Y’all Missed The Point Entirely: on Greek Life, White Supremacy, and Social Justice

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Over the last two weeks, the University of Alabama was caught red-handed in a racism scandal. The general timeline was as follows:

  • The student newspaper Crimson White featured a front-page exposé which revealed that alumni on the selection committees of four different white Greek sororities prevented two black women from moving forward in the selection process, though they were perfectly qualified to do so.
  • Somehow, this surprised people. Righteous rage erupted from all corners of campus, with the Crimson White stuffed full of editorials from indignant white students “calling for change.”
  • University President Judy Bonner released a video statement that the administration would make certain that “remove any barriers that [the aforementioned black women] perceive” to be in their way regarding rushing the white sororities.
  • After some general hullabaloo, including cringe-worthy national attention, white students organized a silent march and protest to “to stand up together against the racism on our campus.” The particular email announcing this protest, sent by the president of the University’s Faculty Senate to a number of student leaders, also included this gem: “We hope that this will be the last time a stand is needed to integrate this campus.”
  • President Bonner reopened the bidding process and dozens of women of color (WoC) received bids. A video was released announcing and celebrating this news.

There are so many problematic elements to bring to light and dissect. All of them fall under white supremacy, which has been properly defined as “a system that maintains legal, political, and economic privilege for whites.” Furthermore, white supremacy values whiteness above and at the expense of other ethnic and cultural markers, and will work through other systems and institutions to preserve it. Here are a small few ways white supremacy was at work throughout this entire debacle, and how absolutely no one either cared or realized it at all:

1. “We hope that this will be the last time a stand is needed to integrate this campus.”

First of all, social justice is an ongoing process. There is no such thing as a “last time,” because there will always be something else to confront and challenge and correct. Did racism end with the abolition of slavery in the US? It turned into Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement. It didn’t even end with President Obama’s election, because now we have the Tea Party to deal with. And that’s just the beginning; that’s just scratching the surface, because political efforts seldom, if ever, encompass the entirety of any issue, or even the entirety of an aspect of an issue. Do you really think that integrating the white Greek houses – that integration, full stop – is the entirety of the issues of race on campus?

Secondly, Alabama’s Greek life is integrated. The black Greek system and other multicultural social organizations have always accepted non-people of color (PoC) into their ranks. The implications of the ignoring of this tidbit is twofold. One, that PoC are expected to freely allow and welcome white people into their spaces, and that that is both appropriate and acceptable in spaces that exist, in the first place, because PoC have been routinely shut out from mainstream (read: white) spaces. White people, in this way, have (or steal) dominion over PoC refuges as well as maintain the legitimacy of spaces that are effectively, if not theoretically, white-only.  Second, as I first mentioned in a Facebook status the day of the protest, by ignoring of Alabama’s ethnic and multicultural social organizations, which have been integrated since their respective conceptions, you are effectively saying that they don’t matter. You are essentially saying, even without realizing it, that nothing “counts” if it doesn’t have to do with white people. You are treating whiteness as the standard. That is white supremacy.

Third, integration and assimilation are not inherently positive answers to racism. They also aren’t the only ones. When PoC join the mainstream, we risk our cultures being lost, erased, and/or ignored. We are expected to become more like “everyone else,” which always means that we are expected to adopt white, middle-class values and behaviors, regardless of whether our respective cultures are equipped or willing to do so. Whatever aspects of our cultures that remain are relegated to five-page blurbs in a history textbook, sold as a trend piece in an outlet mall, and an annual parade… or else is demonized and treated as deviant. Rather than taking the time to evaluate the institutions in place that systematically oppress and discriminate against PoC, white people decide that (some) PoC are “good enough” to be accepted into their circles. Whoever and whatever fell through those cracks, failed to fulfill the criteria put forth that would deem them “acceptable,” are then vilified.

2.The distinct absence of people of color.

With the exception of the black woman who gave a speech at the student protest last Wednesday, and the small handful of students of color among them, PoC were nowhere to be found. Between all three of the major players in this scandal and the subsequent “clean-up,” no one pointed out or even noticed one shared aspect: the administration, the Greek organizations, and UA Stands, the student group that organized the protest in front of Rose Administration, were all (or almost all) white. This entire ordeal involved people of color at its heart, and yet people of color were nowhere to be seen in the most fundamental of ways.

White supremacy is sinister, because it does not limit itself to white hoods and burning crosses. It also allows otherwise progressive – or even passively moderate – people to assume that because they have friends of color and never use racial slurs, they’re not at all racist. Presumably all of those white women in Alabama’s Greek system have never “looked down” on anyone because of their skin color. We’re all equal, right? Yet all of them willingly chose to join an institution that systematically excluded people of color, and that tied into a larger system that unfairly uses and bestows economic privilege on a disproportionate few (who are overwhelmingly white) at the expense of the many (who are overwhelming PoC). The latter issue won’t ever be properly addressed, in favor of the preservation of “tradition.”

The same goes for the progressive white students who organized and led Wednesday’s protest. Comfortable in the rightness of their cause, they were able to take advantage of the white supremacist attitudes that allowed them to (a) be given a platform to speak from with no resistance from the administration, (b) receive prompt response from said administration, and (c) bask in positive attention from powerful international media. When PoC were present and invited, they were only present to affirm and validate white voices and white intrusion into what was rightfully PoC space. Otherwise, there was little to no input from PoC, not until after everything else was neatly concluded, either in favor of the integration of the white Greek system or to critique it.

Alabama’s students of color were exploited and used for the political redemption of an administration and an institution that would have never thought twice about us if their public faces had never been at stake. But they were, so we were.

3.  The self-congratulatory kumbaya moment, or “Y’all missed the point entirely.”

The University’s white people feel real proud of themselves right now. And why wouldn’t they? The student organizers successfully embarrassed the administration into acquiescing; the University worked the scandal so that it seemed like the University’s white Greek system was entirely to blame, and that they were entirely on board. This was presented by the media to the rest of the country as a moment of poetic justice, a fundamental shift in the makeup of the state of Alabama. It was a win-win situation.

No one deserves any pats on their back. People with privilege do not deserve a cookie for acing How to Be a Decent Human Being 101. Everyone involved, from President Bonner to the nameless student in the crowd, as if they actually deserve national news for being dragged kicking and screaming into the Social Justice 101 classroom. Opening up a space formerly reserved for people of privilege to people without that privilege isn’t a time to open up the champagne; it’s a time to reflect on and analyze why that space was closed in the first place and what could be done to minimize and eliminate the systems and institutions that continue to deny equal opportunity to people without privilege.

No one at the University of Alabama stepped outside of their comfort zone with the segregation scandal. The status quo is still in place and still readily, unwittingly reinforced. “Integration” of Alabama’s white Greek system now includes WoC that have a number of sociopolitical privileges are now welcome to join white women who have a number of sociopolitical privileges, though I’d wage a heavy bet that just because those WoC are there, doesn’t mean the systems that those Greek houses belong to will change as well. (Remember: there is always more. Social justice constantly evolves.) What does the so-called integration do for the ethnic social organizations, or anyone who falls outside of the narrow profile of an acceptable Greek member? What did anyone aligned with the three major players in this scandal risk? Absolutely nothing.  Somehow all three major parties involved got it into their collective head that this entire issue is an isolated, one-off event; that it has nothing to do with anything greater than itself. The sheer ignorance and self-importance is staggering. I don’t care that the white Greek system was integrated, because that was only a symptom. It does not at all cure the illness.

But go ahead, pop that champagne. No matter that you’d be better off with cough syrup.

Lastly, a public service announcement. I posted this as a friends-only status message on my Facebook profile, but it’s something that needs to be said while I still have this public soapbox at my disposal:

To people with privilege who’ve decided that they’re allies, you need to know that social justice is not something you “do.” It’s a lived experience in the day-to-day grind. It is not organizing marches and expecting police protection, giving sanitized speeches in front of an adoring crowd, and knowing that you’ll be fairly satisfied by the front-page coverage in the New York Times the following morning. (Or, you know, getting any sort of attention at all from mainstream media.) If you expect any of that, to be followed by civil conversation with snacks provided by the host, you are nobody’s ally for social justice. If you have privilege and you decide that you’ve been called to work with a community that lacks the privilege you have – ignoring for a moment that allyship is not something you get to choose for yourself – the most important thing that you need to know is that YOU GET TO CHOOSE. Tattoo that on your forehead; write it out five hundred times; paint it on your ceiling so it’s the first and last thing you see every day. YOU GET TO CHOOSE.

For those of us without the privilege that you have, we did not get to decide if social justice was something we wanted or not. Sometimes we get to ignore our lack of privilege; sometimes we get to pretend that the lack isn’t “that bad.” Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re without it until all other things really are equal, and That Thing we always assumed people were making a big deal out of nothing for… really is a Big Deal and Has To Do With Everything. Because you know what? You, the person with privilege, can lose all kinds of favor with the kyriarchy – you can lose your job, your family, your home, your wealth, your reputation, your audience, your name – and still get it all back, fully restored to its former glory, as long as you tell them that “you were silly back then; it was just a phase.” You can leave. You can even hold onto the edges of your past progressiveness, long as you ultimately conform. Jesus died for your sins, remember?

The proper response for the University of Alabama’s administration, white Greek organizations, and white student progressives would have been to defer to people of color. The administration perhaps had only one proper response, but that proper response should never have included waving Bill Cosby about as “proof” of President Bonner’s commitment to racial harmony, or whatever. There was absolutely no word from the Black Student Union, the Divine Nine and other ethnic social organizations, or even simply run-of-the-mill black students. Some of us have our reasons for silence, but never mistake silence for apathy, fear, or absence of opinion. A real, honest conversation could have taken place if white people, administrators and faculty and students alike, hadn’t been so quick to “solve the problem.”

A swift move toward integration shut that opportunity down, and has made it even more difficult than usual to open it back up. Already students of color are routinely undermined on this campus when racism and white supremacy are brought up. We’re accused of being hateful, of creating problems, of rocking the boat. Integration allows people to silence us even more, because “what do we have to complain about, now?” One woman commented on my editorial that I “want racism to continue because I just want to be defiant.” That line of thinking is grossly common, because no one has ever taught her and other white people about how racism isn’t limited to bidding processes, and can’t be solved by doing away with block seating in Bryant-Denny Stadium.  Nobody ever bothered to show her that my defiance isn’t left over from some teenage rebellion, but a valid confrontation of something very real and very insidious.

So when somebody without the privilege that you have tells you that you’re wrong, regardless of whether or not you agree with everything they say, you have a responsibility to listen to us. You don’t get to decide what our best course of action is. It would be wrong of you to insert yourself into our conversations, our movements, our spaces and tell us what would be the “right” thing for us to do. Or even worse, decide that those things don’t exist, or that we’re “wasting our potential” in some way, and try to do those things for us. If you’re “doing” social justice to win friends and get your Wikipedia page, or because you have something to prove, you need to leave. Leave or stay silent. You are entitled to nothing. People without the privilege you lack do not owe you anything in the way of educating you, assisting you, or giving you a gold star for any effort you put forth. To expect and demand those things only serves to reinforce the validity of your privilege and enable your entitlement, and the validity of the systems in place that allow you to have those things.

To my white brothers and sisters, and any other person with privilege that have hijacked efforts: you aren’t helping. Have a seat.

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