Racism in Greek Life Didn't Start at the University of Oklahoma, or Sigma Alpha Epsilon

Castigating outsiders sometimes seems to be a basic frat function.

:NORMAN, OK- MARCH 11: Students walk on campus between clases at the University of Oklahoma on March 11, 2015 in Norman, Oklahoma. Video showing Sigma Alpha Epsilon members singing a racist chant while traveling on a tour bus went viral after being uploaded to the internet. SAE's national chapter has since suspended the students involved and the University of Oklahoma President David Boren has terminated the fraternity's affiliation with the school.

Photographer: Brett Deering

That shaky clip taken on a fraternity party bus at the University of Oklahoma ignited national nausea. It was something about the glee with which the young men, in formalwear, toss off the word “nigger” and the phrase “hang him from a tree,” the way the young woman blithely claps along. The video portrays a cavalier, virulent racism among the educated and privileged that some people like to pretend is extinct.

But while the words and images were shocking, it shouldn't come as a surprise that racism has been uncovered anew at an American fraternity, given the number of incidents that have occurred at them in the past. In response to the University of Oklahoma incident, one of the school's prized football recruits, an offensive lineman named Jean Delance, chose to rescind his acceptance. But at the University of Alabama, where Delance could wind up playing, the Kappa Alpha Order, until recently, held an “Old South” parade every year, replete with Confederate flags. The event was called off in 2010, after the previous year's procession came to a halt in front of a historically black sorority during their 35th anniversary celebration. Of course, the reason black fraternities and sororities exist in the first place is that the white institutions would not accept students of color. As recently as 2013, there were at least four sororities at the University of Alabama that accepted no black women, according to an article in the school’s newspaper. 

And a fraternity or sorority doesn’t have to have any ties to the South in order for its members to participate in behavior that is racist at worst and hurtful at best. In 1998, Dartmouth College’s chapters of Chi Gamma Epsilon (a sorority) and Alpha Xi Delta sponsored a “Ghetto Party” and made national headlines after attendees showed up wearing afros and carrying fake guns. Students protested and the groups apologized, but the story drew ample notice after the New York Times got wind of it. 1998 may seem to be ancient history—but it happened again in 2013, when two other Greek organizations co-hosted  a "Bloods and Crips" event. Students came dressed much the same way as their forebears had, attracted national outrage and gave the same swift apology. Dartmouth has since banned Greek life and hard alcohol on its campus, primarily for safety reasons. 

It's a cycle that's been repeated on other campuses. At Penn State in 2012, a chapter of Chi Omega took a picture of its members decked out in Mexican-themed costumes. The women wore sombreros, ponchos and fake mustaches. Two held signs. One said, "Will mow lawn for weed + beer," while the other said "I don't cut grass I smoke it." Once again, students were predictably offended, the story hit Gawker, and the sorority members quickly apologized. 

It would seem there are two kinds of racism at fraternities and sororities, both ingrained. There’s the historical kind, like the “Old South” parade, and the active discrimination against black members. Then there's the casual wielding of cultural stereotypes, like the theme parties, which reveals prejudice in an almost childlike form. Perhaps there's a thrill that accompanies such alcohol-fueled transgressions, and the sense of belonging in an exclusive group outweighs compassion. The ugliness, whether about women or nerds or minority groups, is part of the point, and it can, to outsiders, sometimes seem like a fundamental function of Greek life.

The Oklahoma incident straddles both kinds of racism. There’s the history, and the lily-white membership, and there’s the in-group disregard for others. There, on that enclosed bus, those men (and a few women) felt as if they were in an environment in which they could sing that racist and seemingly longstanding fraternity cheer, crossing a line they must have known was there, without fear of consequences. It’s not the first time there’s been photographic documentation of racism in a Greek organization. It’s just the first time it has been illustrated so clearly. 

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