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A first-generation college student, my expectations regarding this transformative period of life were dictated largely by media portrayals of university life. I often dreamed about going to my first football game, meeting friends who would last a lifetime and soaking up the best four years of my life as an independent, respectable adult.
As a freshman, I had decided that there was no better way to enhance my college experience than by joining Greek life. I’d seen “Legally Blonde” and “House Bunny,” and I could imagine myself at sorority formals, charity events and even my sisters’ weddings later on in life. As I signed up for fall formal recruitment that year, I convinced myself that Greek life could provide me with the friendships, memories, and social experiences I had missed out on in high school. I had no qualms joining Greek life as a woman of color, because I had perceived it as some sort of utopia where all women, regardless of their differences, could unite in the name of sisterhood.
Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t been so hopeful. Instead of gaining friendships and creating memories with my sisters, I witnessed the darker side of Greek life ─ one which is not unfamiliar to its members of color. Rather than uplifting women and greater collegiate communities, Greek life has proven to be a toxic system that falsely advertises an unrealistic college experience and fails to live up to its grand expectations.
Greek life embodies the definition of a historically White institution on every level. Regardless of the diverse groups present on campus, it’s one of the only places you can go at any given time and see an all-White membership untouched by outside diversity. Sororities are the pinnacle of tradition, an altered state of reality where it’s completely fine, and almost normal, to have not one Person of Color in a chapter. This is a regular practice in many sororities, upheld by legacy status and letters of recommendation, which have traditionally pushed White women further in the recruitment process while discriminating against women of color. Systematically rejecting marginalized groups of people reduces diversity and representation in Greek communities. It also isolates the overall Greek experience for members of color, because it effectively tokenizes marginalized members by reducing them to statistics used to satisfy diversity reports.
The tradition of racial discrimination has created a duality in the Greek life we now know, a split in the Greek life experience. On one hand, White members are afforded the experience that Greek life has always advertised, and the privileges that come with it. On the other hand, the members of color and members of marginalized groups experience a half-reality, one where they are forced to play a role that was never written for them to begin with for a White audience.
I’ve experienced this unfortunate phenomenon many times throughout my membership. It’s lonely, tiring and mentally draining to maintain a charade just for the promise of sisterhood and college memories. For the majority of my membership, I’ve felt like I was living on the outside — like there was some sort of disconnect between my experience and the ones I’d seen my sisters post about. Even worse, I’ve blamed myself for being on the outs instead of realizing the bigger issue at hand: a system once again failing those who it was not designed to uplift anyway. I, unfortunately, had proven to be yet another caught in the process.
This isn’t to say I regret the time I’ve spent as a member of a Greek organization. I also acknowledge that for some, the Greek life experience is one that distinguishes a college experience. However, if Greek life continues to provide this positive experience to its White members only, all while denying the same prospect to its members of color, we have to acknowledge that it is a system built and operating on White privilege in the name of upholding tradition. The true mission of a sisterhood should be to empower and uplift its members, regardless of their ethnicity, financial situation, gender identity, ability and sexuality. To market Greek life as a one-size-fits-all experience, when it is quite the contrary, is to minimize and diminish the forgotten stories of the women of color in Greek life. To break this pattern of upholding White privilege, Greek organizations must listen to their marginalized members, make membership more accessible to diverse groups of individuals and reflect on the harm they perpetuate.
The author, who wished to publish anonymously to protect her identity, is a sorority member at UO.