After reading Ara Hagopian’s recent column titled “Don’t Decry the Greek System if You Use It for Your Own Gain,” I felt a flush of emotion: anger, sadness, shame and, ultimately, an overarching sense of disempowerment. As someone who holds multiple marginalized identities and actively works to reform my fraternity and the Greek system at large, I felt betrayed.
I first want to challenge the idea that there is an option to “not participate” in the Greek system at Cornell. Any undergraduate student who attends Cornell interacts with Greek members on a daily basis, benefits from the financial contributions of wealthy Greek alumni and creates a professional network that is heavily influenced by the Greek system. Historically, these privileges were created by excluding people of color, the LGBT+ community, people of low socioeconomic status, international students, religious minorities and many others. Cornell is a mountain of privilege that is heaped on the backs of the marginalized, and so by simply attending the university you are benefitting from this oppression. Separating yourself from this system is impossible, and denying your participation makes deconstructing the system impossible.
At one point, the column calls for women to recuse themselves from the Greek system, “If not for the sake of your own community, then for the sake of your gay friends.” Not only is this demand of women typical of the traditional gender power dynamic, but it erases the multiplicity of identity and neglects the narratives of other marginalized identities, such as people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, first-generation students, people of color, international students and differently-abled people, who are oppressed not only within the Greek system, but broadly across our campus.
The column’s well-intentioned call for solidarity is certainly important in deconstructing the oppressive institutions within the Greek system, but it is aimed at the wrong people. It is historically privileged identities who have the most power to address inequity. We should not be calling on marginalized people to further compromise their campus positions and remove themselves from institutions that give them power. The privilege offered by the Greek community is historically inaccessible by these groups, and asking them to surrender newly-claimed privilege is outright regressive.
Consider if every person who holds a marginalized identity were to deactivate from the Greek system. Would this weaken the institution in any form? Access to the alumni network and institutional power via trustee alumni would be unaffected. Access to exclusive housing would be unaffected. The major difference is that the institutions would become exponentially more homogenous. In my eyes, this exacerbates the issue in every aspect.
Okay, then let’s burn it all down. If the University bans the Greek system wholly, does this abolish the core of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism that exists on this campus? Or would a mock system simply rise from the ashes? Most importantly, would this mock system be as easily influenced by the University as an institution?
It is time that we stop viewing Greek life as the source, but rather as the vehicle of oppression. We can use the vehicle to our advantage by encouraging the marginalized to continue to rise up and claim institutional power within these exclusive spaces. These are the people who will make the reforms we so desperately need. In shaming the marginalized for our work at reforming the institution, and for failing to “align your everyday actions with your morals,” you are failing to stand in solidarity. You are committing horizontal oppression.
The solution is not to disaffiliate (although if you must for self-care, I would never take that away from you), nor is it to disempower target identities. The solution is to dig deeper, to empower each other, and to claim victory in the face of criticism. If that looks like a non-Greek educating themselves or others on how Cornell and the Greek system as institutions perpetuate oppression, then I will support your voice with mine. If it looks like any Greek running on a platform of reform, then I will promote your campaign and cast my vote for you.
My final thought is to recognize that none of us have the perfect solution. No one has been spared from oppressive socialization. No one can indisputably “teach” perfect social justice to anyone else. We are all a work in progress in terms of equity and inclusion. With that in mind, I beseech you to get involved in the campus dialogue. We are all teachers and learners in the story of social equity.
Cole Johnston is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and is the diversity and inclusion chair for Phi Delta Theta and a facilitator for the Intergroup Dialogue Project. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room runs periodically.