Content warning: racism, racial epitaphs, lynching, and violence against Black people
One of my dearest friends, Ethan*, is a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (colloquially known as SAE). He is also a person of colour. So as I watched the Oklahoma Kappa chapter gleefully chanting they’d lynch a Black man before they’d let him pledge their fraternity, my friend—someone I’ve known since we were freshmen living in the same residence hall, someone who has stood by me for over a decade now, whom I’ve grown even closer to since we both moved to Chicago, someone I’d rank as the sweetest, kindest man I know—must have felt when he saw the sheer vitriol and unadulterated racism of some of his brothers:
Warning: this video contains graphic, racist, violent language; viewer discretion is advised
I’ve frequently written about Greek life in my career. When I was working at Rise Over Run I did a feature on a sorority’s homecoming queen candidate. I interviewed a closeted fraternity president. And after the now-infamous (and largely discredited) Rolling Stone piece on rape at UVA, I dissected Phi Kappa Psi’s response. I consider myself something of an expert.
This is also because, as I wrote for Salon earlier this year, my college years—spent in Kentucky, not Oklahoma—were defined by Greek life. I rushed, but never pledged, encountering a different bigotry (homophobia) along the way. But I stuck around. My best friends are sorority women. My ex-boyfriends are fraternity men. Aside from paying dues and participating in ritual (some of which I still learned; drunks like to tell secrets), my collegiate experience was the Greek experience. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.
Which makes me wish I could say I was surprised by the SAE video. That would be a lie, though. Because the truth is that white Greek life, at least in the South, is a bastion of white privilege and segregation.
I say white Greek life because there is also Black Greek life. The “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council were founded at the turn of the last century to redress the racial segregation enforced by white chapters. Today, most of the houses on Fraternity Row belong to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, while the National Panhellenic Conference serves as an umbrella organisation for what can safely be called the “historically white sororities.”
And never the twain shall meet. It wasn’t until some time into my college career that the Divine Nine began participating in Greek Week, which was still largely dominated by the white organisations. At some point after the university began selecting Homecoming pairings, white and Black Greek organisations would team up, but before then there was little mixing and mingling. I don’t remember a single instance of a mixer between an IFC fraternity and an NPHC sorority or vice versa.
There were a couple white kids in some of the Divine Nine organisations, and a smattering of Black people in white houses, but they were rare enough to become somewhat famous simply for existing; everyone knew who the Black AOP was, even if we didn’t know her name. There was, after all, just the one. And I can’t count the times I’d mention Ethan, only to get blank stares from white faces until I rolled my eyes and said “the Asian SAE?”
So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Chrystal Stallworth, a mixed-race woman, found it difficult to impossible to rush white sororities at the University of Alabama. “I started noticing when I would see all the girls in sororities, there were no minorities,” Stallworth told Marie Claire last year.
There was a reason for this, according to AOP Yardena Wolf: “We were told we do not take black girls, because it would be bad for our chapter—our reputation and our status.”
In what now feels like some great irony, it wasn’t until Stallworth, who is originally from Oklahoma, spoke to a friend from back home that she realised what was really happening, though. “I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have a best friend who is in a sorority at the University of Oklahoma. Her sorority is so diverse… That was the point I realized, Whoa, people still do see race here.”
Which brings us back to SAE, which has a long, sketchy history of racism as reported by Think Progress yesterday. However, on my campus they weren’t known as the racist fraternity (that dishonour went to Kappa Alpha Order, which cites Robert E. Lee—yeah, the Confederate general—as their “spiritual founder”). They were the rich kids, the sons of the upper-middle-class; dressed in Ralph Lauren polos, chino shorts, and Sperry Topsiders, they were basically ripped from the pages of (what I hope to God is the satirical) website Total Frat Move. They were the rich kids, with a reputation for being somewhat snotty and a little coked out. But not racists.
That changed in my mind one night towards the end of my time in my college town. The fraternity house I spent most of my time at was right across the street from SAE. There was a Black pledge at the time, and while I’m not sure what prompted it, I remember sitting with him as he tearfully explained that the SAE’s across the street had started shouting the N-word at him. The entire group was incensed, but I don’t remember anything ever really coming of it, perhaps because it never got reported. I honestly don’t know.
I also don’t know the SAEs who called that kid the N-word, and I probably never will. But I do know Ethan. And I know several other SAEs from my alma mater and elsewhere, and I count a few as friends (and at least one was a brief romantic liaison). They are good men, stand-up men whom have shown me friendship and kindness.
This isn’t (I hope) about them. And that’s important to note, because I don’t ever want to see #NotAllSAEs trending on Twitter. In some ways, it’s not even about the young men from Oklahoma who sang that despicable song. It is, rather, about an institutional racism which is executed and perpetuated through a system of segregation and white supremacist thinking, as Derrick Clifton recently catalogued at Mic. This isn’t an isolated incident. This is a wider issue effecting white Greek life across the country.
Which makes this not just about individuals—though those in that video certainly need to pay—but about the culture which allows this type of bigotry to thrive, from the House Mom who shouts off the N Word all the way up to Nationals, which celebrates SAEs founding in the antebellum south without seeming to consider exactly what that means. Indeed, the message I’m getting is “We deplore racism, but we’re proud to have been founded in a time and place where Black people were chattel.”
It’s as much about these boys’ parents, many of whom were probably SAEs too (legacies, we call them), who in the South at least raised their sons with the expectation of Greek life and the entitlement of white privilege. It’s about the wider Greek system, an institution built on exclusion and supremacy and itself one of the most pernicious and blatant manifestations of white heteropatriarchy in modern America. This is about a nation that has long made killing Black people a national sport, something to be turned into a catchy little ditty sung by some of the most privileged people in our society.
But on a more focused level, if white Greek organisations want to eliminate the racists in their ranks, they’re going to have to first address the racism at their core.
*Not his real name