SAE, Racism, and the Occupation of Black Spaces

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Author: Chance Ward

This past week has set ablaze a wildfire in Greek life discourse surrounding the very thing that seems to be making the world go ‘round: racism. If you all are not aware, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma has been shut down after a video of its members repeating an overtly racist chant went viral. The consequences were heavy, with students being expelled or suspended, the chapter being shut down, the house being vacated and rejection of resources from the school to the students. This has put a bad taste in the mouths of many who are consequently speaking out against the fraternity, and fraternities in general.

Many have argued that it is unfair to lump all fraternities together, and that not ALL fraternities are racist. However, we all know that statement is a starched lie. I say that because fraternities in themselves were founded based around notions and practices of an undeniably racist society and culture. Fraternities at colleges and universities trace back roughly right before the 1800s, as a space for white men. This was a time where blacks were not even considered equal men, and were not given the opportunity to study higher education as the university level with whites, let alone share organizations of kin with them. With that being said, it is impossible to separate racism of an institution that was built upon it. And until we actually are in a society that is post-racial, I contend that it will always be appropriate to treat fraternities as a “dirty word” that is definitively tied to racism.

There indeed have been many efforts to challenge that racism, most obviously the creation of the many historically black fraternities and sororities. These spaces were designed to make it possible for black people to render the same fruitful college experiences that others had. Since their creation, naturally all fraternities to some extent have discarded of their overt and stark racist innards, and have included blacks in their organizations. Today, this means a big decision for black people wishing to join Greek life because they are faced with the question of whether they will join the organization that was traditionally racist, or the one that is traditionally inclusive and progressive.

Too often, I feel that the former is chosen because of the prestige that these fraternities have. This prestige comes from the fact that these fraternities are more dated, they have more members, they are more widespread, etc. but people forget that said prestige is only a product of those same racist innards. In an institutionally racist society, of course the organizations founded on racism and the archetypal hetero-normative white male in power are bound for success and prestige. For this reason, I encourage everyone, not just blacks, to always choose the latter. History has shown that one of the most effective methods of dispelling racism in an institution or organization is to boycott it. Despite how radical it may be, I urge all college students to not engage in, support or assist any racist organizations, especially fraternities.

This idea is often challenged by those who argue that one must engage in the racist organization/institution and challenge it in order to change it. However, this is impossible with fraternities because given the history of non-historically black fraternities, simply joining one in itself means an active assimilation to and support of whiteness. And I question all those that feel this way—why do you feel that it is more effective to join a racist institution and attempt to change it instead of simply occupying and supporting one that is not racist? Because history shows that this is untrue.

The theoretical justification for this argument tracks back to the antiquity of time, and is most obviously materialized in the classic Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X argument that dealt with the competition between separatism and assimilation. I contend that the occupation and support of black spaces will always be more valuable and immediately fruitful than the finessing of white spaces. And I encourage you all to critically analyze the dynamics of the spaces you occupy and support, know what they entitle, know what they were founded upon, and based on that, consider alternatives to that space.

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