Dear members of predominantly white Greek organizations,
Needless to say, this past week has felt particularly exhausting and brutal. As a non-Black person of color (POC), I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it has been for Black members of our community to witness the systemic brutality that occurred not just these past few weeks but also in the past, when white and non-Black POCs did not stand up as loudly as they have for George Floyd’s murder. To have this tragedy on top of a pandemic that already disparately impacts Black and Brown Americans, too, feels surreal — not because we have never seen this disparity throughout history, but because we have seen endless racial violence over and over again throughout history. It is as though America has become a stage for justice’s cinematic demise.
This past week, as people took to social media to respond to racial violence, I have appreciated and felt inspired by other non-Black POCs and white students who have spoken out against racism alongside our Black classmates. Phrases like anti-racism, anti-Blackness and #blacklivesmatter fill my news feeds. Amid the senseless, unapologetic, persistent brutality that our nation has witnessed, social media has become, thankfully, a loud space in which many of our classmates have held each other accountable for not only speaking, but also taking action against racism.
Many Greek organizations, too, quickly announced their support for the Black community in various forms on social media. Some shared donation Bingo boards; some released statements; others shared fundraiser stickers. All posts explicitly and implicitly stated, “We would like to acknowledge the prevalent racism in our country.”
These posts have made me — especially as a member of a predominantly white Greek organization at Stanford — reflect on what it really means for a predominantly white social organization to show support for anti-racism. Of course, posting on social media is one of many ways to show solidarity. That a disproportionate concentration of the institution’s wealthiest students engages with predominantly white Greek organizations is no topic of question. To mobilize financial support as organizations with access to the most amount of resources makes sense.
Nonetheless, we must ask ourselves the following questions: What does it mean when we, as organizations, have chosen to build communities of mostly white students, and yet hurriedly stand up for the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean when we boast only a few token students of color in our organizations, yet actively stand against racism? What does it mean when, come rush, we handpick such an overwhelming majority of white and white-passing students to join our groups that the few admitted students of color become exceptions to the norm?
What does it mean to draw a line between when you stand up for people of color and when you include them in your social group? In this differentiation — in choosing between when to include someone of color in your world and when not to — lies racism. No matter how good your intentions are, no matter how much you’d like to blame the lack of ethnic diversity in the next pledge class on your “personality mismatch,” prejudice speaks for itself. Year after year, rush season after rush season, implicit racial bias manifests in the disproportionate lack of students of color who stick out in pledge class photos.
Some may claim that their organization’s racial homogeneity is not their fault; some may claim that the problem lies in the lack of interest that students of color have in predominantly white organizations; others may say that their organization is not diverse because the group of people who rush is not racially diverse. But these scapegoats circle back to the same problem. You might ask yourself why a student of color may not want to join your organization. If an Inter-Sorority Council (ISC) or Interfraternity Council (IFC) organization were, indeed, characterized solely by personality and by culture unrelated to its constituents’ race and color, a student’s race or color would not determine her interest in the organization.
Let me repeat myself. If you believe that your organization is predominantly white solely because students of color simply do not prefer your organization to others, your organization likely — almost certainly — characterizes something that feels unwelcome to students of color. In other words, you — we — have it wrong.
The boundaries that white America has set up between when people of color can occupy predominantly white social spaces and when they cannot have consumed American history. In fact, these boundaries are enforced so frequently that they are now historical clichés. Yet, America picks up its pen and rewrites this pattern over and over again.
Take, for example, the color line between the “mammy” and the “mother.” In antebellum America, the “mammy” stereotype represented a domestic slave who could do it all. Most importantly, she was a beloved nursemaid to her master’s children. Popularly employed as an argument against abolitionists, the fictional “mammy” stereotype represented a “mother-like” slave who felt happy to be treated as a part of the white family.
But as “mother-like” as they claimed the “mammy” was to white children, northern and southern white Americans alike felt uncomfortable extending Black women’s post-emancipation rights to include legal guardianship over white children. White Americans rushed to deter Black women from becoming white children’s mothers, roles previously reserved to only white women. In 1916, in the case of Majorie Delbridge, a Chicago court cited only racial difference when it ruled that Camille Jackson — a Black woman who had taken care of Delbridge, a white girl, since Delbridge’s infancy — could not be the girl’s legal guardian. The judge, justifying his decision, called Jackson Delbridge’s “mammy.” In 1911, a New York City judge cited only racial differences, too, when he removed an 8-year-old white girl from the custody of Jane Collins, whom The New York Times described as “a black mammy of the old type.” In these decisions, America’s courts implicitly declared that the Black woman was like family only when her “mammy” identity could brand white Americans as kind, caring and paternal.
In other words, as soon as the Black woman could take a step closer to assuming an equal position as a white woman, white Americans no longer celebrated the Black woman’s proximity to white authority. Americans’ rallies and courts’ decisions to remove Black women’s legal guardianship of white children on a solely racial basis sent a clear message: Blacks’ proximity to whites could be celebrated only when the proximity was convenient to the white cause. In other communities of color, too, we have witnessed that Americans of color constantly perch on a precipitous cliff between being a safe minority and a dangerous one. After 9/11, we witnessed anti-Arab sentiment thrive in America. As COVID-19 ripples throughout the globe and physical assaults against Asians increase, we see the alarming speed at which Asians’ status as the model minority can transform to Yellow Peril.
Now, I do not mean to equate standing up against police brutality with creating and upholding the “mammy” stereotype. I do not mean to say that belonging to a predominantly white social organization is the hallmark of a racist. I have greatly benefited from my organization; some of my closest friends are its members.
A boundary exists, however, between speaking out against a blatantly racist act and admitting students of color as members of our social organizations. I see a perilous parallel between differentiating a “mammy” from a “mother,” and standing up for justice on behalf of people of color while generally denying their worthiness to be fellow “brothers” or “sisters.”
To post about anti-racism, to donate to organizations that contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and to educate oneself are all solid first steps toward fighting against racism in America. The social identity of the action-taker does not necessarily render the action wrong. Even so, we become hypocrites if we cease trying to include more people of color in our organizations once this flurry of attention toward racial violence passes. I hope that today’s renewed national attention to racism is a wake-up call that makes us reflect not only today and tomorrow, but next year and the years after, on how we engage with the POC community. Now that many of us have talked the talk, I hope that we will walk the walk.
If you truly support anti-racism, reflect on how you and the social entities to which you belong might contribute to systemic racism. Think about why and how your organization may have drawn an implicit racial boundary between those who are fit to characterize your organization and those who are not. Consider that social organizations at all levels create and shape an individual’s social capital, and that you play a role in determining how to distribute that social capital. Think long and hard about how your organization portrays itself, how racially diverse your organization is, and how you personally and honestly feel about your organization’s racial composition. Take initiatives to make your organization’s lack of diversity visible and to promote change: For example, each organization could annually publish the racial diversity of students who rush and of those who ultimately join the organization. If you are willing to use your social media platform to speak up so quickly about anti-racism, think about and execute ways to make your organization feel more welcoming to students of color.
Do not promote anti-racism only when doing so serves you. Do not use people of color as a convenient opportunity to brand yourself as an individual or a group that stands for racial justice. Remember: Picking out when to include people of color in your world and when not to do so is one of the most potent forms of discrimination.
Jiyoung Jeong ’21, Member at Stanford Kappa Alpha Theta, Phi Deuteron Chapter
Special thanks to Clara Spars ’21 and Melissa Santos ’21 for their support in my writing this letter.
Contact Jiyoung Jeong at jiyoungj ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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