Thursday, March 12, 2015

Our (Self) Segregated Greek Community

The situation at the University of Oklahoma regarding SAE and the racist chant caught on video is horrendous.  It’s disgusting, skin-crawling stuff.  I’ve read many perspectives on the situation from friends, pundits, and columnists and I’m not sure there is much I can add to this one incident.  Overall, I think the conversation has been productive.

I guess one thing that I want to see from this is a chance for these young men and women to learn from this experience.  The student development professional in me cannot hate them.  I cannot cheer the fact that at least two of the young men have been booted from school and are going to wear a scarlet letter for a very long time.  I think the severe ramifications of their actions will teach them valuable lessons – I just simply hope it doesn’t ruin their lives.  Who I was at 19 is not who I am at 38.  We all deserve an opportunity to let life kick our ass now and then so that we get moved closer to the truth.  So, I hope these young men have people in their lives to help them avoid being hardened by this.

But there is one aspect of this situation, remotely related, that I think needs some further discussion.  It’s something I’ve struggled with for years, and I’m ready for some of your thoughts.  I’m nervous – as a white American – to make comments about race.  But I think this situation presents an opportunity for us as a greater Greek community to look at ourselves closely, because I can't help but wonder if we've fostered and celebrate an environment in which little progress can or will be made on race.

Here is why: The fraternity and sorority community is the most self-segregated place on today’s college campus.

We know that race relations, and human relationships in general, improve when we are exposed to people of different backgrounds than our own.

Before college, I didn't understand sexual orientation.  I was aware of it - but didn't understand it.  It all changed for me when I met gay and lesbian individuals in college.  The IFC office was right down the hall from the LGBT student organization, and it gave me a chance to get to know the leaders personally and to understand the greater cause.  I developed friendships which led to respect, understanding, and advocacy.  But none of it would have happened without those old-fashioned personal interactions I had.

In the Greek universe today, we seek to separate and not unify.  We have fraternities now for
almost every race and ethnic group: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Persians, South Asians, Armenians, and Native Americans.  There are also fraternities and sororities for the LGBT community and for many different religions.

I understand why.  And I’m not saying these organizations shouldn’t exist.  Absolutely they should. 

These fraternities and sororities provide a welcoming and accepting environment for minority groups that they obviously haven’t found in the traditional Greek-letter groups.  College is a tough time for anyone, and so it’s natural to want to find a community of like-minded individuals who share similar backgrounds to link up with.  It could probably be said that had the traditionally white fraternities and sororities been wide open and accepting of minority groups from the outset, others wouldn’t have needed to form. 

By the way – I use the word “traditionally white” in absence of a better term.  I could say “white” Greeks, which is mostly true but maybe not sensitive.  Or “historically white”, which may be more sensitive but is not true unless historically means right now at this moment.  I hope you’ll give me some latitude here. 

So – these groups exist, are strong and growing stronger (and actually deserve a lot of credit for the overall growth of fraternity/sorority membership worldwide).  They aren’t going anywhere and shouldn’t. 

But what does this mean for our educational goals?

Our goals as Greek organizations are to make our members better individuals and our uniqueness lies in our efforts to impact members in almost every aspect of the human experience: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. 

And we attempt to do this in a fairly segregated environment.  If your Greek community were standing on a football field, and divided up by chapter, what kind of visual would that be?

The educational environment we’re working with has this truth: Our members, during their undergraduate chapter experience, will likely only call someone of their own race their brother.  Or their sister. 

This is the environment in which we hope our members achieve higher levels of acceptance and understanding of others. 

We're hoping for a lot aren't we?

Sure there are exceptions.  But enough of them to change the hearts of individuals like those on that bus in Oklahoma?

Most of us are chastising those men in Oklahoma, bemoaning the racial insensitivity that is more rampant than we wish it were, and standing on high pedestal to shout louder than the other guy about how racially sensitive we happen to be.  And yet, we walk within and past an environment every single day that is greatly segregated, and don’t seem to care.

And so, as I sometimes do (and hopefully only rarely on this blog), I’m raising this observation without any idea for what to do with it.  Please add to the conversation and make these thoughts fraternal.  What is the answer?  And by the way, making sure the traditionally white Greek chapters attend the NPHC step show is not enough.

How do we succeed in building accepting and open-minded Greek members in an environment that structurally is designed to make interpersonal race relations uncommon?

By the way, in researching for this post, I found that others are discussing this trend.  This column argues fraternities to be a form of “American apartheid.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for bringing up the use of race as a typology for different styles of fraternity. I cringe every time someone tries to categorize NIC-style fraternities as "historically white" or "white fraternities" because like you said its not true. They weren't created specifically for white people so its incorrect to inject race into their description when its never been part of their founding purpose or identity. The same goes for calling every non-HBCU a "PWI." There's no need for talking about race out of context.

    I think its hard to change the diversity of fraternities because what makes them different from most groups is that they choose their own members. Its not simply who is willing to sign a sheet and/or pay the membership fee. Most people choose to associate with those who are like them - and that goes both ways. If a chapter appears to be largely white, then we know they will most likely attract students who identify as white or are comfortable in a largely white group. The fraternity then chooses members from that pool they attract. Idiots attract more idiots. Rich kids attract rich kids.

    I think the challenge for us as professionals (HQ and campus) is changing the recruitment game. Instead of picking new members from the pool that shows up - we need to borrow from NCAA sports teams. John Calipari wins because he searches and finds the best basketball talent in America. He doesn't put up posters, print t-shirts, throw open tryouts/camps to find his recruits. He finds them, establishes a relationship, and then asks them to join his team. It sounds familiar? So why are our chapters still thinking they have to man a table in the student union or throw a Friday night theme party to get recruits? Why do they think they can only choose from those who show up? We know they will attract people like them and from that group choose the ones most like them. We as adults (and educated SA pros) need to show them the other/better way.