Seeds of Racism in Greek Life

Early last month, the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Alabama (UA) released a promotional video for their chapter in advance of the organization’s annual Bid Day. The video is an onslaught of almost every stereotype about sororities possible, and its focus on the looks of Alpha Phi members is gratuitous to say the least. From the get-go we’re inundated with images of pretty, young, mostly blonde, white girls hugging, hand-holding, frolicking in verdant green fields, chatting in effervescent white dresses and relaxing in their bikinis by the lake. None of those things are anything to be sorry for individually, but  shouldn’t a wide range of individuals be represented? Diversity is worth celebrating and it should be striven for.

Instead of  trying to represent all types of girls  or even attempting to highlight the achievements of Alpha Phi members, the girls have, unwittingly or not, created an exclusionary image of their sorority based upon looks.

Racism has been a historic problem in Alabama and the United States as a whole. The University of Alabama was itself the site where the notoriously racist politician George Wallace stood in the doorway of an auditorium in a symbolic attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling. I doubt that the girls in that sorority are as vitriolically racist as George Wallace, but their actions are still harmful. Despite 12% of the University of Alabama’s student population being black, there was not a single black girl in the sorority. Racism in America today is not as overt as it was half a century ago but it is still present. The people at that University have, as people  in many other places have, given implicit support to the notion that whites and persons of color should have separate Greek organizations. In effect, a system of voluntary segregation exists within the University of Alabama’s Greek system.

The sororities at the University of Alabama have not pledged a black woman since Carla Ferguson was pledged to Gamma Phi Beta in 2003. I shouldn’t say that the fault lies solely on current sorority members; in 2013, “The Crimson White” (UA’s campus newspaper) revealed that four separate sororities had been prevented by their alumnae from offering bids to two prime candidates solely because they were black. The video created by Alpha Phi plays into the lingering racism of past members of their sorority. Rather than doing anything to combat racism within their school and society, they have instead released this video that shamelessly highlights the whiteness of the sorority, subtly excluding black girls from even wanting to try out.

Greek organizations, in Alabama and most of the United States, often pride themselves on their commitment to community service, academics, leadership, diversity and friendship. However, the video that the Alpha Phi sorority released suggests otherwise. The video makes it clear that Alpha Phi values a specific aesthetic and attitude in their members above academics or extracurricular activities. When any organization focuses heavily on the looks of its current members it cannot possibly make anyone outside those norms feel welcome.

No school is immune to these problems — not even UCI. Almost two years ago, a couple of members of the Lambda Theta Delta fraternity here at UCI posted a video of themselves lip-syncing to “Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake wherein one of the frat brothers was wearing blackface. Not long afterwards, a black student at UCI had found that a note saying “Go back 2 Africa slave” had been put in her backpack. This past year, a flyer was put up in the Toscana Apartment complex near UCI that specifically targeted black residents and accused them being loud at late hours of the night. Racism is often dismissed with the suggestion that “it is not what was intended.” Racism may not always be what was intended but it is often what was effected. Racism is not a white/black binary; it is the product of biases we are born with and that we have instilled in us.

If fraternities and sororities in America want to be taken seriously, then their commitment to their values needs to be seen. Greek life organizations should hold themselves to a higher standard. Racism, whether it is blatant or casual, can make outside individuals feel unwelcome. The movie cliché of frats and sororities being stuffy organizations dedicated to partying has long existed, but maybe that needs to change. If Greek organizations want to be taken seriously on their academics, community service, and leadership then they need to start living up to those expectations with inclusiveness to all types of people.

 

Roy M. Lyle is a second-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at rlyle@uci.edu.