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Diversity In The Greek System: USC And Alabama Aren't That Different

Katrina Kaiser |
September 25, 2013 | 4:41 p.m. PDT


Alabama is not the only school that needs diversity in its Greek system (Huw Williams, Wikimedia Commons)
Alabama is not the only school that needs diversity in its Greek system (Huw Williams, Wikimedia Commons)
The revelation of chronic racial discrimination in University of Alabama's Greek system has opened the door to questions about diversity and racism in Greek communities across the country. Institutional racism here is not unique to the South, and USC fraternities and sororities can draw some lessons from the "turnabout" in Alabama last week.

First, some background information: several women in sororities at UA alleged that two black women were subjected to unusual scrutiny, then rejected from four sororities this rush season due to alumni pressure. In less than two weeks, UA responded to the national pressure and on-campus protests by not only acknowledging that the system is racially segregated, but actively reopening the sorority bidding process so sororities can offer informal bids throughout the entire year, and by increasing the maximum house size to 360 members.

One woman in particular was not only well-liked and had excellent scholarship and leadership credentials, but was also extremely well-connected as the granddaughter of former Alabama Supreme Court justice and UA trustee John England Jr. and the stepdaughter of state representative Rep. Chris England. One anonymous Tri Delt member even commented, "The only thing that kept her back was the color of her skin in Tri Delt. She would have instigated a dog fight between all the sororities if she were white.”

It is important to take away from this story that segregated sororities and fraternities are not limited to the Deep South. Matthew W. Hughey, an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, reported from his research that "the Greek letter system – all over the United States, not just in the deep South – has traditionally been based on exclusion…. We shouldn’t think organizations based on exclusion will all of a sudden become inclusive.” USC, like UA and many other college campuses, plays host not only to houses from the Inter-Fraternity Council and the Pan-Hellenic Council, but also newer houses dedicated to minority or professional groups. 

For instance, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Incorporated has governed historically Black fraternities and sororities since 1930. USC has seven active NPHC houses and UA has eight. More recently, the Multicultural Greek Council was founded in 1997 and includes a mixture of national and local Greek organization, including some founded at USC.

Are students and observers right to be pushing membership diversity when there has been an explosion of difference in Greek councils both locally and nationally? Or do recruiters need to stop taking the ideas of brotherhood and sisterhood so literally and only accepting people that look like they could be related?

Danielle Harris, Diversity Chair at PHC sorority Sigma Delta Tau, suggests that diverse recruitment practices begin with "avoiding saying things like "I don't see race" because we shouldn't erase people's experiences… it's healthy and good to "see race" and to recognize that we can all learn things about each other and about ourselves by exploring cultures different than our own."

Why, then, do some girls choose more traditional, historically white sororities while others choose minority ones? One member of an Asian Greek Council sorority, speaking anonymously, reported, "Many times I have seen girls go through formal recruitment and quit half way because they realize the process and the organizations are not for them… Most of the time those that go from formal recruitment to culturally specific [sororities] are looking for a sisterhood, but did not feel that the Panhellenic sororities gave that to them... the other organizations are smaller and thus have a close-knit feeling that they are looking for."

The decision to join a non-PHC sorority can also be about financial barriers and classism inherent to the traditional Greek system, and not race alone: "Personally for me I did not want to join a traditional sorority because of the stereotypes (most of which have now been proven wrong), but the ultimate decision came down to the recruitment fee and annual high dues."

But according to Professor Hughey, the question at hand should be less about identity politics and more about equality: "Although there can be a slew of chapters focused on serving minority students, white Greek letter organizations usually get the most campus resources… and have the most knowledgeable and seasoned advisers."

There is some evidence of different treatment at USC as well. The young woman in the AGC sorority indicated that while "personally working with the Fraternity/Sorority office, they have been extremely helpful. But the difference in treatment comes down to the nature of these councils and the fact that they are the minority and in order to cater to their needs it is sometimes necessary to have treatment be different."

On the other hand, Harris suggests that The Row gives IFC/PHC houses higher visibility and more security and planning resources, and overall "the university spends lots of time and effort in both supporting and (sometimes) reprimanding individual houses and the system as a whole." The woman in AGC offered a more specific suggestion: "I would like to see the formal recruitment being more open and accepting of different backgrounds."

Despite the best intentions of students, it seems that racial segregation in the Greek system across the country is unlikely to be abolished for a host of complicated reasons. Harris talked about how at USC and in society at large, "dominance tends to go undetected or unexamined by remaining invisible… In this way, the dominant group (in the case of race, white people) are established as "normal," and all else are exceptions to the "norm."

"I would say that the IFC/PHC councils are definitely considered the "normal" sororities and fraternities, even though I would argue that there is nothing normal or abnormal about race."


Reach Contributor Katrina Kaiser here; follow her here.



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