social change on this campus. A change in our campus climate is within reach, and we do not need the “support” of secret senior groups to be the stepping stool to make that reach. You are big enough as you are.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail email@example.com.