By Chan Tov || Contributing Writer
Last November, in response to repeated instances of racially-inflammatory statements on the social media app Yik Yak, F&M hosted an Uncommon Hour conversation on race, racial discrimination, and racial tension on campus. The conversation began with a brave African American male student who recounted his experiences of being called racial slurs by members of F&M’s Greek Life community on multiple occasions. As he relayed the dehumanizing experiences with “little or no” repercussions for the Greek Life members who mistreated him, I began to wonder: Why were these members not punished for their cruel and discriminatory behavior? Didn’t these incidents flagrantly break the College’s Title VII Anti-Discrimination commitments? And most importantly, where was F&M’s Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life during all this?
These questions led me on a several months-long journey of face-to-face email and telephone interviews where I garnered a number of anecdotes which undoubtedly point to the conclusion that F&M’s Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life has repeatedly and blatantly failed the college’s black students since his arrival in 2013.
In the Spring of 2014, despite audible negative comments, Cayla Young ’15 stood solemnly in the Steinman College Center holding a neon sign, which read: “F&M Fraternity yells Racial Slurs…but it’s not about race.” Her sign was in reference to an unpublicized instance in which a fraternity member reportedly hurled racial slurs at an African American first-year student. While there were multiple discussions about the incident amongst the school’s community of color, there was no official campus-wide response to the incident. As a result, Young decided to protest the injustice by staging a silent protest during the Black Student Union’s (BSU) Civil Rights Week display that year. Soon after, pictures of the Civil Rights Week display, which included Young’s protest, were posted to the BSU’s Facebook page. Many people responded with concern and understanding, and one alumnus commented, “So sorry this is happening,” while another person commented, “it’s still like that on campus[?] Keep fighting, change is going to come.”
There were also several negative responses from students. Multiple students, several of them members of the Greek community, personally messaged Young, demanding she take the picture down. In one email, an alumnus and past fraternity member debased Young, stating the picture was “incredibly offensive” and accusing her of “generalizations,” “push[ing] outdated and frankly incorrect stereotypes” and “slander.” He further demanded that the picture “be taken down as soon as possible.”
In short, it appeared that multiple students were upset that a student of color would dare raise her voice to protest what was clearly not only an incident of overt discrimination, but also an incident which caused many students of color to question the inclusivity of this College. When the electronic abuse that Young received was brought to the attention of the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, his response was not to discipline the students responsible for the harassment or to attempt to put a stop to it. Instead, he stated that he had also shared the BSU’s picture and that he “too had received” some “negative responses” asking him to “take it down.”
Based on the information relayed to me, nothing was done to apologize to Young, nothing was done to stop students that were attempting to silence the voice of a woman of color, and no campus-wide statement was made by the Director of Fraternity or Sorority Life to address the issue.
In the weeks that followed, the incident and the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s lack of a response weighed heavily on the minds of many students of color, and the belief in an inclusive campus community was clearly questioned. In response, a group of concerned black students, myself included, held an open BSU meeting on March 3, 2014 where students were asked to state if they had, or knew of any other students who had faced discriminatory events involving members of Greek Life. Though members of the Interfraternity Council (IFC) were personally invited on February 28, none chose to attend.
Below are select responses from the open BSU Meeting on Monday, March 3, 2014, which were overwhelmingly negative:
“[IFC members’] lack of even showing up shows how much they care about the minority voice. They don’t. They weren’t respectful enough to even reply to the invitation or send even one member.”
“Greek Life will protect its own, at all costs. The emails and comments all show that. They want us to take the photograph down? Ridiculous. We shouldn’t have a right to say anything? It’s obvious they don’t care about the [incident] at all” (in reference to the Civil Rights week protest).
“They are so focused on protecting their own but there is no talk about consoling the person who was victimized. They don’t care.”
“I was at a fraternity, when a drunk brother actually grabbed me and mentioned he had never been with a black girl.”
“You will face at least one racist thing happening to you here in your four years. Freshman year a group of my friends and I, all of us black, had to wait outside of [a Fraternity] because they were ‘full.’ Meanwhile, all these [other students] were going in and out. I finally asked why we can’t go in and he said your group can’t come in right now. I have been called racist remarks by sorority girls, that’s why I didn’t join one.”
“My freshman year, a group of us went to [a fraternity], and a brother stepped on one of my friend’s toes, and [my friend] said—‘Hey man, you just stepped on me,’ and the brother said, ‘Well you don’t belong here anyway so you should leave.’”
On March 5, 2014, the entire list of responses was sent to the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, who then forwarded the list to the Panhellenic Council and the IFC. In response, the IFC held an in-house meeting to discuss the incidents. Seeing that no students of color had been present at the IFC’s meeting, on behalf of the BSU and other concerned students, I emailed the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life asking for the then IFC president’s email so I “could set up a time for a forum or meeting… because having a conversation on minority representation in Greek life, with no minorities or expecting the voice of one minority student to represent the thoughts of all the minorities on campus, is faulty.”
At the prompting of the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, the IFC and Panhellenic Council presidents reached out to the group of concerned students and held a meeting with them on March 6. The Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life was not present at this meeting. Although the parties involved came up with a list of several initiatives to improve relationships between the campus’ Greek Life and minority groups, none of the initiatives discussed were ever implemented.
I was also personally affected by the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s actions and I chose to debrotherize from my fraternity in April of 2014. In an email sent on April 9, 2014, I noted that I was leaving because “the liberal use of terms that I made known I thought were racially insensitive by members of the brotherhood, the constant misogyny and at times homophobia were just unacceptable.” I continued to note, “I refuse to be a part of a group that finds homophobia, misogyny, or racial insensitivity OK.” When I met with the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life to discuss my decision, his response was to put me in a position that would cast doubt on my own perception of events.
He asked me multiple times if I was “sure my brothers weren’t joking” [when they made insensitive comments], and then went on to recall an anecdote from his own fraternity experience where his brothers had made homophobic statements at a meeting despite a gay brother being present. He noted that his brothers had simply not realized how hurtful their comments were. Needless to say, his unkind comments and his justification of the incidents that had occurred were not well received and I left unappeased.
The Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s apathetic attitude toward issues concerning the community of black students continued in his responses to students’ constant push to bring a historically black fraternity to F&M. Since 2014, RaeVaughn Williams ’16 has continuously approached the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life to begin the process of beginning a colony of a historically black fraternity at F&M, but his responses have not been particularly helpful. After months of contacting the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life and very little progress being made, the BSU held a meeting to discuss bringing a Divine Nine (the collective group of historically black Greek organizations) to campus. The Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life attended this meeting and made several arguments about why such an organization could not be started. He stated that these organizations had “a history of hazing” and were “on moratorium.” He continued to note that F&M’s Greek organizations were open to everyone, implying that students of color should seek to assimilate into the pre-existing organizations, rather than starting their own.
Here again the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s comments were problematic. By consistently focusing on the “violent hazing” and the “moratorium for hazing” of historically Black Greek organizations, the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life has been complicit in the continued spread of the false narrative that Black Greek organizations—and by extension black people—are inherently more brutal, more prone to violence, and more aggressive. This is despite the fact that statistics report incidents of hazing at significantly higher rates at non-historically black organizations. Interestingly, the conversation on the introduction of a historically black fraternity was indefinitely placed on hold. That is until the afternoon of November 17, 2015, when the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life reached out to Williams after he publicly commented on the lack of inclusivity in the pre-existing Greek organizations and the ongoing fight for the introduction of a historically black fraternity at the campus town hall.
The Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s failure to protect the interests of F&M’s black students has not been limited to incidents related to the college’s fraternities. In the most recent sorority recruitment, after an African American female student failed to receive any bids, the Director’s response was both insensitive and extremely problematic. Although the student made no mention or allegation of race or racial discrimination, the director callously stated that the student “did not receive a bid” because “rushing is a numbers game—it’s not a biased system,” implying that she thought she was rejected because of her race. As the conversation progressed, the Director continued to make references to race, despite the fact that the student had made no suggestion that racial discrimination was involved. The Director assumed that simply because the student was African American, she must have thought her race played a part in her not receiving a bid, revealing an extremely ignorant and narrow view. To add insult to injury, the student was later jokingly told by a sorority member that she might have received a bid if she had “straightened her [natural/unprocessed] hair.”
At the beginning of this semester, Dan Porterfield, president of the College, delivered a speech where he documented F&M’s new initiatives to foster diversity and inclusion on campus. Notably, he mentioned that members of the IFC and Panhellenic council have had “initial meetings to develop interactive programming and dialogue about inclusion, power, and privilege, facilitated by an outside expert.” Such initiatives are extremely important, and the members of Greek organizations who participated should be commended, because this is an important first step forward.
Despite this, the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s history of insensitive comments and actions cannot be easily forgotten and his contribution to the decimation of an inclusive campus culture cannot be ignored. As F&M moves forward on its journey toward an inclusive and diverse campus, behavior and attitudes such as those displayed by the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life must be abandoned if the College is to successfully “weave a single garment of destiny.”
Senior Chan Tov is a contributing writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life is Stuart Umberger. He has been invited to respond to this opinion piece by writing a Letter to the Editor that could be published in a future edition of The College Reporter.