Efad Huq, Stacy Harwood and Ruby Mendenhall
Research from the 2011-2012 Racial Microaggression online survey indicates that one area of concern expressed by students of color is the explicit racism they experience when interacting with largely White fraternity and sororities. Such explicit acts, and more subtle racial microaggressions, make it critical that the university takes a strong stance against racism. This means creating an accessible system to report offenses and acting on the complaints in a way that promotes an inclusive Illinois for all students.
In February, BuzzFeed News published emails from Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity members at the University of Chicago. In those emails, among other outrageous and racist expressions, a Muslim student is referred to as “terrorist,” an empty lot next to the fraternity is called “Palestine,” and fraternity members plan to celebrate “Marathon Luther King Day” by eating at a popular fried chicken restaurant and then watching Black Dynamite, a black exploitation film. The presence of such racial outlooks within fraternities and sororities are not uncommon. Lawrence C. Ross, author of Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, found that “Interfraternal Council and Panhellenic organizations have been the source of the most consistent instances of racism on college campuses over the past 40 years.” Some universities are pushing back against such racism. For example, at the University of Michigan, the council adviser for the Office of Greek Life led the effort in hosting events that discuss racism in fraternities and sororities. Such conversations about racism that include members of fraternities and sororities may lead to a welcome reorientation among our student bodies.
At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the Racial Microaggressions Project documented the experience of students of color who are frequently on the receiving end of racism in their encounters with fraternity and sorority members. We recognize that not all fraternity and sorority members actually participate in hostile racist behavior. However, many stand by and do nothing when they witness hostile behavior to students of color. In the 2011-2012 online survey, students of color listed fraternity and sorority housing as the number one space that students of color feel uncomfortable in and avoid because of the explicit racism that occurs inside and around those buildings. The explicit expressions of racism range from humiliation to physically assaulting students of color.
White supremacy was one of the most prominent themes that emerged from the examples given by students of color in the survey. For example, one student of color, who is in a fraternity, wrote, “Some people in my fraternity were discussing how other cultures are inferior to white people’s and making fun of specific instances, including the food and mannerisms of Asian people. This is a fairly persistent occurrence for a select few, and it is really hurtful to hear people being so close-minded and sure of their superiority over entire groups of people.”
Another student relates that “a large majority of the predominately Caucasian frats think of my race as inferior. It’s almost guaranteed that any night my friends and I go out for a drink, I will hear the words ‘fucking Indians’ or ‘go back to your country.’”
Student of color frequently reported taunting, mocking, and insulting by predominately white students in fraternities and sororities. Below are a few examples of their reported lived experiences on campus:
“A group of fraternity brothers [deleted name of fraternity] shouted from their balconies, ‘Hey, Chinaboy’ and continued to make insults.”
“I was once walking in front of a campus fraternity house at night, and there were people on the front yard. There were at least two young men, and one saw me and loudly directed a racial comment and slur to me. The young men laughed, and I continued walking past them.”
Students also told of instance when fraternity or sorority houses hold racial theme parties or dress up as a person from nonwhite backgrounds. These all occurred after the controversial “Tacos and Tequila” racial theme party.
One student reports, “Once I was walking home and there was a predominately white fraternity outside their Frat house drinking while wearing a poncho and sombrero with a lawn mower, I was so mad!!!!!”
Another student states, “When white Greek houses have racial parties or attempt to dress like black people to me [it] is disrespectful.”
This student feels that the way the university responds to offensive actions of predominately white fraternity members sends a message that some students of color do not belong on the campus. “Last April/May right before school let out, a Frat house [deleted location] dressed up as their ideal of a ‘Mexican.’ They had a sign that said if you honk we drink. They were ‘mowing’ the lawn dressed like ‘Mexicans.’ I am not Mexican, but I found that offensive and I do know that kids from La Casa wrote the university about it. [The students] even had pictures as proof but nothing was really done about it. So in my eyes, the university didn’t care and was pretty much saying all Hispanics don’t belong here.”
The racist behavior of some members of sorority and fraternity members continues inside the houses. Students of color report that at social gatherings, they are made to feel unwanted, humiliated, and unwelcome. Below are stories from students who attempted to cross racial lines on campus and attend predominately white fraternity parties:
“A student commented that the African American kids at a majority white fraternity, did not belong at the party. At a fraternity party.”
“Freshman year, my friends and I wanted to go to a party at a white frat house one night and when we stopped a random white male to ask him where the parties were, he told us, ‘Nowhere for you’ . . . It made me feel extremely uncomfortable so I decided to walk back to the bus stop . . . because I felt unwanted and I didn’t want to be anywhere where I was unwanted.”
“My first semester of freshmen year I went to a frat party with one of my white guy friends. I partied for a little while but upon returning to the basement from checking out rooms upstairs, a white guy yells “who invited the [n-word]!” and another erupted into laughter.”
“At a white frat house party some[one] screamed who invited the black girl? I left shortly after because I was awkward and embarrassed.”
Sometimes the tension between fraternity members and students of color leads to fighting and physical violence. One student told of this happening in a bar. “When going out with friends to a bar . . . a group of frat guys said something along the lines of—what are these Mexicans doing here—which led to a physical fight and the frat guys getting kicked out of the bar.”
Another student wrote that “I have been left out and seemingly invisible at predominately [white] fraternity functions. I was involved in a 10 on 1 fight that left me badly bruised and beaten.”
The racial dynamics between sorority and fraternity members and students of color also occur in the classroom setting. Here is an account of a classroom incident:
“Recently in my class a group of Caucasian sorority girls were talking about going out to the bars. Then they said, ‘if I was Asian I could easily get into the bar.’ They continued their conversation talking about how all Asians look alike and how security guards outside of the bars take a quick glance at the ID and don’t question the Asian person using the fake ID. They kept making comments about how all Asians look alike, and perhaps we look similar, but not everyone looks completely the same.”
The humiliation, assault and inhospitality students of color experience do not simply represent the white supremacist social logic of superiority or the racist pushback against black and brown bodies in white social spaces. Rather, these daily practices of sorority and fraternity members re-create the everyday social space by performing a racial segregation that needs to be structurally addressed by university administration. We urge the university to create an accessible system for students of color to report these incidents in order to understand the mechanisms that create and police racially segregated spaces at Illinois. We also urge the university to respond to students of color complaints about explicit and subtle racism in a way that promotes their right to access higher education, without being emotionally or physically harmed, at the flagship land-grant institution of the state of Illinois.
Efad Huq is a graduate student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Stacy Harwood is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Ruby Mendenhall is an Associate Professor in Sociology, African American Studies, Urban and Regional Planning, and Social Work at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is also an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology and the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
Professors Harwood and Mendenhall are co-Principal Investigators and Efad is a research assistant for the Racial Microaggressions Research Project at the University of Illinois. Our aim is to contribute to scholarly literature about racial microaggressions, to educate the campus community about the negative impact of racial microaggressions and to network and share our findings at other campuses across the United States. Follow us on Facebook and Pinterest.