One could say that Greek life is almost as American as the United States itself; the organizations have virtually been around since the country’s very beginning in 1776. Since the beginning, they were intended to provide a private place for undergraduate college students to debate and discuss opinions and topics that were looked down upon by faculty members.
Nowadays, however, through popular culture and news media, Greek life is connected to certain stereotypes — frat parties, cult-like rituals, and brutal hazing, to name a few. In response to these negative stereotypes, a recent York College graduate, Kayleigh Dumas, started a photo project with the hashtag: #WeAreNotOurStereotypes. The series of photographs features stark black-and-white photographs of Greek-life members holding up whiteboards that supposedly refute the stereotypes associated with all Greek-life members.
As a member of Greek-life myself, I appreciate the sentiment. I see the blank stares from my friends when I tell them about my Greek association. I defend my choice to participate against comments such as “You’re just paying for your friends” and “You must party all the time” on a daily basis. I welcome the idea of breaking down those common misconceptions.
#WeAreNotOurStereotypes, however, only revalidates the stereotypes that people have about Greek life on college campuses. The photos only feature white or white-passing Greek-life members, with the exception of one Asian girl, and the accompanying statements on the whiteboard are rarely groundbreaking or contradictory at all: Going to church every Sunday and going to parties on the weekend aren’t mutually exclusive, and being bilingual doesn’t automatically mean being (multi-)cultured. And how awful is it that a person has to wear RedTree, Carhartt, and Red Wing boots instead of Vineyard Vines, Sperrys, and Ralph Lauren? (Answer: Not at all).
I believe Greek life can be a positive institution. It’s the unspoken part about sorority life that I find so hard to convey to non-Greeks: the celebration of womanhood, the sharing of values, and the challenge of leadership. Greek life can provide so many different positives to a widespread amount of people.
But creating a space where people of color don’t feel comfortable or safe limits the amount of people who can reap such benefits of participating in a Greek-life organization. And photo projects such as #WeAreNotOurStereotypes only further isolate minorities from Greek life.
Additionally, complaining about being perceived as party girls or dumb boys only highlights white privilege. Maybe people assume frat boys have a low GPA, but the fact that fraternities are only active in higher-educational institutions that many minorities can only dream of entering is something to contemplate. Maybe people assume sorority women only party, but the fact that these women have the capabilities to wither away time with drinking and general debauchery highlights their ability to focus on their own enjoyment rather than worrying about other burdens. Greek members fulfill a specific type of social and economic background in order to participate in their organizations, which automatically place them in a higher position of power than those who cannot participate due to financial or other reasons.
I won’t bullshit. There are times when I question my own decision to join a sorority. Dues are expensive, social events flood the calendar, and, not going to lie, rituals make me feel as if I’ve joined cult. And while I identify with my sisters through socioeconomic and academic backgrounds, as one of the only Asian Americans, I do look around at my sisters and wonder why I chose to participate in a historically white, elitist institution. Am I participating in what Jay Caspian Kang describes as “the blind sprint towards whiteness”? What is my identity? As an Asian American, what kind of representation am I communicating towards others? Are the aforementioned benefits worth it?
Looking at #WeAreNotOurStereotypes further deepens these doubts. As a member, I feel embarrassed on behalf of the Greek community for this photo series. There are so many more things that we, as an organization, can accomplish rather than complaining about our (privileged) plight. With our numbers, our networks, and our capabilities, we have the potential to impact society in positive ways. We either need to change the dialogue from our own predicament to those of others or internally begin creating a space for people of color or people of other socioeconomic backgrounds. Greek life creates a microcosm that only reflects the real world filled with white dominance, male hierarchy and heteronormative culture. As college students, we have the ability to change that little world, one stereotype at a time.
(Title image via).