A quick Google search for “Greek life” conjures up a mass of articles about various crises that have occurred in recent months. “Racist chants, hazing, sexual assault,” reads one headline. Will Ferrell wants to ban fraternities in light of the recent video of Oklahoma University SAE brothers chanting songs about lynching. Yet another Greek letter organization is shut down at UC Santa Barbara.
If you dig slightly deeper, you’ll happen upon the Greek life apologists. “It’s not fair!” cry wealthy, white men and women currently in pursuit of their four year degree, “The media only focuses on the negative parts of Greek life!” Outraged 22-year-olds write letters to their college newspapers detailing the money they raised for disadvantaged schoolchildren in Africa by selling pizza on the quad. Greek life, they say, is not the problem. The media is the problem. Stereotypes are the problem. Sorority members with a sense of shame and video-enabled devices on fraternity buses are the problem.
In a way, those Greek life apologists are correct. Greek life is not the problem; the problems with Greek life are simply side effects of growing up white, wealthy, well-educated and male in the United States. Greek life is not the problem. American cultural norms are the problem.
Before going any further, I have to out myself as a member of undergraduate Greek life. I remain affiliated with my sorority as an alumna and advisor, and I am, just like those apologists, proud to discuss my organization’s philanthropy. Many of my best friends in college were fraternity brothers. The SAE chapter at my institution was one of the most diverse groups of men on campus. I occasionally heard misogynistic comments or racially motivated jokes when I was with my friends, but never anything worse than I heard at my top-ranked suburban high school in Dayton, Ohio, where the n-word was a fixture at the back of the school bus.
Greek life isn’t the problem. That’s the problem.
While the SAE chant may have been taught at a national leadership conference, the mentality behind it was not. No one lives 18 years believing that all people are equal until convinced otherwise their freshman year of college by frat bros who speak eloquently about race relations and eugenics over warm Natural Light.
Greek life is not the problem, and we would recognize that if we as white Americans could admit that racism and racial discrimination still exist. But of course we aren’t racists, we have black friends. Affirmative action is outdated, because no one I know uses the n-word. It’s not that discriminatory beliefs are entrenched in white, suburban communities full of successful men that send their sons to their alma maters and encourage them to rush their old fraternity, it’s Greek life that teaches these formerly upstanding young men to hate their peers based on the color of their skin. They couldn’t have learned that here. SAE taught them that chant.
The unfortunate and unpopular reality is that the racism present in Greek institutions is not a product of the Greek system. This same racism pervades high schools, Hollywood, athletics, government and every aspect of American society, regardless of Greek letter affiliation. It’s a product of American culture. Using the Greek system as a scapegoat is convenient, but no matter what Will Ferrell thinks, banning fraternities will do nothing in the grand scheme of American race relations. Until we as a society are willing to admit that our problem goes much, much deeper than fraternity chants, there’s very little that we can do.