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Greek life, sororities lack racial diversity

Greek life, sororities lack racial diversity
December 06
07:53 2013
Members of Zeta Phi Beta celebrate Rev. Robert Gilbert, the first black graduate of Baylor, during Black Heritage Week in April 1985. Zeta Phi Beta became the first multicultural organization on Baylor’s campus in 1979.  Lariat File Photo

Members of Zeta Phi Beta celebrate Rev. Robert Gilbert, the first black graduate of Baylor, during Black Heritage Week in April 1985. Zeta Phi Beta became the first multicultural organization on Baylor’s campus in 1979.
Lariat File Photo

By Kristin Burns, Abby Loop, Rayne Brown and Paula Ann Solis
Reporters and Staff Writer

Greek life is one facet of the student body that is historically segregated.

In August, Baylor released a report that 34.3 percent of incoming freshmen were from minority groups, the highest percentage ever. However, behind the doors of many organizations, remnants of segregation still linger.

According to information obtained by the Lariat from each Panhellenic Council sorority’s official group photo, there are 13 African-American women out of 1,600 members. There are 8.7 percent undergraduate African-American women at Baylor according to Baylor’s Office of Institutional Research and Testing. Only 1.7 percent of that group is represented in PHC.

“As much as we don’t want to admit it, there is segregation on campus,” said the vice president of National Pan-Hellenic Council, Seattle senior Sophia Shain. “With Panhellenic, it’s more of like your status quo Baylor student. When you think of the Baylor student, you think of a white southern girl from Panhellenic.”

Shain is a white member of the historically black sorority Zeta Phi Beta. Traditionally, National Pan-Hellenic organizations have been either completely or predominantly composed of African-Americans, according to the Baylor National Pan-Hellenic webpage.

At Baylor, each Panhellenic sorority has at least one member of an ethnicity other than white. However, sociology graduate student Matt Henderson, whose studies are concentrated on religion and race, said this inclusion of such few non-white members is what social scientists call “tokenism.”

Tokenism, Henderson said, is when only one out of five members are something other than the dominant group. If that ratio is anything less, Henderson said, the voice of the minority members becomes muted and they cannot fully become part of the group.

“It burns you out,” Henderson said. “You’re not listened to. It’s harder for the dominant group to: a) notice you, b) take you seriously and c) want to integrate you and sort of look at you as anything other than ‘other.’”

This lack of representation is not unique to the Baylor community.

The University of Alabama’s school newspaper, The Crimson White, reported on Sept. 11 that all 17 Panhellenic sororities did not invite an African-American potential new member to join their sorority because of her race. This act of discrimination was brought to the newspaper’s attention when members from Alpha Gamma Delta, Delta Delta Delta and Chi Omega spoke out.

This occurrence caused shockwaves through Greek circles and many sororities’ national offices released statements regarding membership. In a press release issued Sept. 20 on their national website, Kappa Kappa Gamma stated they knew of the incident in Alabama and were taking measures to ensure members followed university policies.

“Kappa Kappa Gamma Fraternity values diversity and does not discriminate based on race, national origin, religion, disability, age, or other class protected by state, local or federal law,” the statement read.

However, the truth is that many Greek sororities were founded during a period of legal segregation and blatant discrimination. For instance, the National Panhellenic Conference was founded in 1902.

History of Sororities

Baylor’s history of sororities dates back to 1970 when Kappa Alpha Theta became the first sorority established on campus. As the appeal of sororities grew, both nationwide and locally, more organizations began to form on campus. In the next few years the Panhellenic Council formed on campus, and today there are eight Panhellenic sororities at Baylor.

For a long time, the need for another council was non existent, as Baylor did not vote to integrate the campus until 1963. As the population of black students grew, so did organizations geared toward servicing this new African-American community.

In 1979 Zeta Phi Beta became the first multicultural organization on Baylor’s campus.

Frank Newton, Zeta Phi Beta’s first adviser and former Baylor Law School professor, recalled the opposition the group faced during its first years on all matters, including their name. Newton said the Panhellenic sorority Zeta Tau Alpha, a then-all white sorority, asked Newton to change the Zeta Phi Beta name to something else so they would not be embarrassed.

“They asked if we would change the name of the African-American sorority because they thought people would make fun of them on campus,” Newton said. “I told them if they wanted to change their name that would be fine, but we weren’t changing ours.”

Baylor’s National Pan-Hellenic Council is home to three sororities and four fraternities. These organizations make up seven of the nine fraternities and sororities known nationally as the “divine nine.” Zeta Phi Beta is currently the only active National Pan-Hellenic sorority on campus.

“These organizations are founded on historical African-American basis,” said Astrid Beltran, coordinator of Baylor’s Greek life and chapter development for National Pan-Hellenic and Multicultural Greek Council. “Whereas Panhellenic is going to be towards maybe all, the general or majority, which tends to be Caucasian on our campus.”

“So in 1994, there was a big boom of African-American fraternities and sororities being established,” Beltran said. “There is a national policy with National Pan-Hellenic that if you have more than two NPHC-affiliated organizations of the divine nine on your campus you have to form a council.”

Historically, National Pan-Hellenic organizations have been predominantly African-American. Although they do allow white membership, it is scarce, as shown by the one female Caucasian member out of the 8 total females in National Pan-Hellenic at Baylor.

Formation of MCG, IFC

Another council on Baylor campus is the Multicultural Greek Council.

Founded in 2004, the Multicultural Greek Council is Baylor’s newest council and the only one without a national affiliation.

Beltran said while the Multicultural Greek Council has some similarities with the other Greek councils, it differs in its increased diversity. She said that without the Multicultural Greek Council, the 10 organizations that are a part of it would have no place to call home.

“If we didn’t have this council, where would these 10 organizations go?” Beltran said. “And really, would they benefit from the other councils? That’s why we have different councils. It’s not to segregate or to divide. It’s to really makes sure these councils are a home for these chapters to be successful and to have resources.”

The Interfraternity Council is Baylor’s fourth council. It is composed of 12 fraternities.

Vice president of recruitment and new member education Gannon McCahill said the council is a diverse group of men, with no one man fitting a specific mold. McCahill, who is also president of Alpha Tau Omega, said his fraternity specifically reflects racial, religious, and ethnic diversity, but that the fraternity is predominately Caucasian.

“It’s mostly white because Baylor is mostly white,” McCahill said. “Not for any other reason. We’re a pretty good representation of what the student body looks like. I’d say 80 percent white, 20 percent other minorities.”

Although 6.7 percent of Baylor’s student body are African-American men, the Interfraternity Council does not keep official records of race thus it is unclear what percent of African-American men are represented in the council.

Based on statistics, Panhellenic and National Pan-Hellenic are the least diverse at Baylor. The question being asked is whether women choose to rush a certain council based on individual preference or if the sororities are discriminating against potential new members who are going through recruitment based on race.

In trying to understand efforts to increase diversity, the Lariat reached out to Memphis, Tenn., junior Marissa Shaw, an African-American member of Chi Omega, for an interview. Chi Omega is a sorority in the Panhellenic Council. Shaw originally accepted the interview but later said she was advised by her chapter president to decline.

Whitney Heckathorne, Chi Omega’s national media coordinator, directed the Lariat to Chi Omega’s member policy, which states the sorority does not discriminate based on race, religion or ethnicity.

Heckathorne said the chapter president is the only person who can speak or advise members of what to say on behalf of the chapter.

President of Chi Omega, Houston senior Molly Kudela, initially agreed to meet but later declined via email, saying:
“Having spoken with our national headquarters, I can direct you to a sentence from our policy on membership. The newspaper is welcome to visit our website if they are interested to learn more about our policies, which are open to the public. We will not be providing an additional statement. There is no need to meet.”

Memphis, Tenn., sophomore Kendra Moody, a member of Pi Beta Phi, a Panhellenic sorority, spoke about her experiences as one of the two African-Americans in a predominately white sorority. She said her race had nothing to do with being selected as a member.

“I really don’t believe that they would say ‘no’ based on color,” Moody said. “I personally didn’t feel it at all. I really do think that it comes down to ‘do these girls know these girls?’”

Before going through recruitment in Spring 2013, Moody said she considered pledging National Pan-Hellenic because members of her family were members of the council. She said she felt torn about what to do. However, she said she went to private school her whole life and was used to being the sole black student in her grade.

Even while enjoying her experience in Panhellenic, Moody said she understands why some individuals choose to join organizations with members of the same race.

“There are days when I think, ‘What would it be like if I was around people like me?’” she said. “I talked to one of my teachers from high school who rushed NPHC. She said, ‘It’s a breath of fresh air when you are around people like you.’ I do get that. But I don’t focus on my skin color. I go way beyond that.”

Moody hopes to see a push for more diversity in sororities.

“It’s happening, which is awesome, but maybe there needs to be a push for more,” she said. “It’s great that I get to be part of something bigger than just me rushing. I wish so much that girls can hear both sides of it.”

National Pan-Hellenic, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on numbers. Rather, it focuses on a family atmosphere, Shain said, National Pan-Hellenic vice president. She said the council is geared toward making sure each member knows one another and everyone likes each other.

“The main difference is that National Pan-Hellenic is more of multicultural organizations and making a difference and making an impact on campuses,” Shain said. “Panhellenic is more the white sororities or the Caucasian sororities, and this was a chance for more diverse people to get involved and come together as a council.”

According to records obtained by the Lariat, the majority of Baylor women who rush choose sororities with racially-like members. Sociology graduate student Henderson said this desire to stay with like groups is hard to overcome because for generations, those sororities have catered to certain races. In order for a multicultural group to supersede in ranks, it would have to seem more attractive than the norm, Henderson said.

Dr. James SoRelle, an African-American history professor, said he agrees tradition might be a factor.

“Frankly, a lot of those Greek organizations have a historical trajectory by which at some point they were resistant to accepting anyone who didn’t look like them,” he said.

This isn’t confined to only white Greek organizations. Many black fraternities and sororities were formed at Howard University, a historically black university in the early 1900s, and the organizations did not allow any members other than African-Americans.

“The large question might be what happens if a white student wants to join a black Greek society?” SoRelle said. “How are their peers going to view them?”

Room to Grow

Ramona Curtis, director for civic engagement and educational development, said though Baylor has made progress in becoming more diverse, there is still room to grow in interacting with one another.

“I think there are some historic issues that need to be discussed among the groups so that the unity that we’re striving for, for all Greeks, can be exemplified,” Curtis said.

She said to achieve this unity, the campus has to make the move to come together.

“When we talk about Greek unity on campus, we need to be talking about all of the groups,” she said. “The campus as a whole has to lead the charge. How do we begin to get to a level of openness to hear why organizations exist and how things roll out on terms of who does and doesn’t get a building? How do we decide those types of things?”

The building Curtis referred to is the Stacy Riddle Forum. The Riddle Forum, paid for by Panhellenic alumni and the Riddle Foundation, is a place for Panhellenic sororities to hold weekly meetings, events and rush parties.

Originally, the Riddle Forum was said to have resolved many of the space challenges on campus.

“Baylor has 275 organizations and all of those groups must jockey for meeting space,” Tam Dunn, coordinator of Greek life for Panhellenic, said in an article for Baylor News in February 2003. “The building frees up rooms that are reserved for the sorority meetings.”

Newton, the first adviser for Zeta Phi Beta, said he recalled preliminary discussions of a building for Panhellenic-only sororities when he was advising Zeta Phi Beta in the ’80s. At that time the sorority was not part of any council. Newton said Zeta Phi Beta was told early on it would not be allotted a spot in the building. Specifically, he was told there would not be enough room for the sorority.

According to the Stacy Riddle Forum website, there are nine sorority suites. Currently, only eight Panhellenic sororities are on campus, leaving one room vacant.

Stacy Riddle offers a permanent and consistent meeting space for sororities in Panhellenic. National Pan-Hellenic has an outdoor garden to signify their presence on campus. The Multicultural Greek Council does not have anything. National Pan-Hellenic and Multicultural Greek Council organizations must compete with more than 200 other groups for meeting spaces on campus.

“For Zeta, we usually rent out a designated room for the entire semester,” said Page, Ariz., senior Shyanne Redbear, a member of Zeta Phi Beta. “As far as the rest of National Pan-Hellenic I would say they pretty much do the same thing, maybe in a different location. We usually get our reservation done ahead of time, but sometimes it does get a little bit difficult, especially during times of multiple events going on.”

President of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Atlanta senior Justin Wofford, said meeting space is a cause of much animosity. He said that in 2008 after National Pan-Hellenic was denied a room in the Riddle Forum, the council proposed the idea of having its own building constructed on campus.

“They were trying to get funding for it and see if Baylor would sanction it but they wouldn’t allow it and they never really gave a reason why,” Wofford said. “For a while we protested and complained, so then Baylor said they would put something on campus for NPHC. They came up with the idea of the garden.”

Wofford said National Pan-Hellenic accepted the garden because the original blueprints had glass casings with each organization’s shield and flowers matching the colors of each organization and plaques, but that part of the project was never completed.

“They never did it,” he said. “They never put the flowers out there like they were supposed to. They just kind of threw the garden up just to shut everybody up.”

Dr. Kevin Jackson, the vice president for student life, said meeting spaces are an issue for all organizations on campus and it is something on which the university is continuing to work. However, in regards to the claim that the garden was meant to appease National Pan-Hellenic, he said he knows nothing of that. Jackson said the garden is meant to provide a physical representation to recognize the contributions National Pan-Hellenic has had on Baylor.

“It’s disappointing that would be the perception,” Jackson said. “I came here in 2009 and that wasn’t the conversation we had with student leaders at the time.”

Jackson said for Greek organizations in National Pan-Hellenic to have a building like Stacy Riddle, they would need to raise the funds like Panhellenic sororities did. Jackson said he has known for some time there is a need for space on campus but a stand-alone building for each organization is not the answer.

Not only does meeting space pose a challenge to National Pan-Hellenic and the Multicultural Greek Council, but their exposure on campus is less than that of Panhellenic, said Zeta Phi Beta member Louis. This lack of exposure dates back to the ’70s when Zeta Phi Beta first came to campus.

Louis said that when the Zetas were a part of Panhellenic, a Zeta representative was allowed to be in meetings, but that representative was unable to speak.

“At first they said, ‘No, you can’t be there at all,’” she said. “Then they made the stipulation that we could be there. We just couldn’t participate at all and we couldn’t host any event on campus. The student body was OK with us being here, but the board of regents, the administrators, they really didn’t want any organizations of color to have anything. Part of the transcripts actually have them saying we don’t want you to open up the doors for other people.”

Louis said transcripts from a board of regents trial that explains the issue with Zeta Phi Beta being on campus in the ’70s can be found in the Student Life office located in the McLane Student Life Center. The transcripts are a part of Zeta Phi Beta archives, which the Lariat had to contact Beltran to receive.

Beltran said she would ask her supervisor about the transcripts and get back to the Lariat. When she failed to respond, Beltran was contacted again. She informed the Lariat that it could not see the Zeta archives, stating, “Those are not public records so I am not able to grant you access to that.”

National Pan-Hellenic and Multicultural Greek Council organizations have had problems with exposure on campus in more recent years as well, Louis said.

“We’re not represented at all in the yearbook,” Louis said. “It’s not natural for them to come to our events. Some people still don’t know about Battle on the Burning Sands and it’s one of the biggest events on campus. If you’re not in there, it’s like you don’t really exist.”

Zeta Phi Beta was not featured in previous yearbooks as an organization, however every organization must pay for a spread in Round Up. Battle on the Burning Sands, a stepshow put on annually by Alpha Phi Alpha was not in previous yearbooks. However, Zeta Phi Beta’s annual event, Stompfest, was featured in the 2012 Round Up. National Pan-Hellenic sorority Delta Sigma Theta, which is currently inactive on Baylor’s campus, was also pictured as an organization in the 2011 Round up.

Similar to their decision to not be featured annually in the yearbook, National Pan-Hellenic and Multicultural Greek Council organizations don’t participate in two of the biggest events on campus.

With the exception of 2011, when National Pan-Hellenic joined with Heavenly Voices gospel choir to compete, neither National Pan-Hellenic nor the Multicultural Greek Council has competed in All-University Sing or the homecoming parade regularly. Beltran said this was due to low membership numbers. Louis agrees numbers are an issue, but National Pan-Hellenic organizations also don’t feel like it’s an event for them to take part in.

“As far as the black community goes, they just don’t see Sing as something that’s for us,” Louis said. “To them that’s an Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic thing and that’s not our thing. The way it’s done, it’s really, really expensive. Since our organizations are smaller, we have to pull for the council to do it. Our council is smaller so as far as the amount of money and the amount of people to even compete and make a mark in the show, a lot of people feel like there’s no real way to compete.”

Jackson said that if numbers are low in certain groups, they should partner with other organizations to increase their numbers to compete in Sing. He said if student groups are facing obstacles in competing in Sing they shouldn’t hesitate to speak to someone in student life.

“What I would hope is that any group of students which desires to be a part of Sing would feel welcomed and affirmed in trying out,” Jackson said. “We want that environment to be welcoming to all students.”

From a sociological standpoint, Henderson said exclusion and separation from the general student body experienced by single-race dominant sororities is hard to defeat because it is so deeply rooted in the DNA of these types of organizations. But within that problem lies a hint of the solution.

He said in order to see a group successfully diversify it would have to first be created with the mission of diversity. But that solution is not easily accepted by many who enjoy a sense of tradition.

“One of the things that’s attractive about a Greek organization is that by joining, you join this long lineage in history of people, this brotherhood or sisterhood of people who have come before you,” Henderson said. “Because of the history of the United States, that lineage may not be explicitly racist, but they developed in a culture where white and everybody else, they lived apart. You didn’t come together as a group, you came together as a group apart with ‘my group’ over here and ‘your group’ over there.”

Creating an environment where the diverse group seems more appealing than the predominantly one-race group is the key, otherwise tokenism and voluntary segregation continue to prevail, Henderson said.

“You should never underestimate the ability of the human race to stratify into hierarchies,” he said. “We’re quite good at it. That doesn’t mean it’s not something worth trying to be aware of and fight against, but I think it’s probably just good to know you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

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