Chin: We’re All Involved

by Clara Chin | 10/21/16 12:30am

At Dartmouth, it is practically impossible to escape the Greek system. If you’re hard at work in the Class of 1902 Room, you notice when new sorority sisters run through dressed in flair. On your walk home from the Stacks, you notice when a large group of brothers walk down Webster Avenue. Greek houses affect all Dartmouth students, whether or not they are affiliated.

Because all students interact with Greek life, it is important to consider Ben Szuhaj’s Oct. 18 column, “In Defense of Fraternities.” Szuhaj argues that fraternities are inclusive spaces that provide a sense of brotherhood. I do not deny that fraternities as well as sororities can be sources of comfort. I also recognize their capacity to do good in the community, as evidenced by their aid to students affected by the Morton fire. But, in turn, affiliated students should be receptive to criticism and empathize with those who feel alienated by the Greek system. The issues people have with fraternities are more than just “crazy stories,” as Szuhaj calls them, but historical and current patterns of exclusivity. Enjoying Greek life does not mean one cannot criticize it; in fact, being affiliated is all the more reason to recognize issues in the system.

Discrediting those brave enough to speak out about their own experiences with exclusion from Greek life is a way of blaming the victim. It’s similar to arguments like, “What about racism against white people?” or “Don’t white lives matter, too?” People do not critique Greek life to be “entertained,” as Szuhaj claims, but because Greek life embodies exclusivity. Fraternities and sororities represent systems of privilege, so it is all the more important that those who enjoy these privileges are sensitive to those who do not and, in many cases, cannot.

For people affiliated with a fraternity, Greek life may easily appear inclusive. I do not doubt that many students involved in Greek life enjoy the chance to make a diverse set of friends and “have their voices heard” — but that is because they are already in a Greek house. Some people try to rush and do not get in, as evident in the 79 percent bid acceptance rate for Dartmouth’s eight sororities. Although the remaining 21 percent includes students who dropped rush midway, it also includes women who have been excluded by every sorority. Other students may choose not to join a Greek house because of financial strain; while Greek houses tend to offer scholarships or financial aid, some students do not receive any aid, and even those who do may still feel financially unable to participate or may choose to prioritize other expenses.

But for all unaffiliated students, whether or not they rushed, the Greek system often feels like an “us and them” environment. Instead of thinking of the internal inclusivity of fraternities and sororities, we should also consider how affiliated members treat other members of the student body as a whole. Choosing to shift the focus away from criticism against fraternities is a way to conveniently discredit those who have been left out of the Greek system.

Szuhaj claims that “we hear the crazy stories all too often” about fraternities. These crazy stories, however, are not random incidents, but related events that clue us into fraternity culture across the country. One recent story entails University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers chanting racist slurs. The event sounds similar to Duke University’s Asian themed party, which included invitations that read “Herro Nice Duke Peopre,” or University of Mississippi’s Sigma Phi Epsilon hanging a noose on a statue of civil rights leader James Meredith. Dartmouth College cannot distance itself from such stories, and, indeed, has a fair share of its own. The recently banned fraternity Alpha Delta hosted a Bloods and Crips themed party in 2013 with then-national sorority Delta Delta Delta, and Kappa Delta Epsilon has held an annual Kentucky Derby themed party until changing the theme to Woodstock this year.

It is not just these outright racist parties that should be concerning but also the culture in which they are thought to be appropriate. According to a 2010 paper by University of Connecticut sociology professor Matthew Hughey in the Society for the Study of Social Programs, the average membership of a Greek house consists of 2.4 nonwhite students out of 63, representing a mere 3.8 percent. While Greek fraternities and sororities often partake in philanthropic or community-based initiatives, there is also a history of tense race relations.

Greek life also has a history of heteronormativity, a trait that is implicit in institutions that separate people based on gender. Szuhaj claims, “At its heart, a fraternity is a brotherhood, a tight-knit group of guys.” Being a brotherhood, however, is part of the problem. Specific forms of masculinity are encoded in the idea of brotherhood, and therefore in a fraternity. While being a sister in a sorority allows a woman to celebrate her femininity and being in a fraternity provides brotherhood, this often excludes gender-nonconforming students and perpetuates traditional notions of femininity and masculinity.

These problems of exclusivity and lack of empathy are not isolated to Greek life, but extend to the social and political environment of the country. Greek houses are merely a microcosm of the gender politics prevailing in American politics and culture more broadly. They demonstrate power; all U.S. presidents since 1825 except two were members of a fraternity. “Locker room talk,” after all, stems from the idea that men and women behave differently when segregated — as they are in Greek life. The mostly white fraternities and sororities reflect in miniature the racial divide and privilege in our country. Ignoring those who did not make it into the Greek house of their choice — or into any house at all — highlights the widespread belief that, “If I’m fine, you’re fine.” Rather than view criticism of Greek houses as an attack and threat to their lifestyle, we should realize the negative impact they can have on others. In the same way that patriotism does not mean being closed to improvements, enjoying Greek life does not mean being closed off to criticism of the system.