By Doug Benton || Contributing Writer
I am a white male of moderate economic standing. Therefore, I know I can never fully understand what it is like to be disrespected, discriminated against, or treated differently because of my gender, the color of my skin, or economic status by other members of the student body or the institution of Greek life. But my privilege does not prevent me from recognizing that these behaviors—denying individuals entry to an event based on their race and posting racial slurs anonymously on YikYak, among other things—are undeniably wrong, and I stand in solidarity with anyone who has felt marginalized for any reason. I am especially ashamed that the alleged mistreatment of minority groups on campus in the past few years comes from those of the Greek community, of which I am a part.
However, I do not want to expand on the details of these blatant examples of exclusion and discrimination because I trust that the intelligent individuals making up this student body will recognize that discriminative behavior is abhorrent and will actively stand up against it. Instead, I think it is more prudent to focus on the more implicit examples of structural discrimination that exist within our social scene at F&M and may be less visible, but are nonetheless just as important.
The typical Greek organization, including those at F&M, was founded at least a century ago by a group of heterosexual white men who had the privilege to attend a college or university. These organizations were founded in devotion to service, scholarship, and inspiring leadership. While their goals are noble causes in their own right, the conditions of their founding, combined with the problematic socio-economic climates that impacted who could attend college at all (this was, of course, back when women and non-whites were generally not allowed to even attend colleges), instilled behaviors in today’s fraternities that tend to carry on their founder’s tradition of being organizations comprised of privileged, white, heterosexual males. While modern Greek organizations are certainly more diverse than those of the past, even today’s best Greek systems have naturally retained residual qualities of exclusivity and implicit discrimination. So, the goal of this article is to recognize the structural challenges that Greek organizations pose to the equal treatment of students at Franklin and Marshall College and discuss how we can work within the social framework of Greek life to make our campus a more inclusive and supportive place.
First of all, a form of de facto segregation exists in the social scene at Franklin & Marshall. Some might argue that predominantly minority, student groups like Intelligent Men Purposefully Achieving College Together (I.M.P.A.C.T.) and Sophisticated Intelligent Sisters Teaching Excellence Responsibility and Success (S.I.S.T.E.R.S.) exist parallel to predominantly white student groups like fraternities and sororities because people enjoy surrounding themselves with those who are similar to them. While this is undeniably a part of why they do exist—and there is nothing wrong with that—this explanation does not adequately answer the question of why social division exists on this campus. All of these social organizations have similar intentions and goals: to inspire leadership, scholarship, service, and form a supportive community to accomplish these goals. Why, then, do they look so different?
Leaders and members of Greek life will proclaim something like: “We welcome anyone who is interested to come and experience what our organizations are like. If they don’t want to come, how is that our fault?” I think there must be something else that explains why such a racial disparity exists between the makeups of these social groups on campus. Something must explain why people of differing backgrounds “don’t want to come” to Greek life.
What most members of Greek life fail to understand is that their organizational behavior sends a certain message to people looking from the outside in. The fact that Greek organizations do not show up in full force on their own accord to meetings or forums involving campus issues of race, gender, and inclusion sends a message. The fact that Greek organizations almost exclusively mix with other Greek organizations sends a message as well. This action illustrates to prospective members or unaffiliated students that Greeks at F&M are not inclusive and do not practice what they preach. My fraternity—a predominantly white, male organization that mixes with other predominantly white female organizations every weekend—is saying through its actions that while it welcomes anyone who might be of a different race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, it will not treat those minority individuals of the organization as equals if they join. And this is true for all Greek organizations at F&M. If you’re black, you’ll be one of the only black people at the party. If you’re gay, you’ll be one of the only gay people at the party. And chances are, if you’re not very economically well-off, well, you’ll be a minority at the party as well; parties rely on considerable dues, and dues are a lot of money on top of a yearly $60,000 college tuition.
The inequality here is that Greek organizations treat other non-Greek organizations–which tend to be more diverse–differently by continually choosing not to mix or hold combined philanthropic events with them. On top of this disparity, organizations like I.M.P.A.C.T. and S.I.S.T.E.R.S. are not afforded the same privileges as Greek organizations at the college. They do not have designated off-campus housing like Greeks, and they do not have a supervisor like Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life who oversees activity, even though all of these organizations are essentially the same in nature.
The fact that Greek organizations follow strict heteronormative social behavior causes a few problems as well. Mixers become more like ritualistic attempts at sex, rather than actual social interaction with another group of people. Combine this with the increased consumption of alcohol and the fact that women are consistently forced to be guests and denied the same sense of empowerment that men receive from hosting social events in the comfort of their own home, and we have a recipe for an increased risk of sexual assault. As a member of a fraternity who does not identify as straight, I know that the close-knit friendships within Greek organizations can provide invaluable support and acceptance for gay members. That being said, though, this selective discrimination against gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender members of their own organizations by not mixing or collaborating with organizations of the same sex sends a signal to onlookers: while some Greek organizations might be open-minded and accepting of their members’ preferences and identities, they are by no means actually creating a ‘safe space’ or a ‘supportive space’ for LGBTQ students. This one-sided behavior also propagates the taboo nature of a campus-wide conversation about sexuality and social inclusion.
The institution of Greek life—regardless of how antiquated and dated its premises might be—is not going away anytime soon. Therefore, the question remains: what can we do right now to address these issues while working within this social framework?
I think it’s pretty simple. By joining these organizations, you are essentially accepting the responsibility to be a leader on and off-campus at F&M. These groups were established to lead. They are currently poised with hundreds of like-minded students at their disposal with the ability to lead. So lead. I cannot imagine a more opportune time than the present for Greek life to disprove its whitewashed stereotype about which it constantly whines. Even if you are a new member to any of these groups, demand at your next meeting that your organization hold a social event with another group on campus that it has never interacted with before. Demand that other members join you in going to another organization’s on-campus event, even if you’ve never gone before. The last thing we need is more campus programming, so instead of adding more events just try adding more diversity to the events you have already scheduled. Having a mixer with Kappa? Why not invite some a cappella groups, too? Planning a philanthropy event? Why not combine efforts with the Black Student Union or the Alice Drum Women’s Center? Hell, you might even meet really cool new people. Campus forums and talks are great, but they lose purpose and value without physical action from the campus groups and individuals that attend.
The sooner we break down the system of discrimination that manifests itself in a lack of social ‘inclusivity,’ the happier everyone on this campus will be. Let’s seize this opportunity and show how we can solve existing issues on this campus, and in this community, by working together to change campus culture.
Junior Doug Benton is a contribuing writer. His email is dbenton@fandm.