Eighteen months into my work at Delta Sigma Phi we hired a new Executive Director and CEO who spent his first few months traveling the country to meet our student and alumni members. He came from outside the field of Greek Life, and I like outsiders – they challenge things.
After he had some time to adjust to his new world (he had previously served as a student member of our Grand Council, so he wasn’t entirely new to the experience), we began meeting to discuss my role and his expectations. At this point I was an Assistant Director responsible for telling the story of our fraternity to committees on campuses in the hopes that they would select us to establish or reestablish a chapter.
For those of you who may not know, Delta Sigma Phi was established by a particularly rebellious group of teenagers at the City College of New York, which earned a reputation for elevating people of a wide variety of backgrounds to exceptional roles as leaders in our society. Delta Sig was created by students who wanted to join a fraternity together, but they were turned away as a group because they consisted of men of Christian and Jewish faiths (among other cultural and ethnic differences). They chose to face the animosity of their peers by mixing in 1899.
The experiment lasted a little longer than a decade before chapters found themselves struggling to maintain interest of potential members once they learned of the fraternity’s national reputation for initiating men “without regard to race, religion or creed” (keep in mind they were not yet brave enough to initiate black men or those of other faiths). For many years, then, Delta Sigma Phi existed as an exclusively white, exclusively Christian fraternity until students challenged the process within Delta Sig and on a national level in the time leading up to the Civil Rights Act.
Our new executive challenged me to explore the possibility of developing a chapter at a Historically Black College (HBC), where many predominantly black fraternities and sororities came into being. I loved the idea, felt it would further the mission of our founders, and immediately began researching HBCs to determine where we would have the best chance of making our case. It was, at the very least, an opportunity to learn.
I put out feelers and made phone calls, but was mostly ignored. Finally, a vice president at one of the institutions took my call, but the news was not what we had hoped.
He feared that bringing a predominantly white fraternity to campus would create a slippery slope which may result in other historically white fraternities following our lead and diminishing the presence and integrity of their institution and the existing fraternities and sororities on campus.
Although I was sad to hear of the news, I understood why he felt the way he did, and was thankful to hear it in such a candid manner. It certainly could create a domino effect of white fraternities propping up chapters at predominantly black institutions and using press releases to capitalize on positive publicity – that is a recurring practice I have complained about on this website.
I do; however, think it would be beneficial for the men of my fraternity to see a consistent representation of excellent black leaders from predominantly black chapters. There are predominantly latino and Asian-American chapters of Delta Sigma Phi, not many, but several, and I believe that visibility is an important element toward our continued effort to live up to the vision of our founding members.
How can we balance that while maintaining the integrity of institutions developed for black students, who were at one time shunned from those established by their white counterparts? Could a non-NPHC fraternity even survive at a predominantly black institution for more than a year or two? Would those students subject themselves to claims of selling out? Would we allow it if a group of black students at an HBC initiated the effort, without pestering from a national office, to establish a chapter within an otherwise predominantly white fraternity?
I’m not sure if we will ever experience that to know, and short of establishing quotas and artificial means to diversify existing chapters, I find that my fraternity is worse off for it, and that the fraternity movement as a whole is worse off so long as we maintain the invisible walls between the white groups and the non-white groups. I wonder if there will ever truly be a day when a news media celebrity (you might call them a journalist) says “fraternity” without thinking of an exclusive club of ignorant white men.
I have trouble understanding how we break through the lines we’ve drawn between the cultural mosaic of the fraternity and sorority world in a way which would allow us all to be less ignorant of one another. I can imagine that some might feel as if this post advocates for something destructive or regressive, and that others would suggest that I am too progressive (it happens with many of my posts), but I haven’t seen a concerted effort to truly challenge the process as it pertains to the diversity of fraternities beyond empty statements of “support” for “diversity” without much strategy.
Delta Sigma Phi men are told that we believe in Culture, Harmony and Friendship. Was the ambition to establish a predominantly black chapter at a predominantly black institution a fool’s errand or in line with our mission? Either way, I forever respect our Executive Director (who recently announced his resignation) for asking me to push beyond my perceptions of my role and of our fraternity’s past in favor of a more cultured future.