How can we as a community of Greek-affiliated people and other students move forward together, united? It definitely won’t get done through stereotypes and snap judgments. During a panel on Greek life at ECAASU I was on, someone came in during the middle, asked an inflammatory question with false information (a wrong assumption of Asian interest Greek organizations being racially exclusive), then left before any panelists were able to answer and talk with him. This is unfortunately relatively common in my experiences as an activist and as a Greek. There is little room for tolerance and thus little room for mutual education and growth because we are so quick to polarize the conversation.
There are very valid and true critiques of Greek life’s infrastructure. There are also many distinctions within the larger Greek community, such as the North-American Interfraternity Conference (umbrella organization for fraternities organized in 1910), the National Panhellenic Conference (umbrella organization for sororities organized in 1902), the National Pan-Hellenic Council (9 historically African-American fraternities and sororities, organized in 1930), the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations (established in 1998), and the National Asian Pan-Hellenic Association (founded 2005), and the oldest active Asian-interest fraternity is Pi Alpha Phi, founded in 1929. It’s impossible to make judgments on an institution that is so diverse and different in countless ways.
Yes the system as it currently exists is inherently exclusive due to enforced gender-based admissions, financial requirements, etc. But there is change and there are people working their asses off to create this change. Greek life is hundreds of years old and progress doesn’t happen overnight, which isn’t an excuse of any kind but simply something to keep in mind. It also doesn’t happen when those who aren’t a part of it condemn and write off thousands of people based on their choice to affiliate. There are also vast differences between organizations, chapters, and individuals. Institutionally there needs strong reform that can pave the path for future students, and individually there needs more bridges built based on interaction and understanding, not stereotypes and assumptions.
I am not a person who enjoys burning bridges or giving up. I’ve learned through the work I do that judging an entire community based off of stereotypes is wrong. I joined my sorority because of the values it stands for and the community it gives me. They are my chosen family and my home away from home. I can only assume that misconceptions about Greek life influence critics’ comments. I know that people work together to support one another through financial strain. I know that organizations do everything within their power to ensure that money doesn’t become the main deterrent. I know that I’ve seen more generosity, support, and flexibility within the Greek system than in many organizations for oppressed peoples and student unions.
Let me highlight a few examples out of countless large steps forward. Members of the Phi Alpha Tau fraternity chapter at Emerson College have helped raise money so a rush could afford a female-to-male gender top surgery. Excess donations were donated to the Jim Collins Foundation. Title IX empowers fraternities and sororities to include trans* members. There’s a resource guidebook for fraternities and sororities to create reform that reflects inclusivity of people from all backgrounds. Gamma Rho Lambda (GRL) National Sorority is dedicated to providing a social support system for young college students. GRL has been referred to as the first national lesbian sorority, however they strive to be inclusive of all members, whether they identify as lesbian, bisexual, ally, transgender, questioning, straight, or with no label. Pi Kappa Phi (Pi Kapp) gave a TEDx talk on undocumented student issues and has launched campaigns for more grants to provide campuses with more disability friendly resources. I could go on forever. The legal precedent is there, and I challenge all Greek organizations to take the step to be as inclusive as possible and advertise that Greek spaces can be inclusive spaces.
And maybe these circumstances aren’t in the spotlight, but they are happening. And they deserve recognition and support.
Just this year on my campus, Greek organizations (Asian-interest in particular) have done so much. Launching campaigns against sexual assault, support for cancer survivors, bringing awareness to issues like premature births, human trafficking, sexism, feminism, cross-racial coalitions…the list goes on. How often do we hear about this? How can we foster change when people with the resources and passion for justice who aren’t affiliated create hostile environments that don’t feel safe for those who are? In response to specific comments made by a person who I admire very much, at least on our campus our Greek organizations are purely on their own. There is no financial support from the existing institutions, no housing, and little encouragement or support from the administration. We have to fight to survive, and Asian-interest Greeks in particular have to fight for recognition, sustainability, and support.
Curtis Chin recently came to our campus for a screening of “Vincent Who?”. He talked about how many people read by society as Asian American may not identify as Asian American and therefore don’t feel the urge to engage with what we call the “Asian American” community. But people create their identities and communities and have the right to that autonomy. How can we as gladiators of justice (I’ve been watching a lot of Scandal lately) hold members of our campus, our peers, our friends, our family even, to this high standard without extending a hard to help build and maintain a relationship?
A term I’ve heard is “activist privilege”. I’m hesitant to use it because the word “privilege” loses its power and meaning from overuse. We have had the privilege of having resources, opportunities, and mentors to guide us in our own paths toward political consciousness. However, the idea that many student activists get so caught up in their own communities and ideologies and end up treating those who aren’t as aware with condescension is a reality. I am very guilty of this. I was an arrogant and conceited activist (and sometimes still am — I’m a work in progress) and thus not an effective or “real” activist. It took me years to learn and truly understand that everyone is at a different level of readiness and awareness. It is a chronic lack of reflection and humility in our communities when we start deciding who’s a part of our community and what standards we hold people to. Social and political consciousness isn’t something we can force on anyone, and we shouldn’t try to. But we can be patient, flexible, humble, and loving when it comes to spreading awareness and education.
Perhaps some of us have tried and met hesitation, apathy, or hostility in response. I joined Greek life late in my college career and I know how frustrating it is when it feels like no one is listening. All I’m asking as a proud activist and proud sorority member is room to grow and discuss. Remember the context of these preconceptions and be aware that we have to consciously work to create an inclusive space for everyone if that’s what we want to do. We have to deliberately create a safe space that is mindful, open, honest, and full of healing.
One complaint many Greek members have is that everything we do, no matter how impactful or progressive, seems to be swept away and glazed over simply because we are affiliated. Our milestones, our accomplishments, and our multi-faceted identities, are erased in many people’s eyes by the letters we stitch onto our hearts. And that’s wrong. That is not social justice. That is not community building. Why walk into a lion’s den knowing you’ll get torn apart for your affiliation?
As an activist who also happens to be affiliated with a Greek sorority, here’s an olive branch. Let’s be better, we all deserve that at the very least. I know we can do better because we’ve already started.