By now, most of us have seen the video of racist chant of the Oklahoma SAE frat boys. For some reason, people find these things surprising. Why?
America has been trying to sell its citizens, as well as the rest of the world, its post-racial/colorblind society for a few years now. And those of us who do our diligence before we purchase anything have still not bought into it. Those who are surprised by these events probably have a recurring experience of buyer’s remorse.
Now when it comes to White Greek life, I can claim to have not just an outsider’s viewpoint but an insider’s too. In my majority White university experience, I joined a White sorority in my sophomore year for a brief period. It wasn’t a bad experience. But needless to say, I didn’t find the sisterhood in it that others did.
I wasn’t ever made to feel uncomfortable in a racial way, Greek life in that context, just wasn’t for me. But even before this experience, I would always remember being a freshman and walking with a fellow Black African girl on our campus’s Greek street one night. White boys from a frat (“playfully”) yelling traditionally Black American names at us, like “Shaniqua.” New to American experiences and certainly racial American experiences, I remember feeling uncomfortable, but I let the incident go.
My Black and brown girlfriends have felt a racial discrimination against them in rushing for White sororities. Perhaps not in an overt way, but in many casual ways. Even when they were accepted as one of the sisters, they often felt the casual brunt of being one of the few, if any, non-White faces in the sisterhood.
I have also known Black and Brown girls who enjoyed their time in White Greek life, but I have often wondered how many of them had to leave aspects of their Blackness and brownness to do so?
The reality of White Greek life is that most, if not all fraternities (and sororities) were likely formed by racist White men and White women. Their discrimination is part of the reason for the formation of historically Black fraternities and sororities. It is now documented that many of SAE’s original founders for example, fought for the Confederate army in the civil war, however do not buy into America’s “only Southerners are racist” rhetoric. As Malcolm X aptly pointed out years ago, “As long as you are South of the Canadian border, you are the South.”
Is it fair to hold an organization in the present accountable for its history? Like most things, there is no black or white answer to that. We do know that whether it’s an organization, a community or a country, we do not escape our histories easily. And they do affect our culture in the present. And culture exists in a vacuum that lacks historical accuracy.
From that video, it is easy to deduce that the Oklahoma SAE chapter has a culture of casual racism at best and overt racism at worse. The Tri Delta women in the video, who have not been held quite as publicly accountable, clearly are aware of this culture, if they do not participate in it themselves, it’s within their own sisterhood. Fraternity and sorority parties have long made the news for their racist-themed parties, some of which included “wearing” people–Black and Brown–as costumes. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And when patterns are observable in this way, they are not one-off incidents, they are representatives of a culture.
It would be a grave mistake however to only hold White Greek culture responsible for the problem. These organizations do not exist in a vacuum. But it’s telling, what happens in spaces away from the objecting eyes of Black and brown people, when White people gather in community. Perhaps a mob mentality takes over at times. Psychologists would argue that people act differently in groups and sometimes they become unrecognizable to themselves.
Or perhaps they are free to finally express how they feel. And if that is not the case either, in the presence of those who explicitly dehumanize others, silence becomes compliance; silence makes you a coward. And in the fight for racial justice in all cultures, life would be grand with less cowards.