The University of Alabama recently experienced a flood of negative press about its racially segregated sorority system, which hasn’t seen a black student accepted into one of its historically white sororities for decades. This phenomenon is allegedly due to the influence of alumnae of the organizations, many of who undoubtedly came of age during the University’s “Segregation Forever!” era, who have been preventing current chapter members from offering bids to black applicants, even ones who garner broad support. After years of the campus paper The Crimson White running stories on the issue, a movement from within the sororities’ ranks finally moved the campus administration to action, with one member of a prominent sorority speaking out to the press and another resigning from her sorority due to the discrimination. In an emergency meeting, campus administration and sorority have set up a second round bid process which will allow sororities to extend bids to desired applicants that were not accepted in the first round. It’s encouraging, even if it is a one time band-aid solution.
In response to this action, many people have asked: Why? Why are these black women fighting to be part of Greek life, a system that, from racial discrimination, to lethal hazing, to rape culture, is clearly a flawed institution? Isn’t better to just let these organizations go on in ignorance until they discriminate themselves into irrelevance? As one internet commenter put it “I hope that these women who rushed these sororities only felt the sting of rejection for just a few moments, then realized how much better off they actually are without that membership.” I’m a sorority girl, and I’ll tell you why they are fighting- because access to flawed systems still matters.
Me and some of my chapter members at graduation
I’m a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. In Greek life, AKA and my chapter specifically is a world away from the sororities at the center of the University of Alabama controversy. For starters AKA, like other National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations, is an international sorority, compared to the locally or regionally centered U of A organizations. AKA is also an organization that demands a lifetime commitment and has many more graduate chapters (not for graduate school students, but for everyone who is no longer in undergrad) and graduate members than undergraduate members. We conduct membership intake in a totally different way from the simultaneous campus-wide bid system. My initiation chapter wasn’t just at one campus, but was composed of women from three universities. And most noticeably, although there are many members of every race across the globe, Alpha Kappa Alpha is a historically black sorority.
But differences aside, my own experience allows me to see why it is important for black students to have access to historically white sororities. I feel pretty much the same way I felt about the importance of passing marriage equality legislation. Are there other areas of the LGBTQ rights movement that are equally or more pressing? Sure. Does every queer person even find the idea of marriage desirable? No, they don’t. Is the institution of marriage fundamentally screwed up and oppressive in many, many ways? Absolutely. Do queer people who reject marriage and the movement to be accepted by the status quo have a point? Yes! Wouldn’t it have been better to radically shift the system to address those issues, keep the government out of personal commitments, and make it so that marriage doesn’t create two classes of citizens with unequal rights- the married and the not married? I think so. But the downfall of DOMA created tangible improvements in the lives of many queer people, and that to me made it a thing worth fighting for.
That’s how I see the fight to integrate the University of Alabama’s historically white sororities. Whether anybody likes it or not these sororities provide access to resources for members. Across the country membership in historically white, multicultural, and historically black, Asian American, Native American, and Latin@ greek organizations gives one all types of social and economic capital. Access to parties and other social events, exclusive alumnae networks, campus leadership experience. At big flagship state schools the privileges can be even more extreme. According to my girlfriend, also a NPHC sorority member, her university hosts entire job fairs that are only open to students in the greek system. At the University of Alabama there is “the “Machine,” a secretive coalition of traditionally white fraternities and sororities that controls campus politics,” a phenomenon I know also exists in many other states and that often exerts influence outside the space and time of campus politics, heavily influencing the election of state and regional politicians.
It’s all pretty weird and problematic and its easy to see why. At the University of Alabama minority students are “routinely shut out of positions in student government because they can’t get endorsements from The Machine.” Around the country there are a host of other issues. With its legacy admission policy (that by definition systematically underprivileges first generation college students), high membership price tag, and intensive and time consuming membership intake process that is difficult for working students to participate in, my own sorority clearly has some class issues to figure out. And I could write a whole other post about the blatant culture of homophobia that permeates historically black fraternities and has undoubtedly blocked many gay men from entering the strong personal and professional networks that NPHC fraternities represent.
And so, while it is clear that the tacit exclusion of black women of the University of Alabama’s historically white sororities represents a form of institutionally sanctioned racism…. Aren’t there other more pressing structural barriers facing University of Alabama students of color? I’m certain the answer is yes. Does every black women person even find the bidding for membership in the historically white sororities desirable? Nope. Is the institution of Greek life fundamentally screwed up and oppressive in many, many ways? Absolutely. Do women people who reject sororities and the movement to be accepted by the status quo have a point? Yes! Wouldn’t it be better if, I dunno… Greek org members at the University of Alabama didn’t get random social perks like reserved seating at football games, if they didn’t control who is elected to Student Government, if gaining access to these organizations wasn’t the key to getting choice on campus jobs for students of color? Well duh. But opening up this inherently flawed system to students of color will lead to substantial improvements in the college experience, and even expanded life opportunities, for many of them- whether one likes that this is the reality or not.
And that to me makes it a thing worth fighting for.