This past week has set ablaze a wildfire in Greek life discourse about the very thing that seems to be making the world go ‘round: racism. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) 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: students were expelled or suspended, the chapter was shut down, the house was vacated and the school withheld resources from the students (such as further housing). This has put a bad taste in the mouths of many who are consequently speaking out against the fraternity and fraternities as a whole.
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 were founded on notions and practices of an undeniably racist society and culture. Fraternities at colleges and universities sprang up around the late 1790s and were created as a space for white men. This was a time when blacks were not even considered equal men and were not given the opportunity to attend universities with whites, let alone share organizations of brotherhood with them. It is impossible to separate racism from 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.
With that being said, I caution those defending fraternities from advancing the problematic argument that “not all fraternities are racist, not all chapters are racist.” Specifically SAE, who has been caught in the net of racial controversy in multiple chapters (ie St. Louis, Memphis, Clemson). I discourage this argument because while we can separate the overt, active, violent, and individual racists from a fraternity, we cannot separate the institutionalized racism from the framework of the organization. Because the two were created in tandem, they are indefinitely inseparable.
There 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 obtain the same fruitful college experiences that others had. Naturally, all fraternities, to some extent, have discarded their overt and stark racist innards, and have included blacks in their organizations. As a result, Black people wishing to join Greek life must now choose between an organization that was traditionally racist and one that was traditionally inclusive and progressive.
Too often, 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 and they have more chapters nationally, 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 racist principles and the archetypal hetero-normative white male power are bound for success and prestige. This is because they were created by the powerful heteronormative white man to support and protect the heteronormative white male identity. 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 or institution and challenge it in order to change it. However, this is impossible given the history of historically non-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 traces back to antiquity 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 my peers to critically analyze the dynamics of the spaces they occupy and support, know what they entitle, know what they were founded upon, and based on that, consider alternatives to that space.
Chance Ward is a first-year undeclared major. He can be reached at email@example.com.