Amidst last week’s protests at Mizzou and Yale, thousands of us college students across the country turned to Facebook to express solidarity. We posted the status:
“To the students of color at Mizzou and Yale, we, student allies at [insert school name], stand with you in solidarity. To those who would threaten your sense of safety, we are watching. #ConcernedStudent1950 #InSolidarityWithMizzou”
It was powerful to witness and take part in this tide of collective consciousness. It was also easy to copy and paste, pat myself on the back and forget about racial justice in the long term. Now that the news cycle is done with Mizzou, how can we, who declared our allyship last week, outlive the transience of hashtag activism?
Acting on our social media solidarity, we showed up in person to the Stanford #InSolidaritywithMizzou gathering in White Plaza. We took a photo of the crowd with a poster that read, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I was proud to see and be part of the 1,000 Stanford students, faculty and staff who supported this message. I also had to face up to my hypocrisy in standing behind the sign: I actively partake in Stanford institutions that are neutral on racial justice. I should not get credit for “standing in solidarity” on Facebook while failing to speak up within groups that despite best intentions, tacitly uphold racist structures.
Nowhere have I been more “neutral” than in Stanford Greek life. Protests at Yale erupted in part because a frat party turned away “dark-skinned students” at the door because they wanted “white girls only.” This rule is already in practice, unspoken, at most Stanford frat parties I’ve attended.
From a bird’s-eye view, my pledge class is white (85 percent). We are 45 women total, with two black members, three half-Asian members and two Indian members. This whiteness exists not necessarily because the sorority is literally turning away people of color but because we started white, which in practice attracts other white people of similar class backgrounds to the exclusion of others. It sounds innocent and understandable: People just want to hang out with people who look like them, so mostly white girls rush and mostly white girls join.
The problem arises when we are overwhelmingly white and doing nothing to address it. If we are complacent in our white homogeneity, then in effect, we are saying “white girls only.” And we as an institution are certainly complacent.
A few weeks ago I filled in for a friend as my sorority’s representative to the Inter-Sorority Council meeting, along with representatives from all seven sororities on campus. I was placed on the Diversity Committee for that meeting. The committee’s director started by saying how important diversity was and that therefore, ISC would kick off the year with an exciting event: a speaker event on the Syrian refugee crisis. When I asked what that had to do with diversity, I was told, “it shows that we in Greek life have a diversity of interests!”
I weighed my reaction for a moment. I could say what I was thinking: “That’s ridiculous! A commitment to ‘diversity’ does not mean a diversity of interests — it means having more than one (token) woman of color in this room, it means not appropriating black culture (see: white girls getting cornrows during spring break), it means reducing sorority dues to include low-income students, to name a few.” But I looked around, and worried I’d sound like an angry woman of color — that what I said would fall on deaf ears (though perhaps I was wrong). So instead I said, in my most measured, palatable tone, “what about racial diversity?” The committee director said that it was too complicated for now and would be taken up in a later quarter. This is all to say what is probably already obvious to many: ISC, which represents Stanford sororities, is not diverse and does not care.
Our “white girls only” attitude has implications beyond the exclusivity of parties and mixers. Fraternities and sororities are as much professional networks as they are social. We give each other internship leads during school and hiring preferences once we graduate. Closing off these opportunities and corollary social mobility to students of color is not just “neutral” but harmful.
Many of us as individuals have declared our solidarity with students of color at Mizzou and Yale. But to really mean it we must be willing to examine the institutions we hold most dearly whose operating principles are in opposition to the demands of our allies. These institutions must do better. If they cannot, we should ask ourselves why they exist at all.
Contact Madeleine Chang at madkc95 ‘at’ stanford.edu.