Racism is still prevalent at many American college campuses, especially in Greek life, author Lawrence Ross said at a Feb. 28 event sponsored by the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life (OSFL).
Speaking to about 75 students in White Hall, Ross said that though some people on Emory’s campus don’t consider themselves racists, they may be uncomfortable with discussing racism. Ross argued that being “race-averse” is more prevalent and dangerous than racism itself.
“Non-racists … are the most dangerous because they consider themselves to be morally superior to people who do racist things, but they do nothing,” Ross said.
He cited a Pew Research Center study that found that 18 percent of white respondents discuss racism “in their everyday lives,” whereas 40 percent of black respondents reported discussing racial inequality “often.” Ross argued that this disparity in racial discourse can cause white students to be unaware of racism on campus.
Specifically, Greek life is one of the primary spaces on campus where students of color are treated differently from white students, Ross said. Although Greek life members may believe their organizations are inclusive, these organizations have a history of discrimination that has persisted today.
Ross said Greek life has been historically white-dominated: until the 1960s, the Interfraternity Conference (IFC) and National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) had white-only membership clauses. While these clauses no longer exist, this systemic oppression persists today.
Ross gave examples of more than 30 instances of racist behaviors in Greek life, including a Kansas State University student who called herself a “n****r” in 2016 while wearing blackface and later said she was “the least racist […] person you will ever meet.” Another example Ross provided was of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) at University of Oklahoma chanting, “There will never be a n*****r in SAE” in 2015.
Ross said Greek life councils are “race-averse” and do not acknowledge their lack of past or present racial diversity, preventing the problem from being addressed and solved.
“If you’re in an IFC or Panhellenic organization, and your organization cannot tell me the racial demographics, and I know they can’t, you’re hiding white supremacy. You’re white-washing,” Ross said.
Ross pointed to recent instances of blackface at fraternities as an example of race-aversion, explaining that although blackface is publicly acknowledged as terrible, white people do not often have in-depth discussions because it is an uncomfortable subject. Instances such as blackface in yearbooks are labeled as terrible relics of the past.
At Emory, yearbooks depicting fraternities engaging in racist activities prompted a response from University President Claire E. Sterk last month, the Wheel previously reported. Kappa Alpha Order’s (KA) national headquarters and Emory’s chapter of Beta Theta Pi (Beta) told the Wheel that the old yearbook photos did not reflect their current values.
However, Ross praised Greek life organizations that have used their power to speak out against racism, pointing to the University of Virginia’s SAE chapter that established a commission to examine racism within their own fraternity following the Charlottesville, Va., protests.
Ross concluded the talk on an optimistic note by urging college students to fight racism.
“Racial justice doesn’t require you to have melanin in the same way that deconstructing misogyny does not require you to be a woman,” Ross said, advocating for white allies to use their “racial superiority” to take action.
Zariah Embry (20C), who attended the event and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), agreed with Lawrence, saying that Greek life organizations should leverage their influence on campus to address racial issues.
“Our IFC [Interfraternity] and Panhellenic councils have a lot of power on the University’s campus, so they should use that power and that influence, and all their members […] to make the campus better for everyone, not just celebrate their own organization,” Embry said.
NAACP President and Black Student Alliance (BSA) Vice President Timothy Richmond (20C), a member of Phi Beta Sigma, said he found the talk to be relevant to Emory.
“Racism is happening on campus,” Richmond said. “We don’t even collaborate with each other. Black organizations are not represented pretty much on Eagle Row at all.”