When video emerged of members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity engaged in a horrifying racist chant, the official response was swift. The university and the fraternity’s parent organization shut its doors, leaving members to find somewhere else to live.

But racism in the Greek system is not always so obvious. In a 2010 paper, Matthew W. Hughey explores the experiences of nonwhite members of mostly white fraternities and sororities. Hughey interviewed 31 nonwhite members of “white Greek letter organizations” at three East Coast colleges between 2003 and 2006. What he found are complex racial dynamics that profoundly affected the non-white members’ experiences even when they didn’t involve explicit racism.

Complex racial dynamics affect members of non-white fraternities even when they didn’t involve explicit racism.

The African-American members Hughey spoke with were particularly likely to be called on to organize the Greek organizations’ community service activities. Some of the interviewees accepted the notion that their black identity made them particularly qualified to work with poor communities, even if they weren’t from low-income backgrounds themselves. But others pushed back. One black fraternity member said he wasn’t particularly interested in participating in the frat’s philanthropy committee, but that resulted in his white fraternity brothers accusing him of not being “really black”:

“I’m really sick of it. What does that even mean, ‘I’m not really black?’ What? Because I don’t wear baggy clothes or a baseball cap, or because I’m not really excited about going down to the soup kitchen where my frat brothers think the ‘real black people are’ … I feel like I have to constantly educate my frat brothers . . . but then, if I do, then they start distancing themselves from me . . . I was called ‘militant’ once.”

Asian members of the fraternities and sororities, meanwhile, were subjected to different stereotypes, saying they were expected to boost the organization’s GPA while providing what one Asian member called “the illusion of inclusion.”

Meanwhile, when it came to the networking events that provide a material benefit to many members of Greek organizations, Hughley writes, “I observed whites, blacks, and Asians implicitly passing over Latinos for networking opportunities while simultaneously characterizing them as lazy and undeserving, then demonizing them for failing to take advantage of the … networking resources.” Many Latino members shied away from chances to network, fearing that they would be stereotyped for seeking “hand-outs.”

In daily Greek life, many of the non-white members said they were stereotyped as tougher—more able to drink heavily and take part in harsh hazing rituals. Yet they also felt they had to be on guard against appearing to self-segregate or “play the race card.” One Asian sorority member said she avoided socializing with the one other Asian member because their white sisters said it “looked bad” for the sorority.

A Latina sorority member said that when the group went to Mexican restaurants “if there’s anything going on even related to Latin culture, all of a sudden I am supposed to be the ‘translator.'” And yet, she said, if she brought up racial stereotypes she was chided for “taking things too seriously” or being “unsisterly.”

These experiences aren’t as viscerally repellent as the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant, but they suggest just how pervasive more subtle racism is in the Greek world.




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Social Problems, Vol. 57, No. 4 (November 2010), pp. 653-679
Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems