Taking On the Greek Gods

The general public was underwhelmed to hear that racism is still rampant in America and that this time it was being delivered to us via drunken frat boys.  Frankly, racism ceases to shock me anymore, but what does shock me is the sheer lack of originality behind it. Come on, guys. Go big or go home, right?

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, National Fraternity Inc. was at the center of the news cycle when a video surfaced of some of their members from the OU chapter chanting a racist and extremely un-clever, song on a bus along with some women who have not yet been identified.

Now, long ago when I was an undergrad, my university had its own SAE chapter. My first encounter with the fraternity was when I attended a party at ‘the big house’ where the fraternity was stationed.  The place was stuffed to the brim with people dry humping each other, shot girls, whip-it canisters, ecstasy tablets, and questionable sticky liquids on nearly every surface. At the time, I was impressed by the chaos of it all; my first college experience resembled what I’d seen in movies.

That elation lasted a solid 20 minutes, up until I had worked my way through the big house and been sexually and verbally harassed by brothers – who apparently had called first dibs on all freshmen. I had to deal with racially motivated comments about being a “Spic” after I flatly, and aggressively, rejected the original sexual advances. What was even worse was trying to leave the big house. SAE brothers were posted at the door, as is usual for house parties, but when I approached they wouldn’t let me leave. The cops were roaming the area and they were worried that if I left at the moment the party would get shut down. So I was stuck in a dark, dingy hallway with a bunch of intoxicated frat boys waiting for the cops to turn the corner. When I finally made it out to a friend’s car I swore I’d never deal with another fraternity again.

Being a minority on a college campus that is 85% white is hard. It doesn’t matter how strong a person is, the feeling of being an ‘other’ is palpable in that kind of setting. It feels as if there’s no place where you can gather with folks like yourselves and simply exist.

And so enters the often-overlooked phenomenon of “minority” greek organizations. These are fraternities and sororities that were founded by men and women of color who were tired of being treated as second-class citizens by the traditional greek system.

So, I decided to interview a member of the aforementioned minority organizations, Devin Hu, a close friend of mine, one of the most intelligent men I know and a member of a multicultural fraternity called Lambda Sigma Upsilon. I asked Devin about SAE:

D: “We call them mainstream orgs or social orgs, and they absolutely maintain a clear line between us and them.”

Who is ‘us’ exactly?

“People of color.”

Has there been any kind of backlash from the minority greeks over this whole SAE video? 

“No.  I mean we expect that kind of behavior from them, particularly.

Look at their history. They were founded during the height of the Civil War. You’re going to tell me that none of their founding fathers owned slaves or had a part in that? And on our campus they never tackled diversity in a different way, despite knowing their founders were confederates. I could never wear letters knowing that my founding fathers owned people.”

In fact, a lot of the mainstream organizations that are part of the PanHellenic Council (PHC) came into fruition around times where slavery and segregation were the norm, and those groups still unknowingly carry those practices today.

“Take Rush for example, who goes to those parties? It’s the white kids that go because the white kids are hosting. They have no recruiting programs that are about diversity.”

Fraternities like LSU or those in the Divine Nine and NALFO (National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations) have diverse intake classes because they “promote diversity as a foundation,” whereas PHC organizations stumble into diversity by happenstance. Devin noted that multicultural fraternities like his own “represent multiple ethnicities, not just one.”

In the grand scheme of college campuses, greek organizations hold a lot of sway. When I asked Devin, almost as a joke, if the systemic racism and prejudice on campuses was a greek issue, he surprisingly said yes.

It’s more than being popular and having everyone’s attention. Greek students are involved as leaders in multiple aspects of campus life from running clubs to being student body presidents.  However, despite being placed in positions of power, no one seems to be doing enough when it comes to bridging racial and prejudicial gaps. The problem in creating racial harmony is different on both sides of the fence. For the white orgs it’s a “lack of leadership training” during the intake process, and as Devin likes to put it,

“Letters don’t make leaders.”

On the side of multicultural organizations, the biggest issue is all the infighting. You’ve got South Americans that don’t like Mexicans, Mexicans that don’t like Cubans, Cubans that don’t like Dominicans, Dominicans that don’t like Puerto Ricans, and then there’s the lesser-known clash of Africans vs. African Americans. We’re all trying to one-up each other instead of increasing the forward progress.

This begs the questions: how are sororities and fraternities in this day and age? Have we reached a place where we could do away with them? Would doing away with them improve race relations on college campuses? What kind of monsters are fraternities like SAE creating?  The answers didn’t manifest in my interview with Devin, but he did pose an excellent question that should give all greek members pause:

“Are we creating t-shirt wearers or people who transcend the t-shirt?”

Think about it.