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Tradition: Who are we without it

Olwyn Bartis

DISCLAIMER: Within this piece, the terms IFC, Panhellenic, and Greek life do not include the NPHC and multicultural fraternities/sororities


The past has a rigid grip on us, whether or not we care to admit it. Regardless of the group or community one identifies with, there exists an innate, yet noticeable, enthrallment with former habits and customs- a movement in which the collective as a whole unconsciously looks to that which has come before as the standard for what ought to come next. Determined to preserve our egos, we convince ourselves that "there are negatives to everything;" and in doing so, we consciously settle for less. “This is the way it’s always been,” we remind one another, diluting reality and blending the line between who we are and who we should be; because, at the end of the day, we aren’t interested in reflection. The task of soothing and rectifying past trauma and toxicity seems far too daunting to handle, especially when the past has begun to melt into the present.  This comfort, this unspoken agreement to tolerate that which we have outgrown, manifests itself in all aspects of our lives- and it is certainly not absent from our own college experience. 


Recently, a petition calling for the dissolvement of the IFC and Panhellenic has circulated around Duke, its demands strengthened by personal confessions about negative Greek life experiences on campus. The request formally states that “Greek life is a fundamentally broken system … [and] it was never meant to be equitable for all groups … It was made to be and has served as an oppressive and exclusionary system, and … it can never be truly reformed.” As articulated, these communities cannot be re-designed; a structure built upon traditionally discriminatory principles can not and will not change. In order to permanently disband this system’s abuse of power, so that we may transform “the way that it’s always been,” the IFC and Panhellenic must be abolished.


Greek life has an incredibly nuanced existence. Whether or not one personally identifies with a Panhellenic society or fraternity council falls outside of the point- these organizations cast an impenetrable cloud across any given college campus; their presence possesses a tangible “otherness.” This contrast between Greek societies and the general population, though, does not originate from any hypothetical differences that make members just a little more noticeable, somewhat more distinct than the average student. No, the (ironic) idiosyncrasy that accounts for this perceived division exists within the homogenous nature of Greek life as a whole. Now, this approach to the topic may appear insensitive, if not generalizing, but it makes sense when thought about objectively. And, more importantly, given the history of these organizations, insignificance is the least toxic characteristic that they breed- but we’ll delve into that later.


The uniformity apparent within the majority of fraternities and sororities births out of “group-think,” and an overwhelming urge to feel connected to something. These organizations don’t recruit members based upon one’s desire to initiate change; participants join fraternities and sororities as extensions of tradition. They are the appendages to a well-run system, a means through which the concepts and ideas of the past are preserved and executed. There is no evolution in Greek life; it exists as a stagnant hierarchy built upon a former model of power- a symbol that has historically been one of elitism and exclusion. Because of this, there is no actual growth within the Greek life communities. There exists no development, no progression, no successful efforts to better one’s surroundings. Instead, the system breeds for obedience and consistency, both in thought and action; like minded people join other like minded people, creating an environment that stifles diversity- a component necessary for growth. This being said, those who join Greek communities ultimately lack the power necessary to do anything other than numbly follow those in charge; because if you express an opinion that contradicts the established train of thought, or if your background fails to check the predetermined boxes, you become silenced.


Greek life is a product of tradition, yes- but a tradition of stultification and willful ignorance. And yes, groups might host functions or mixers in which they raise proceeds for a social cause; they may issue statements regarding controversial topics at their respective universities or colleges; and yes, you probably have a friend or two, if not more, in one of these communities, a friend whose persona completely contradicts any negative stereotypes you may have heard about Greek life. And this essay isn’t meant to discredit any of those things- your positive experiences with Greek life are valid, and there are people within these communities who don’t contribute to the toxicity typical of Greek life. Nevertheless, the problem lies in the fact that although there are good people who identify with the IFC and Panhellenic, they cannot mend, or even begin to reform, the brokenness of the system. 


Change is a topic that has been at the center of all political, social, and environmental conversations in these last months. As a broader community, we affirm that things must progress; we urge one another to allow for growth. Why, then, have we overlooked Greek life for so long? We focalize our lives around the discovery of new ideas, distinct people, and reimagined meaning- all of which Greek life is designed to eradicate. If we as a whole really do desire a societal shift, why not begin this movement with abolishing Greek life? College is meant to be a formative experience, in which we venture outside of ourselves to experience an array of new ideas and people- all of which enable us to grow. At its best, Greek life births standardization; at its worst, it precipitates the continuous facilitation of toxic and hierarchical behaviors. 


When Greek life first emerged, admittance into fraternities (and also into college) was regulated by both explicitly and implicitly racist policies, so that higher education was prioritized for those in power: white (male) students. Therefore, those who were a part of early fraternities reflected the general college population. When universities and colleges began to allow historically marginalized people to attend their institutions, Greek systems found ways to separate themselves from these students, often adopting white clauses to limit membership to those who fit the original criteria. For example, Delta Sigma Phi instituted the first known published white clause in 1923. This clause, whose language was often adopted into other fraternities’ statements, specified that “Membership is confined to men of the Caucasian race, whose ideals and beliefs are those of modern Christian civilization” (Wiley Online Library). Even after the stance of several universities and subsequent court decisions pushed the national F&S organizations to desegregate, these communities continued to use exclusionary methods, such as dissuading POC to go through recruitment, funneling them into low-ranked groups, and ignoring them completely, a practice that has extended into the present. Even more blatant than this characteristic selection against ‘marked’ students  is the outright racism that continues to thrive within these fraternities and sororities, fueled by Greek life’s roots and the stratified actions that maintain them. For example, it becomes more difficult to ignore the ingrained prejudice typical of Greek life when you have members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chanting, "There will never be a ni**er in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**er in SAE,” as a 2015 recording from the University of Oklahoma shows. Unsurprisingly, related behavior occurs at Duke, as well:


-“They made me, a black man, eat an entire watermelon”

-A frat member hesitating to let a woman of color into an event before remarking, “I guess you can go in too; some of the guys might like it”

-All-white societies pairing (potential) members of color with other (potential) members of color as a means of tokenism


Examples such as these aren’t the result of something as simple as unintended ignorance; rather, they are born of a learned categorization, an ingrained habit of classifying marked and unmarked characteristics. And, predictably, the  people labeled as ‘other’ are those who have not historically benefited from the initial principles of Greek life. As seen, this eternalized marginalization tends to become more complex regarding issues of racist behavior; the blind faith with which Greek life participants follow the system maintains discrimination against those who are ‘marked’ (i.e., members who are not white and upper-class). Moreover, these situations continuously occur because the trademark homogeneity of the Greek system allows for the excusal of any racist behavior. We, as a society, have always been eager to provide excuses for such actions, because assuming responsibility and analyzing patterns causes personal distress- especially when the topic under inquiry regards our personal contributions, or lack thereof, to progress. Therefore, many of these toxic behaviors are swept under the rug, identified as a mistake rather than racism. And ultimately, this dismissal becomes the accelerant for future situations of the sort, because the root of the issue never receives scrutiny. Greek life was never designed to be analyzed; its origins were not meant to be examined and redressed. The system was established to both reflect and perpetuate its initial members and values- no amount of sensitivity training or promotional diversity will ever reform this elemental purpose.

In addition to blatant exclusion, Greek life also creates an irreversible, pervasive social hierarchy, a convoluted structure that engenders a multiplicity of problems. The criteria to join, ranging from appearance to socioeconomic status, establishes an unhealthily competitive and destructive environment, in which members’ mental health and personal wellbeing becomes compromised in order to generate an aura of perfection, exclusivity, and superiority. In order to maintain said appearance, the ‘pecking order,’ if you will, is reinforced through a variety of practices. With fraternities, it’s hazing; sororities tend to be less physical, yet just as toxic verbally and emotionally. 

Two stories shared on the Abolish Duke IFC&Panhellenic come to mind. 

- A fraternity member recounting his experience with hazing, remarking that “The entire culture of our pledging revolved around repressing our emotions for fear of getting hazed more if we couldn’t deal with it … Most of my brothers [aren’t] even remotely conscious of the negative emotions that we all internalize … as a result of our toxic culture of cliques and internalized social hierarchies”

- A member of Kappa Kappa Gamma explaining how the rush process involves “rating you from a powerpoint presentation … on a scale 0-4… after a 5 minute conversation”

You have to wonder why we continually subject ourselves to this sort of treatment. Do those of us who participate in these systems truly believe that we, as individuals, have the power to override a century’s worth of oppressive, calculated behavior? In contrast, are we aware that we lack this capacity, but feel as though Greek life is the only way to maximize our college experience? Worst of all, some of us comprehend the fact that the system is utterly and irrevocably fucked; we’re content to contribute to the well-oiled machine of arbitrary cruelty that this structure is. This social ranking ensures that Greek communities physically cannot adapt, cannot change. They have always been and will always be similar in demographics, homogeneous in appearance, and wholly complicit in toxic behavior. The more a society shuts others out and the more it ostracizes those who are different, the more dangerous it becomes. This is the crux of Greek life: to maintain the hierarchy of the past. 


Moreover, with established ranking comes a sense of self-perceived invincibility. Sexual assault, especially male on female, has long been a concern on college campuses, to the point where it has begun to be normalized, to the point where women are taught that it’s likely to happen to them. Told that our actions can precipitate rape, that we must be on the lookout. That we must behave differently to avoid being violated. At Duke alone, rape remains a highly prevalent (yet drastically under-addressed) issue; a 2018 Chronicle survey reported that 48% of Duke women had experienced sexual assault during their time as an undergraduate student. The response to this statistic was an online “Alcohol Education and Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates” program for incoming undergraduates, a “training session” that again, shifted the conversation to what can be done to decrease one’s chances of being sexually assaulted. Last summer, I spent less than an hour completing this module in my childhood bedroom, clicking through questions on what makes one more vulnerable to rape, what should be done in such a situation, who should be contacted, etc. The entire time, I remember thinking, “how is this going to accomplish anything?” Women, and men as well, know how to protect themselves against predators. To be on the defense is a mindset that’s been indoctrinated in us since children. We don’t need a reminder; instead, the root of the issue must be addressed, beginning with the behavior exhibited in Greek life. 


The IFC has long held a negative stereotype of toxic masculinity, a standard consistently reinforced by rape culture within fraternities. To address this point, Dr. John Foubert, an interdisciplinary speaker and scholar, conducted a study that analyzed the intersection between a fraternity experience and sexual assault. Through self-reported, anonymous measures, Foubert found that fraternity members were three times more likely to commit sexual assault than men who were not in fraternities. In addition to an overall higher rate of sexual assault, it was discovered that fraternity members were also more likely to be undetected rapists while in college, i.e. men who have committed rape an average of six times but are never held accountable for their crime (CNN, 2013). Statistically speaking, a fraternity brother is three times more likely than his non-member, male peer to commit rape. A crime he could carry out more than once, and most likely not be punished for. How do our institutions condone this blatant abuse of power? How have we enabled the system for so long that these assaults are “everyday,” and increasingly easier to ignore or patch up?


Of all the stories on the “Abolish Duke IFC and Panhellenic” Instagram page that involve sexual assault, this one in particular stuck with me, as this occurrence embodies the very entitlement that allows for fraternities’ abuse of power:

“My sophomore year, a girl was sexually assaulted at one of my fraternity’s events … [and] my president reached out to me to tell me that we needed to schedule a mixer with [her] sorority immediately… When I asked why, he told me of the situation, and then said that this would help appease the assault scenario and ensure that nothing came out of it.” 

A woman was raped, and her trauma was utilized as a stepping stone to gain more power. The sorority she pledged to and identified with manipulated her assault and denied her justice, so that they could socialize with a fraternity higher up on the Greek “totem pole.” Through organizing a social event, the fraternity evaded all responsibility and was able to sidestep scrutiny.

With this being said, I haven't even scratched the surface. 

Greek life is a tree: its trunk, the part that holds it upright and that which we can see, is its uniformity; what goes below the surface are the roots. Roots which contribute to nm intentional isolation, which exacerbate discrimination, which beget racism and sexism, which members internalize, which… You get my drift. The core of this issue is the tradition behind Greek life; the institution in itself is a method of continuation. When members seek out pledges that mirror their own thoughts and experiences, members from similarly privileged backgrounds, the system and its behaviors are immortalized. Both the good and the bad. No amount of implicit bias training can fix that.


We exist in a period of immense change- for the betterment of all that we’ve encountered socially, politically, and economically. Why not adopt the same attitude in regards to Greek life; what’s stopping us from eradicating a structure that’s founded on resistance to growth? Whether we ignore the issues within the system or participate in hopes of bettering those around us, ultimately, results in the same accomplishment- none at all. The only way to stop feeding into an institution that looms larger than ourselves is to call for its removal. 


Realizing that our actions as individuals will not  improve the system is humbling, but also empowering. What we cannot do singularly, we can accomplish together- Greek life lacks the fundamental ability to change. So, let’s take responsibility as a whole, and educate ourselves. Let’s become aware of what really goes on in Greek life, and let’s be comfortable discussing the role that we all have to play, whether it’s one borne of conscious actions or complacency. Because the reason for this toxicity: It’s us. And it’s time to act like it. 

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