Racial identity informs Greek experience, students say

by Zac Hardwick and Marina Shkuratov | 10/16/14 10:30pm

In summer 2013, Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority hosted a Bloods and Crips-themed party — spurring campus uproar, national media attention and, eventually, policy changes meant to reprimand cultural insensitivity in the Greek system. Noah Smith ’15, a member of Phi Delta Alpha fraternity, said the controversy led him to question how he fit into a community that some were calling racist.

As the only black member of Phi Delt, he said he often finds himself discussing race within the house. Since the Bloods and Crips event, these conversations have cropped up more and more.

“It’s been a 180 change, going from just not thinking about it at all to making it part of what I want my legacy to be at Dartmouth,” he said.

At a school and in a system that is predominantly white, race influences rush, understandings of community and conversations within Greek houses.

Eli Turner ’16, a member of Bones Gate fraternity, initially planned to join Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. His grandfather, all his great uncles and most of his cousins were Alphas.

Turner began Alpha’s rush process, but then decided to join a different fraternity. He said he saw the benefits of joining Alpha coming at the cost of participating in other social events, such as tails.

Alex Jones ’16 had a similar experience, deciding between joining a historically black Greek organization and rushing a Panhellenic sorority. She said her parents did not want her to rush and that she, too, was unsure.

“I didn’t have as much trust in the rush process, probably because I am black,” she said. “I just never felt like I was going to find my place. I felt like none of these Greek places were specifically for me.”

Going against the advice of her parents and an internal sense of hesitation, Jones decided to rush a Panhellenic Council sorority in the winter. She felt left out after all of her friends joined houses and wanted to create a larger network for herself, she said.

“I still think, 100 percent, that if I would have been in a black sorority, I would have been more comfortable,” she said. “But I also think I would be so much more limited. I wouldn’t know as many people, and I wouldn’t have had so many different experiences with different people.”

Lulu Riley ’16 said minority members of different Panhell houses personally reached out to her displaying interest, asking her to rush.

“It was nice because it was coming from the minorities in the house and I knew they didn’t want me simply because I was a minority,” she said. “They wanted me because they wanted a stronger minority population in general and saw the benefits of having a more diverse house.”

Cecelia Shao ’16 said she thought about being Asian during Panhell rush, subconsciously counting the number of Asians in each house.

Ravynn Nothstine ’17said she decided not to join a sorority because she feels most comfortable in communities she has already established.

“The way I see it, being in a sorority is like being a part of something bigger, like a family,” she said. “I feel like I’ve already found that family within the [Native Americans at Dartmouth] community, and I feel like I identify more with my Native side than anything, so I’m more comfortable just being part of NAD than being in a sorority.”

When deciding which fraternity to rush, Turner said the concept of “code switching” — interacting differently with black and white people — made joining a fraternity with other black members seem more attractive.

“Having black people around is comfortable,” he said. “It allows you to have interactions that remind you of your family and your home ... people you have more shared experiences with.”

Smith said that though some members of the Afro-American Society do not always support the Greek system, he has found a tight-knit group of friends in other black students affiliated with fraternities. They are brought together by the fact that they understand the complexities of belonging to a system that some classify as white-dominated, he said.

“Even though we’re not formally a brotherhood,” he said, “they’ve been my support group whenever I have issues or questions or I’m questioning myself. They’re the people I go to nine times out of 10.”

Alistair Glover ’15, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, said that though race did not factor into his choice to join Sig Ep, being black made him feel more noticed when he visited fraternity basements.

“I felt like oftentimes, because no one knew me, if I walked into the basement by myself, there was immediately a, ‘Who is this guy?’ and I felt like it was more specifically because of my race,” he said.

Glover said that some black students find it difficult to identify strongly with both the black community and an Interfraternity Council organization. Since joining a fraternity, he said he has at times been called “white-washed” by unaffiliated black students who consider being affiliated at Dartmouth a “white male thing to do.”

Turner said that while it was important for him to choose a fraternity where he could connect with his cultural base, he was also interested in joining an organization that would expose him to members with a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

“I have never really been a person who fits neatly into any specific box,” he said. “I definitely wanted the type of situation where I could feel comfortable to be myself and speak the way I normally speak at home and not be judged for how I act and how I talk, but a place where I could also get a diverse experience and have a diverse group of friends.”

Turner said that though he feels comfortable discussing racial issues openly with some people, the topic of race is not well-covered in the Greek system because people often do not raise questions for fear of being labeled racially insensitive.

The notion of “color-blindness” also impedes discussions about race by acting as an excuse, Turner said. People need to ask questions about things from hair texture to Kwanzaa instead of shying away from these issues, he said.

“If you don’t know whether it’s offensive, you should probably find out,” Turner said.

Jesse Victoroff ’16, a member of Zeta Psi fraternity, said that racial considerations did not factor explicitly into his choice to join Zete, but that certain houses’ noticeable lack of minority representation made them less appealing.

“I don’t think it was so much that diversity was what I was looking for so much as a complete lack of diversity was off-putting to me,” he said.

Victoroff said Zete is unique because a majority of its members, approximately 60 to 70 percent during the regular school year, are not white. Out of 26 active brothers in the house this summer, he was one of five who was white.

“We have more people that speak Chinese than don’t on the third floor of Zete,” Victoroff said of his summer living arrangement. “It is something that comes up often as a joke, in a more playful way.”

Evan Zhang ’15 said his experience at Zete has been relatively devoid of race-related issues, and that being part of one of the more diverse houses on campus may have contributed to this.

“Maybe I’d think more about race at another house, but at Zete, I’m pretty transparent as who I am racially,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty big part of why I haven’t thought too much about this issue that’s obviously very serious for a lot of members of our community.”

Victoroff said that while members of many Greek houses are open to accepting a diverse pledge class and having in-depth conversations about issues of identity, the demographics in some houses might impede this goal.

“I think that most if not all fraternities believe that there is value in diversity, racial and otherwise,” he said. “But I think that it does come down to the cyclical effects to some degree. When you see a fraternity that has 95 percent white brothers, it might not seem like a very welcoming place even if those brothers are extremely welcoming to having those very serious conversations about race.”

Prodhi Manisha ’17, who rushed this fall but did not join a house, said race is a major issue in sorority rush.

“Even if there is no official quota, there is an underlying idea that houses have to be diverse — which I believe they do — but which also can lead to tokenism,” Manisha said.

Race, Manisha said, is a major othering factor on campus. Regardless of what people say, Manisha said, many perceptions are still defined by race, and it is impossible for sororities and fraternities to claim race plays no role in decisions about bids when even general perceptions about people are colored by racial presuppositions.