October 20, 2015

ZUMBA | Black Bruins Matter

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Two weeks ago on the University of California-Los Angeles campus, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the Alpha Phi sorority held a “Kanye Western” themed party. The Facebook event described the party’s theme and suggested that invitees could participate by dressing up. Soon enough, pictures surfaced of students dressed in blackface, wearing “thuggish” clothes, having fake big lips, fake padded bottoms — the racist list goes on. When I heard about this situation, I couldn’t actually believe it happened. It sounds so unrealistic in 2015. There was even a movie about this particular issue, 2014’s Dear White People. it takes a certain kind of person with a large amount of privilege to think that this was a suitable idea for a party.

What made this incident worse and more personal for me was the fact that one of my best friends for almost 10 years is a black student at UCLA. I was already angry when I first heard about what had occurred, but after speaking with my friend about it, I was not only furious, but deeply saddened. After he told me all the details of what had happened, one of the most striking things he said to me multiple times was “I chose to come here. I could have gone anywhere else, but I chose to come here.”

For the past two weeks, those words have been playing over and over in my head because I don’t know what to do to help him. All I could utter in response was “please stay safe,” something that has multiple meanings for students of color. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to feel so degraded and undermined on your own campus, a place where we’re supposed to feel at home. I’m sure that when planning this party and as they got dressed, the people who participated didn’t even consider what effects it might have or how racist the acts truly were.

We can try to pretend that this is an isolated incident, and that just because these chapters*of Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi are racist does not mean every chapter or the entirety of the Greek system is racist; but that would take a lot of imagination. This is only one incident on one campus that involves Greek life; there are so many other controversies relating to different chapters and campuses. The significance of this party is that it helps highlight just one of the issues that the Greek system has. It’s important to recognize that this incident isn’t isolated and that frats and sororities continuously partake in controversial activities all over the country, including on this campus.

Overall, the Greek system is problematic on multiple levels — much like other systems in place in the United States. It’s racist, sexist, classist, etc. Greek life is often a place for the “elite,” especially in already elite institutions like Cornell. We’ve had issues with our own Greek system. A few years ago a student, George Desdunes, died as a result of a fraternity’s hazing. That frat has since been kicked off campus, but punished only that chapter instead of holding the entirety of campus Greek life accountable. Sure, there are certain programs in place to prevent these kinds of issues, but their effectiveness is proving questionable. For instance, just this past year a fraternity was temporarily suspended for supposed hazing practices, but the University couldn’t confirm the allegations. Clearly it’s a continuing issue on this campus and other campuses across the nation.

Part of the reason that the Greek system must be looked at holistically is because, like many other systems, it is rooted in certain disparities. As I said before, the fraternities and sororities are often associated with the “elite.” There are multiple pieces of evidence that emphasize this point; such as the creation of multicultural frats and sororities. One of the incentives for their founding was to empower and unite members of the multicultural/multiethnic communities. On Cornell’s campus in particular, it is evident to me that the two systems have different experiences. A specific example is how multicultural frats and sororities on this campus don’t have their own houses. If they want to hold some kind of event, they have to rent out some Cornell space, sometimes meaning renting non-multicultural fraternity houses. Even so, at least this campus includes multi-cultural frats and sororities — unlike UCLA, which has almost no affiliated multi-cultural frats, and no affiliated Black fraternity or sorority.

I have only scratched the surface of why I’m tired of the Greek system, especially since I didn’t even directly address the blatant misogyny within it. That lies outside the scope of what I’m trying to say. I believe that we need to hold this system, like any other prejudiced system, accountable for its actions as it has continuously demonstrated underlying issues. I also wrote this article in order to demonstrate my solidarity with Black Bruins, including my dear friend.

Sarah Zumba is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Zumba Works it Out appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.