Written by an anonymous Panhellenic sorority member
Just as the cherry blossoms begin to bloom, so do the seeds of self-destruction within the national Greek community. As stories of racial, sexual, and social indiscretions come to gain headline-grabbing public scrutiny, we are forced to evaluate the nature of our own Greek community at the University of Georgia. The information that has surfaced in the media at other universities has serious implications that seem to serve more and more as a testament to an epidemic within the culture, and less and less as an indication of just a few bad apples.
UGA boasts a large and active Greek community with 26 percent of undergraduate students as members. However, there seems to be a stunning absence of critical discussion of any kind of this part of the student body as well as a distinct culture of secrecy around the nature of its activities. As other schools’ Greek communities come under fire for sloppy and insensitive social media postings and very public pending lawsuits or criminal charges, we are forced to ask ourselves the uncomfortable and necessary question of whether these types of things happen in our own community.
In regards to the recent scandals that have grabbed national media attention, a UGA sorority member of four years said, “The same things that are happening at these other schools happen right here at UGA. The only difference is that they have been caught.”
The lack of open criticism and lack of thorough university oversight over these organizations fosters a sense of exclusion and silence that may allow harm to be effectively swept under the rug. This is a truly dangerous silence that serves as an indirect approval of the values the Greek culture at large perpetuates.
Incidents highlighting the questionable behavior of fraternity and sorority members across the nation have spread like wildfire in the media with increasing frequency. In 2013, an unsettling email was leaked from Georgia Tech’s Phi Kappa Tau fraternity to its members articulating the methods of how to “lure rapebait”. Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho fraternity has come under criminal investigation this year for the alleged posting of photos of unconscious and partially clothed women in a private Facebook page. The University of Alabama’s student newspaper published an article in 2013 revealing the persistent racial segregation involved in sorority recruitment. However, one of the most recent national media scandals has struck a cord of panic within UGA’s Greek community.
The recent scandal at the University of Oklahoma in which a video was leaked showing a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter singing a racist chant sparked public outrage. The chapter was immediately removed from campus and two student members were expelled. The events at the University of Oklahoma prompted an email to be circulated by some executive members in UGA’s Greek community that discussed the implications of this event on their own organization’s activities. The focus of this email was primarily advising members to “be careful what you record”. Instead of taking the opportunity to open a dialogue on race and gender issues in this community, most energy has been centered on damage control.
Quickly following the events at the University of Oklahoma, UGA’s student leadership made the decision to officially prohibit the use of costumes in Kappa Alpha Order’s and Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s annual spring events Old South Week/ Founder’s Day celebrations and Magnolia Ball, which traditionally recreate the cultural themes of the Confederate South and plantation life. Female attendees have traditionally donned antebellum style hoop skirts and men have worn suspenders or other period attire. Until around 2006, KA members sported Confederate style soldier uniforms.
While this move in the direction of social progress has been long overdue, the collective uproar over the ban makes it very unclear if participants fully comprehend the implications of these themed events that unapologetically endorse racial stereotypes. While being a blatant celebration of whiteness and a time period characterized by the institution of slavery, the insensitivity of these events is only heightened by the stark absence of non-white participants.
Few seem to understand that it is not the hoop skirts themselves that are problematic. It has little to do with the hoop skirt itself and all to do with the context. It’s the costumes coupled with a celebration of Confederate roots. It’s the costumes coupled with the reputation of racism. It’s the costumes in conjunction with an exclusionary pretext and rumored incidents of racism. It’s the costume as a symbol of white privilege in a time period inextricably intertwined with slavery.
It’s the combination of conditions that makes these events a social, cultural, and public relations disaster for UGA. Those who see the hoop skirt ban as an infringement on their fun are oblivious to the way the message of these costumes affects non-white UGA students. These are symbols that negate and diminish social equality, mobility and sensitivity. It negatively affects the interests of all involved.
Efforts to divert media attention away from UGA’s Greek community and this decision are being fervently and very quietly enforced. Within a day of the costume ban decision being announced, news reporters appeared in the area. Many Greek members report being advised by executive members not to make any kind of comments regarding this decision to the press or else face disciplinary action by their organizations. Again, there is a default to silence and secrecy that is not only encouraged, but in some circles- enforced.
Less publicized social events of some organizations have in the past often boasted misogynistic and ethnically, culturally or socially insensitive themes. Indians and Cowboys, BET vs. CMT, CEOs and Tennis Hoes, Billionaires and Trophy Wives, Secs and Execs (short for Secretaries and Executives) and “gangster” themes are just a few examples of the kinds of reckless and systematic discrimination that occurs against gender and race in the name of exclusive drunken socializing.
From this information alone it seems that the Greek community exclusively and expressly supports the interests of white heteronormative students. Stories that circulate in UGA’s Greek community that exhibit instances of racial discrimination or intimidation, sex crimes, hazing and the general reward of ignorance are unfortunately in no short supply.
Plenty of jokes can be made about the ills of fraternity culture at UGA. The mass erectile dysfunction that plagues frat members due to unrestrained alcohol consumption and the distinctly uncreative uniform they have adopted- serve as easy targets of lighthearted criticism. However, the other widespread ills are far less of a laughing matter. The widespread use of email listservs to document the details of members’ sexual conquests and the rumored proliferation of unsavory photos is unfortunately no secret in UGA’s Greek community.
Gender-specific living arrangements are also a cause for concern. While sorority members living in-house are strictly prohibited from having male overnight guests, there seems to be no such rule for their male counterparts. Additionally, alcohol, while not the central cause of racist or sexist behavior, it is the center of much of Greek life. It serves to amplify the cultural attitudes already present. It worsens the ramifications of a pack mentality as many members engage in activities that they may not individually or in a sober state.
Although official university rules attempt to create a fair and merit based recruitment process, there is much of the process that is left to the discretion of the individual organizations. Some African American students have commented that they have felt silently discouraged from taking part in the Panhellenic recruitment process, fearing that the reputation of racism is too true to test. Many members themselves have expressed serious concern over Panhellenic sorority recruitment, commenting that it is in desperate need of reevaluation- or reformed in a way that makes it more impartial and less superficial.
It has been rumored that some sororities unofficially prefer not to extend membership to non-white students out of fear that it will keep them from having social events with certain fraternities. Some also worry that alumni will cut funding and donations if they extend membership to African American students. Although most people do not consider themselves to be bigots, it seems too many members may be trading a feeling of social acceptance and inclusion for the violations of social justice that seem unlikely to ever become public knowledge. Could members be truly oblivious to the harm inflicted by the fraternity or sorority culture norms? Or do they see speaking up too great of a social risk?
These instances of social injustice occur several layers deep within these student communities, and are kept far from the ears of university officials or Panhellenic/ Interfraternity Council authority. That is why these stories are almost uniformly relegated to the realm of rumor- unable to be legitimized by any kind of physical evidence. Because these stories are usually regarded as hearsay, they are also categorically determined to be unreliable non-truths. While much can be denied in the realm of rumor, even I have heard with my own ears the disturbingly casual use of racial slurs in a derogatory context in certain exclusively white Greek circles.
What is the social and cultural price we pay to uphold the survival of these organizations at UGA? Is the abundance of stories and rumors of racism or misogyny indicative of a systemic issue within fraternity and sorority culture? Why has passivity and silence taken the place of introspection and social progress in these circles?
In the interest of maintaining an ethical and upstanding relationship with UGA as an institution of higher education as well as with the rest of the non-Greek student body and the greater Athens community, we need to ask the uncomfortable questions. Most members do not believe themselves to be perpetuating harmful cultural archetypes. And the damage of this obliviousness is only exacerbated by the silence.
Unfortunately, it is likely that complete transparency would reveal morally and ethically unpalatable information and practices, as well as abundant and direct violations of university policies that would prompt immediate university action. It is likely that the kind of transparency that a society concerned with human rights and fairness demands would quickly disband and eradicate these social groups. Is it possible that under the guise of youthful abandon or civic involvement, we have overlooked the possibility that Greek life provides the exact antithesis of the goals of higher education and progressive modern society?
As a member myself of a Panhellenic sorority here on UGA’s campus, I have experienced first hand the reality of sorority and fraternity life as well as the socially irresponsible and damaging habits of a distinct portion of its members. I tried for a very long time to withhold my judgments about the Greek community, after all I have made friends through this organization that I truly love and respect and who I do not believe to be bad people. There is no doubt that I myself once participated and indulged in the social privilege of such an exclusive and competitively won membership. The sincere civic involvement of my organization and of others is certainly something to be admired. But as membership has awarded me with many fun and rewarding experiences, it has also made me privy to the unacceptable truth of its persistent cultural attitudes that work against social progress and systematically alienate and degrade those of different color, social class, and background.
I do not wish to assert that the Greek community is completely devoid of smart and socially conscious individuals, because that is certainly not the case. Not every Greek organization is guilty of the kinds of activities discussed here. But since such a large percentage of UGA’s student body participates in this kind of anachronistic and systematic elitism- we need to be talking about the pockets of its activity that condone morally reprehensible behavior. While of course there are exceptions, and some particular organizations are far worse offenders than others, it is obvious that at this time, the agenda of the Greek community does not prioritize social progress.
What I seek to address here, above all, is the inappropriate mode of silence and passivity that exists in our student community about these issues. The systematic discouragement of members to openly discuss grievances and internal problems is plainly wrong.
As a distinct culture of allied silence surrounds these organizations, we are forced to ask ourselves if these famous centers of mystery, glamour, and exclusivity are any longer socially relevant or acceptable. It is becoming more apparent that the institution of Greek life needs to be reevaluated and evolve in order to survive in a world of increasing transparency and decreased tolerance of bigotry and disenfranchisement. Evolve or dissolve.
I do not doubt that there are students that have experienced nothing but a positive reality within sorority or fraternity involvement. It is usually those that enjoy the perks of privilege that are truly oblivious to its harm.