My Fraternity Was Racist; Yours Probably Was Too. Students Need Us To Accept That & Move Forward.

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I enjoy digging through fraternity and sorority archives to learn more about our past, and I can no longer accept how readily we ignore the shame we feel beneath the glowing reviews of our histories.

As I mentioned in my last post (and several others), the founders of our organizations really didn’t care about the things we care about today. They didn’t care about tracking statistics and making the news for a new-old policy or a new-old leadership program. Our founders wanted to build social clubs, and in creating national and international fraternities they became laser-focused on quality members and first amendment protections. Although we still reference our founders to rile up support, our student members are actually far more in line with the vision of their founders than most fraternity leaders or professionals – in my perspective.

While looking through the Stetson University digital archives for what feels like the hundredth time I came upon an image of some brothers from the mid-40’s raising a Confederate flag outside of their house. There were several photos of several Stetson fraternities from that same era with that same flag raised high and proud above their living facilities. I am not making a statement about Confederate flags, but could you imagine any fraternity or sorority sharing this photo on their social media today? Even to acknowledge a well-known piece of their history as once exclusively-white organizations?

This was not the first time I came across this photo, but I failed to accept this as a part of our history, the part where we were exclusively Christian and white and where several chapters were former Ku Klux Klan organizations. It may be touched upon, but the more I hear fraternity men talk about themselves, their organizations, and their histories, the more I realize that we have a deluded sense of who we were. Perhaps that is a response to the obsessively critical tone many fraternity professionals and the news media take toward our histories of privilege – they are wrong too.

Fraternity leaders want and expect students to learn our history and past, but omit important elements of it. For so many years I wondered if my fraternity’s history was “murky” due to a lack of information. That is a factor and what we would tell our students, but it’s untrue.

We have rows of filing cabinets packed with photos, correspondences, meeting minutes and newspaper clippings. We know all too well who we were, and because it is not representative of who we are and what the world wants of us in 2018, we breeze over it as if it were a meaningless bump in the road. But, racial prejudice has been a key element of the fraternity experience since its development. Our founding members may have had intentions for diversity, but those intentions went unrealized for many decades.

I am not of the belief that you can know someone from a single point of view. For too long, the stories of fraternities and sororities have been painted by those who hate us or those who love us, and lacking from both sides is a taste for realism or objectivity.

I have also tried to make this case regarding collaboration between historically white, historically black, and culturally-based fraternities and sororities. There are invisible divisions representative of our old selves which force us to think of one another as “others.” Sororities and fraternities bicker about who does things “right,” black and white organizations complain that the other isn’t open to collaboration, but are too obsessed with what makes them different from one another to move forward (“They do intake, we do rush”). We do not need to adopt the resentment those who came before us had in discussing racial/societal issues. . . that is all.

Students are told of the wonderful and idealistic goals of their founding members in depth. What attention is paid to the time between the moment their organization was founded and their organization today is a Cliff’s Notes version at best. They are not encouraged to explore how desegregation was a student-led movement, which came from challenging toxic, top-down, “zero-tolerance” policies and going against the wishes of many big name alumni members. We are ignoring important elements of the fraternity story, elements which many are ashamed of, but elements which humanize us and our organizations and help us fit in with the greater story of the United States of America.

Most organizations seem obsessed with presenting a clean, unified message to the outside world. Members are widely encouraged to vote “yes” on whichever slate from whichever committee is before them at a national meeting. Everything they are to do and value in their fraternity experience must be ratified by a small group of approved alumni and professionals. It is a sanitized process top to bottom, and we are teaching students to operate in the same way, but no one connects with that. Fraternity men were Instagram before Instagram was Instagram – it’s just a game to make your life look neat and petite without a care in the world.

Until we face our demons and tell our stories truly and accurately – stories which still contain the fantastic elements we share today – we may never get beyond our modern challenges. There was a point when fraternities were “zero-tolerance” when it came to initiating black students. In Delta Sigma Phi, chapters were required to send a testimonial and photo for each of their pledging members for approval from the Executive Secretary (old name for the Executive Director/CEO). That was to make sure that the men recruited fit the agreed-upon standards of the Fraternity, and one of those standards was to have white skin.

Understanding our past of racial prejudice and how students pulled us through that may help modern students feel inspired and engage more deeply in the fraternity process. That’s important, because fraternity/sorority professionals, leaders, legislators and the news media are failing to move us forward, even as they assume greater ownership of our undergraduate societies.