Outlook: The Greek Mythology of Inclusiveness
Tales of bad Greeks proliferate: In early 2015, a video surfaced of University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon members spiritedly chanting about lynching African Americans rather than allowing them to join the fraternity. In fall 2015, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Phi sorority chapters at the University of California, Los Angeles, held a "Kanye Western" party—and some attendees reportedly wore blackface. By late 2015, SAE was back in the news, its Yale University chapter accused of admitting "white girls only" to a party.
Yet beliefs persist that society is post-racial or that higher education lives up to its stated principles of inclusivity. Many assume that these individual Greek chapters or members are little more than proverbial bad apples.
But this view overlooks an otherwise ugly apple orchard. It also absolves colleges and universities of their duty to ensure equality on campus.
A faulty foundation
The U.S. Greek-letter system was built on racial and class exclusion and segregation. Established starting in the late 18th century, fraternities mirrored campus student bodies—white, male, and Christian children of "proper familial breeding." As the racial, gender, and religious barriers to higher education began to ease, many Greek-letter organizations incorporated exclusionary policies into their constitutions—where they remained as late as the 1960s.
African-American, Latino, and Asian students reacted by starting their own Greek-letter organizations. From the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha (founded at Cornell University in 1906) to the Asian sorority Chi Alpha Delta (established in 1929 at UCLA), such groups promoted social uplift, academic excellence, and fictive kinship ties while providing a buffer from discrimination and violence.
The official exclusion policies are no more, but the Greek-letter system is still a type of American apartheid: hypersegregated and extremely unequal. Research indicates that students in fraternity and sorority housing are less conscious of social injustice and less culturally aware than white peers who don't belong to Greek-letter organizations.
Predominantly white colleges and universities perpetuate inequality when they subsidize the housing of white fraternities and sororities but not of black, Latino, or Asian Greek-letter organizations. At many institutions, administrators and local police often treat these houses as no-fly zones where sexual assault, drug abuse, and violent hazing flourish. The campus social scene often revolves around white fraternity and sorority events, effectively promoting white Greeks as ultimate insiders who set the tenor of campus life.
The racial catch-22
Given the ugliness of many Greek-related incidents, some insist that we chop it all down—ban these groups, as Middlebury, Williams, and Bowdoin colleges did years ago. But that ignores the many positive contributions of Greek life, especially community service and African-American fraternalism.
Others suggest that institutions create incentives to make fraternities and sororities more diverse. Nice in theory. But my firsthand research on white Greek-letter organizations, including for my 2010 article "A Paradox of Participation: Nonwhites in White Sororities and Fraternities" in Social Problems, indicates that the approximately 3 to 4 percent of minorities in these groups are lonely and isolated.
When I stepped inside fraternity and sorority homes, I had two simple questions: How and why do these organizations justify their still nearly all-white membership? And how do the nonwhite members manage their tenuous acceptance?
Many of the young men became highly emotional when talking with me, our interview sessions punctuated by tears, laughter, and anger. Latino members expressed dismay that their white fraternity brothers believed them inherently lazy one minute and hardworking the next. One young man cried as he recounted his interactions:
"They always try to make me drink the craziest stuff … [like] grain alcohol. … They say, ‘He's got that Latin blood! … Yeah, your blood will just burn that [expletive] liquor right out of your system.' … I feel like, when we drink, I'm a mascot. They say I've got a ‘Mexicano stomach.' … I told you before, my folks are from Puerto Rico."
Recounted one Asian sorority member:
"When I was pledging … it got a little rough sometimes. … Some of the girls used paddles. … They had a paddle for me when I joined—it was a joke, but they wrote "Yellow Power" on it. They said I could put up with more stuff than the [white] girls."
Nearly all the students I interviewed spoke of the expectation that they conform to demeaning—and many times dangerous—racial stereotypes. Here is the racial and organizational catch-22: If they failed to live up to stereotypes, they were seen as not fully authentic; if they succeeded, they were "too" black, Latino, or Asian.
Getting to equality
If our goal is to eliminate public displays of overt racist discourse and the conditions that foster them, then integration absent equality falls drastically short. I offer three steps:
- Housing for all or for none. Critics say black, Asian, and Latino Greek chapters do not have sufficient money or membership to support a house. However, low numbers are a consequence of a lack of subsidized resources.
- Administrators must offer trained and culturally competent advisers to guide the Greek system if it is to live up to the institution's principles of inclusion. Minority Greek-letter groups should have advisers who are familiar with the different cultural norms and traditions of these groups.
- Colleges and universities must restructure their campus social life. Racial justice is not the presence of dark faces in white spaces but an equal representation of all students as the faces of college life, including on student government and other campus boards and in co-curricular institutionally sponsored activities.
Institutions must ensure equality, and students must demand that justice. When already-empowered white students threaten, demean, and dehumanize their peers, it is far from a matter of free speech—it is a matter of safety. How an institution responds to this reality indicates its true colors.
About the author(s)
Matthew W. Hughey is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut.