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Cultural competence, part one: The Greek system


“But you’re not Black … ” I know …

“But you’re not Polynesian … ” I know …

“But you don’t look Hispanic … ” Don’t get me started.

Freshman year, my friends told me I wouldn’t get kicked out of Kwanzaa dinner if I went – and I didn’t. In high school, my Tongan and Hawaiian friends said of course I should join the Polynesian dance club, and though I was afraid I wouldn’t be invited to join that community again at Stanford – I was. In my time here, I’ve interacted with and felt at home in a variety of communities. But now, looking back on these four years, I’m so surprised to see that the communities that have made me feel most at home here are not the communities where it would appear I “belong.” I have felt more welcomed and supported in the Black and Native communities than in any of the other communities I’ve explored – I’d head to Black House or the NACC way before I’d ever casually wander into El Centro or the WCC. In the spirit of free speech, unpopular opinions and saying what’s usually met with raised eyebrows, I want to take this opportunity to start a series on what I wish the Greek, Hispanic/Latino, and “women’s” communities could learn from what I’ve perceived to be key characteristics of the Black and Native communities that have made them so welcoming to me.

It’s no secret that the Greek system is overwhelmingly white. It’s also no secret that “diversity” has been quite the buzzword heading into recruitment. I’m here to remind everyone that we’re more than faces that give you some legitimacy when you call your organization “diverse.” Once we’re there, you need to be aware of the kind of environment you create for us. In my experience, reactions to “issues” like this are usually subversive. Greek organizations like to cover up problems and pretend they don’t exist, which is both a function of being constantly under fire (hi, administration) and of not knowing what to do about it. Take a page out of the Native community’s playbook and realize that your organization is comprised of people from many different backgrounds who all see the world differently. Take a page out of the Black community’s playbook and be proactive and intentional with your dialogue and actions.

When I have been in a Greek space where someone (sometimes not even me, as I’m sure people who know me will be surprised to hear) brings up the question of whether this space is really comfortable for minorities (be they minorities by ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, physical condition, etc.), people don’t really respond. The room goes quiet or someone suggests delegating that concern to someone else. These are not “behind closed doors” “issues.” We’re people, not problems, and if these conversations aren’t had as chapters, as councils, as a community, how can we expect our brothers and sisters to realize what our experience is like, and how can we expect them to help us improve it?

I’ve tried going outside of my sorority for this type of support but ended up in a community that was Latina-friendly, but ardently anti-Greek, and I found myself caught in an awkward position where my Greek community didn’t know how to support my identity as a Latina and my Latina community didn’t know how to support my identity as an ISC sorority woman. I want to know why this has to happen – why are Greek organizations so afraid of talking about these things as a chapter? We’ll talk in greater-community abstract terms, but when it comes to specific examples in our own organizations, we hit dead ends. Minorities are becoming increasingly visible in Greek life, so when will our community start acting like we’re all sisters/brothers with different identities to learn about, celebrate and appreciate instead of continuing to disregard our experiences through a one-size-fits-all approach?

Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing what I want to change about the Greek community – namely the gender and power inequalities and the relatively low minority representation – some of my friends from the Native community raised an interesting point I hadn’t yet considered. In the Greek system, we take terms like “colonizing” (meaning when your organization starts a new chapter at a school) for granted. How many of us have stopped to think about what it means to have these predominantly white organizations “colonizing” new schools all the time? (For anyone who isn’t picking up what I’m putting down, colonizing –> colonization –> wiping out indigenous people and cultures.)

The moral of the story here? These normalizations of behavior and language run deep. I can’t speak for every organization out there, but in the accounts I’ve heard and in what I’ve experienced, these organizations are set up in a way that does not support chapter-wide discussion about the problems that minority-identifying members face. The system works to quiet potentially incendiary opinions, at risk of garnering unfavorable national attention, and does not have measures in place to promote self-awareness and criticism. When will the allegedly “empowered” women in Greek life start acting empowered by challenging the gender roles built into our system? When will minorities in the Greek system stop being subjected to tokenism and sidelining?

My answer to most of these questions is this: We’ll create better spaces when we all recognize that the people we share spaces with are individuals with complex identities beyond the things we have in common. Being in a “diverse” fraternity or sorority means having brothers/sisters with backgrounds and experiences that are different from your own, and being a true brother/sister means caring about those differences. The strength of the Native and Black communities comes in large part from their ability to recognize differences amongst their members and embrace them because of those differences, not in spite of them. But learning how to create a community that strong is only possible when we strive to learn enough about each other to understand where we’re all coming from. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but as someone who has found my way into lots of communities where I don’t necessarily “belong,” I can offer some pointers. First of all, respect the space. Remember that it’s not meant for you. Understand that its members don’t exist to broaden your horizons. Second, know why you’re there. As a minority, it feels awesome to know that someone is interested in understanding more about my culture and my experience, and although it might take a couple moments of awkward intros and explanations when you attend a cultural event, you’ll be welcomed. Third, carry what you learn with you. Let the perspectives that you learn about inform your understanding of how you take in everything from your course materials to the world around you.

Last, but certainly not least, to everyone in a minority community reading this – when you see someone at a community event who looks a little unsure or out of place, go talk to them and show them what it means to be a part of your community. I was (and frequently am) that kid, so I know it can be scary and uncomfortable. But the people who let me know I was welcome are the ones I have to thank for helping me become who I am today – a Latina in a Polynesian dance group who probably tried to talk you into joining the BSU.

– Lilliana Smith


Contact Lilliana Smith [email protected]


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