Throughout the current wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, many organizations at Penn have released statements of solidarity supporting the Black community. While some statements outline measurable next steps, others have taken on more of a general stance for championing equality. As we take this time to reflect on the fabric of diversity that makes Penn, Penn, we must also acknowledge the accountability many organizations have avoided and the lack of progress they have seen for decades. One of the most obvious forms of collective racism exists within sororities, a fundamental part of our Greek life system.
Greek life was originally built on the idea of creating a racialized institution. The first two sororities in the United States were only open to white, Anglo-Saxon protestants. Up until the late 1960s, Greek organizations had whites-only membership clauses and were defined as social havens for predominately white, wealthy students. Today, racism in our sororities takes on a more coded, “modern” format. Tokenism, the act of using minorities as diversity props to justify their progress and inclusivity, is still evident in both the rush process as well as on social media, stripping the member of their individuality. It’s also very likely that potential members who are minorities won’t fit with the “look” sororities are looking to maintain, as these internal biases were exclusively created by and for white students.
As a person of color coming into rush, I was initially bombarded with advice and suggestions. “You have the perfect token vibe for this sorority,” and “You probably won’t fit in here because they don’t pick non-white students...” For many students of color looking to join Greek life, this is the norm. On campus, even before being judged on our appearance or the brand of our clothes, we are first judged based on the color of our skin. We are quick to notice that in many of the houses for rush, we are typically paired up with the only other person of color in a sorority.
Penn has its fair share of racial scandals in Greek life over the past few years. In 2014, Beta Theta Pi and Chi Omega sparked controversy for a “gangsta-themed” mixer. In 2015, Phi Delta Theta posted a controversial Christmas photo of a dark-skinned blow-up doll. In 2016, Sigma Nu fraternity was accused of racism within their internal disciplinary system. In 2017, Penn’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity had a beer pong team named “VietPong.” Just last year, Penn’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority member was accused of supposedly shouting “Build a wall” several times to a Latinx Wharton freshman as part of their hazing process. Currently, the majority of our seven on-campus sororities have few to no Black members.
However, just as it is important to create concrete measures that combat racism in the near future, it is equally important to acknowledge the past, no matter how ugly it may be. If we want the Greek life community to be more inclusive, we cannot ignore what already happened. Rather than being defensive, members of Greek life must promote open dialogue and listen. Start by encouraging the POC members in your sorority or fraternity to speak up about their experiences and grievances. Acknowledge your own blind spots and identify the unconscious biases you continue to hold, especially when it feels uncomfortable. Understand what it means to have racial privilege and hold yourself, your peers, and your organizations accountable.
Don’t get me wrong: joining Chi Omega has been one of the best decisions of my college career. I have the privilege of being surrounded by some of the most positive, inspiring girls that I may have never met otherwise. For many of us, there is no doubt that Greek Life at Penn plays a positive role in our lives, but at the same time, for many people of color in the Greek community, our roles feel complicated and burdening. Yes, by being a POC in our Panhellenic community, it is our job, even more so, to hold our fellow sorority sisters and fraternity brothers accountable for inclusivity and to advocate for as many marginalized identities as possible. At the same time, it isn’t our job. It is not our job as minorities to tirelessly fix a system that has implicitly prided itself in racial exclusivity. It’s a shared responsibility that white members must also recognize and prioritize.
CHRISTINE KIM is a rising Wharton sophomore from San Jose, California majoring in Management and Business Analytics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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