Greek Life’s Problem with Racism

Just about everyone in my high school’s graduating class that went off to a big state school joined a sorority or a fraternity. Greek life is a huge deal in the South. Even though I’m an independent (translation: not affiliated with a Greek organization) at my small private school, some of my best friends are members of the largest Greek organizations in the country. I have definitely been exposed to the culture.

Because Greek life is such a big deal in the South, of course major stereotypes exist. To prove my point, a Pinterest search for “Southern fraternity” comes up with bow ties, American flags worn as clothing, red solo cups, punny t-shirts, group shots from SEC tailgates, girls wearing Lilly Pulitzer and floppy monogrammed sunhats, Confederate flags painted on coolers and lots of attractive white people.

Images via Pinterest

Images via Pinterest

From the outside, the charming, preppy lifestyle seems like a good time. But on the inside, as we’ve seen in the news recently, that’s not always the case. I’m sure by now you’ve all seen Oklahoma University’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon in the news for their racist chant that was captured on video and immediately went viral.

In the video, students happily chanted that they would never welcome a black member into their fraternity—in fact they would rather “hang him from a tree” than accept him as their brother. As a result, the university’s president shut down the chapter and expelled the students who led the chant.

These guys weren’t exactly living up to SAE’s creed, “The True Gentleman,” but they certainly weren’t the first to exclude and offend people on the outside. SAE was founded in 1856 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and according to the Washington Post, “it was their intention to confine the fraternity to the southern states.” Of course, after the Civil War, they expanded across the country and some even included black students many years later.

I read this great article the other day about how Oklahoma’s campus is still reeling from the events from a couple weeks ago. While students wonder how these incidents still take place so long after the civil rights movement, most aren’t surprised that the 5 percent black population is not always treated well. After all, college students aren’t know for being the most inclusive groups of people—the article mentioned recent incidents at Ole Miss and San Jose State University.

White men and women, especially in the South, need to work on understanding the importance of cultural differences and the histories of ethnic groups. Most racism that I have personally witnessed is rooted in ignorance passed down for several generations, which leads to a lack of willingness to get to know the other person based on who they are instead of the color of their skin.

Fortunately, not all SAE chapters have the same problem. Students at Midwestern State University in Texas launched a chapter of SAE just a few years ago with the goal to be the most diverse fraternity in the school’s history.

Of course, in news coverage of the University of Oklahoma video, a lot has been made of the fact that many of SAE’s early members fought for the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War. We knew of that history when we started our chapter, but that reality was 150 years old. There are few storied institutions in the U.S. that are untarnished by a prejudiced history, not even the nation itself. Our society has evolved beyond its roots, and we believe that SAE has, too.

The whole point of a fraternity—originating from the Latin frater, or “brother”—is to form a bond with friends who become family and serve their communities by raising funds for charity and taking leadership positions in their schools to change things for the better.

So these guys at Oklahoma really missed the mark and went against everything they supposedly stood for. Surely some of the members had racist ideals instilled in them from a young age (welcome to the South). But what they did was wrong, and their carelessness affected a lot of people.

The video’s release opened up communication among students who otherwise had never discussed existing racial tensions on campus. One graduate student, Darion Mayhorn of Ferguson, Missouri, said that his own roommate had never even brought up the recent events that changed his hometown forever.

“You live with a black guy that lived in Ferguson, and you haven’t asked him anything what he thought about it?” he said. “We need to challenge ourselves to remove that stigma of being scared of whatever it may be and open up our minds and hearts, and find out what that person may know that you don’t know.”

Seeing racial tension make headlines really breaks my heart. While I’m proud of where I’m from, too often I see the South’s history continue to hurt innocent people. Obviously some people aren’t over that quite yet, but one positive result of these major news stories is that it does get people talking—talking about their feelings, their misconceptions, their questions and their hurts.

George Henderson is a professor at Oklahoma—the third black professor ever hired at the university—and he has been helping black and white students become more sensitive, understanding and open to hearing one another since 1967. He said that no minority group has ever succeeded without the support of someone from the majority group.

While some important things have changed, Mr. Henderson said, many have not. “We’re desegregated. We’re not integrated,” he said, describing how Asian, white, black, and Greek-group students often remain in clusters in the dining hall. “We share geography but not a common space called a university.” If students don’t so much as eat with one another, he said, how will they learn about one another?


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