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Standing on Broken Values

Opinion | December 5, 2016

A looming Trump presidency marks the end of the colorblind fallacy that flourished in the wake of the 2008 election, Obama as a symbol of “post-racial” America. Although Greek organizations have become easy targets as last vestiges of institutional racism in an otherwise racially egalitarian society, it is more accurate to treat them as the embodiment of the pervasive, dominant culture, as opposed to the exception. I do not mean to liken Greek individuals to Trumpists. For others to do so would overlook my perspective as a biracial woman in a sorority. However, the White Supremacist values that both the organizations and political campaign were founded upon should not remain invisible, and to uncover these histories may mean to understand these value systems are not so different at their core. Although degrees of blatancy may differ, it is crucial to contextualize our campus culture within the nationwide dominant narrative because divorcing the two would grant us false immunity. I very much acknowledge the bubble we live in on the hill, but branding ourselves progressive is not the same as achieving social equality, and it is not a state of being we should feel contented with.

From the founding of the first fraternity in 1776 until after World War II, Greek organizations were populated by the dominant portion of enrolled college students: White, male, Christians. As the demographics of colleges became less homogenous, particularly after the Civil War and as a result of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, many more predominantly White fraternities were founded in order to resist race and class diversity. These organizations acted as a means to separate the White aristocratic students from the remainder of the increasingly diversified student population, even incorporating racially discriminatory clauses into their constitutions. By the end of the 1960s, as blatant discrimination became less acceptable, these exclusionary clauses were eliminated. Although Greek constitutions are no longer group-restrictive based on race, the organizations themselves remain predominantly White, and perhaps a more harmful effect, are implicitly aligned with White ideals.

Considerable social reform has taken place across Greek organizations since their inception. However, Greek societies are still racialized as White—Whiteness dominates in demographics, culture, and history. To belong to these organizations means to adhere to a standard of White conformity. These organizations are still exclusive as a result of their freedom to admit whomever they choose, and often times these distinctions are based on how good of a “fit” members are. This filtration—on the basis of how closely the value systems and viewpoints of prospective members align themselves with the beliefs of the organization—limits possibility for growth and diversity, regardless of stated intention. Additionally, because backgrounds and perspectives of members are often times similar, misguided narratives may collectively emerge. Because these spaces are currently and historically White, the groupthink that arises is dominated by White voices. It is human nature to believe in the trueness of one’s opinions, especially when those opinions are reflected back by the people one surrounds themselves with. Therefore, diversity of mind is incredibly important in order to facilitate meaningful learning and growth, a quality many cohesive organizations and communities lack.

Furthermore, the emergence of harmful dominant narratives and standards for behavior and speech, backed by social capital in the case of Greek organizations, can be particularly alienating to those left unprotected by the status quo. Our campus norms should not be determined by singular groups of like-minded individuals, especially groups that have historically erased the voices of marginalized identities. Although, idealistically speaking, I would like to believe that the inclusion of non-White identities across Tufts Greek organizations signifies dedication to social equality, it is clear this is not fully the case. Regardless of identity, an adherence to normative White standards is required in order to experience a sense of belonging, and for many non-White individuals this means performed assimilation. Still, non-White individuals are often tokenized, becoming forced examples of diversity in an effort to conceal obvious Whiteness. While this tokenization might not be intentional, the process leads to the subconscious “othering” of those not representative of the majority. The level of comfort an individual feels within these spaces seems to be correlated with their willingness to endorse widely accepted social conventions, encouraging a homogenization of perspective that treacherously descends into cult mentality.

I truly believe—because I have seen a transformation in myself this semester—that students intentionally involved in these communities are not engaged because they are against social justice, but because the consolidation of White power that these organizations promote goes unnoticed and undiscussed. For the past three semesters, I have enjoyed the social benefits my organization has afforded me with little regard for whose voices are missing, or excluded, from these spaces. However, lack of awareness, or intention, has no mitigating effect on contribution to social stratification, and does not absolve me of complicity. It has been difficult to both confront the ways in which my personal actions are antithetical to my political beliefs and to acknowledge the parts of my own identity as a biracial individual that I have had to suppress in order to feel connected to these spaces. Still, I do not believe this campus is as polarized between Greeks and non-Greeks in ideology as some may assume, but I am certain we are divided by the degrees to which we have chosen to politicize our lives and how eager we are to reinforce the existing structures of social hierarchy.

It is not my intention to attack or defend engagement in Greek organizations, or to push an agenda of abolition. Truthfully, this is because I have no better ideas than have already been proposed. It is my hope that we, as a united campus, are inspired toward change, not because we have publicly shamed one another or pointed fingers toward individuals who have perpetuated greater injustices, but because we acknowledge that it is not okay to go on existing as we do today. Although our respective identities position us within society in dramatically different locations, considerable harm has been done to all of us. We have all internalized the same value system influenced by race, gender, and sexuality as opposed to values derived from human empathy and compassion. We have all seen the dominant culture embrace racism or stand silent in the face of oppression.

Now, it is all of our work to rectify our community. However, it is especially important for those occupying positions of power to no longer remain complacent. To fellow members of organizations rooted in and responsible for perpetuating exclusionary practices, we are implicated in social discrimination whether we choose to acknowledge our personal roles or not. We should all be angry and saddened enough, whether we are negatively or positively impacted, to mobilize for change, because these changes are only possible when we all decide, together, that the current norms are no longer compatible with our objectives.