With the recent protests in cities all across America and calls for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people killed by police violence, a national conversation about racism has emerged. It can be all too easy for non-Black people to label Black Lives Matter a “Black issue,” or as something they don’t need to be thinking about everyday, but in order for any real change to be enacted in our society, everyone has to do their part to check their privilege and be active in their anti-racism.
As a college student, perhaps you have been attending local protests, sharing petitions and information on social media, or donating to bail fund networks. This is all great action to take, but it’s not the only thing you can be doing. Part of anti-racist allyship involves looking at the communities and spaces you occupy, and recognizing where they are complacent to or active in anti-Blackness and racism. These communities could range from your schools to your workplaces, but I’m going to talk about one on-campus community that many of you are a part of: Panhellenic sororities.
Greek life is a hotly contested aspect of the college experience, and its perception is riddled with stereotypes and horror stories. While a lot of those stereotypes — like the “all sorority girls are vapid, party-loving, boy-crazy blonde girls” narrative — are untrue, sorority sisters can and should acknowledge where criticism is valid. The truth is, Panhellenic sororities’ dues make them financially inaccessible to many people (even after scholarships), some activities like mixers enforce norms of heteronormativity, and they are entrenched in a history of systemic racism.
If you’re not familiar with the term, The Conversation defines systemic racism as “how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions.” In Greek life organizations, this takes effect in ways including but not limited to: rush/recruitment practices (who is encouraged to rush? Who is given a bid?), microaggressions that women of color face from other members of the chapter, and party themes (multiple fraternities and sororities are guilty of parties that condone blackface and racist stereotypes as an acceptable costume).
This isn’t fun to think about, of course, and your knee-jerk response may be to say, “Well, my sorority isn’t like that!” And perhaps that’s true. Maybe your specific chapter is more diverse, or has never been caught doing blackface. But you still benefit from a system that is historically founded in whiteness. Most Greek letter organizations were founded in the 19th century, according to the University of Maine, during an era of slavery, racial segregation, and limited access to higher education. This contextualizes sororities in a history of exclusion and discrimination, the effects of which can be felt to this day.
So, what can you do as a sorority member to hold your organization accountable? I’m glad you asked:
- Keep the conversation going in your own chapter
Your chapter is probably the easiest place to start, since it is small and led by students, including yourself. The executive members in my chapter of Gamma Phi Beta decided to donate a portion of the dues collected for the semester to a local chapter of Black Lives Matter. Why not propose a similar donation in your own chapter — don’t you think that money saved up for a semiformal canceled because of the pandemic might be better spent when allocated to groups fighting for justice and Black lives?
Another step my chapter has taken is the planning of a “fireside chat” organized by BIPOC alumnae and current sisters to give attention not only to the current “trending” activism, but to systemic racism, especially in Greek life, as a whole. Keep in mind that Black people have zero obligation to educate non-Black people about these issues, but that Black voices and perspectives should be centered and uplifted in conversations like these. There are things you will never understand, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother to listen.
If there are no BIPOC sisters in your chapter that want to lead a conversation like this, they don’t have to! There are plenty of anti-racist resources you can make your way through as a chapter, and/or Black speakers who might be willing to stop by your chapter (or hop on a Zoom call) that you can reach out to. There are also journals specific to race and Greek life that you can read like this one, which are a bit denser and more academic, but crucial nonetheless.
- Take demands for change to the higher-ups
When you’re hanging out with sisters, it can feel like your campus chapter is the entirety of your Greek organization, but that’s simply not true: as a sorority member, you are part of a huge national network, which has both chapters across the country, and a national or international headquarters often run by alumnae. The power that your sorority’s headquarters have over women across the country is enormous; they set the tone for your sorority’s values, messages, and traditions. And recently, many of them have been fumbling the ball.
You should be paying attention to if or how your sorority’s headquarters has responded to recent activism, as well as how they’ve acknowledged (or buried) accusations of racism both past and present. Don’t be satisfied with a bare-minimum show of solidarity, like a vague Instagram post with no promise of action. You should never feel powerless in speaking out.
For example, sisters of Gamma Phi Beta started an email campaign which urged International Headquarters to “acknowledge your responsibility to educate yourselves and others about white privilege and antiracism,” and outlined specific initiatives that IH should take. IH’s response was, among other things, to charter a Belonging & Inclusion Committee, host a virtual roundtable discussion, and create an anti-racism page on their website with resources and donation links to organizations that champion people of color.
It’s only the start of a long process, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if sisters didn’t use their voices.
Remember, sororities evolve and grow based on the people who comprise them. Don’t be silent when it comes to standing up against complacency; you have more of a say than you think you do.
- Sign petitions and then follow through
You can even go beyond holding your own sorority accountable to extend your efforts to Greek life as a whole. Petitions like this one on Change.org lay out concrete steps that Greek life organizations on all college campuses across the nation should be taking to dismantle institutionalized racism. In the past few weeks, petitions have shown to be a powerful way to spread awareness and demand action against racism.
Circulating ones like this among your Greek community so that it gains more traction, or creating a petition more specific to your own school, will not only show your administration that students want active anti-racist policies in place; it will also start conversations within your communities so these issues don’t get swept under the rug.
Above all, remember that while protests may die down, or the news cycle might move on to other stories, systemic racism likely isn’t going away any time soon unless all members of the community are working to battle it. Being in a historically white sorority gives you a lot of privilege — it’s time to acknowledge it and utilize it for the greater good.