“Simply having a Vice President or Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is nowhere near enough when members of an organization refuse to acknowledge their proximity to whiteness and why they choose to continuously center whiteness.”
Ting Ting Shi, She/Hers
I joined Panhellenic Greek life, perhaps unhealthily and certainly naively, with a mission: to hold fraternities accountable and create safe spaces for women of color in a predominately white organization. From my year on Student Government’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Committee and my experiences with Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention, I knew outside organizations were extremely limited in their ability to create change in Greek spaces. I knew that if I wanted to see something different, that I had to make changes from within.
At the beginning of Fall Quarter of my second year, I decided to participate in Panhellenic’s primary recruitment. I
realized, then, how out of place my friends
and I were. Many of our fellow potential new members (PNMs) not only looked different than me, but had entirely different backgrounds. Many were white; I was Asian. Many of them came from private boarding schools; I came from an underfunded public high school. Others had parents that went to UChicago or even had parents that were a part of Panhellenic during their college years; my parents are immigrants from China who dreamed of going to a school like UChicago and know nothing about Greek life.
I should have realized, then, how difficult it would be to create the change that I wanted to see.
This is not to say that all of the PNMs came from these backgrounds, but a significant number of them seemed to relate to one or more of the earlier statements. I should have realized, then, how difficult it would be to create the change that I wanted to see.
I ended up receiving a bid from Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII). I was ecstatic! Each day of their recruitment thoroughly impressed me and made me want to join the organization. I dove head-first into AOII and was elected to Leaders Council (LC) as the Vice President of Standards and Risk Manager. As VP Standards, I helped to oversee membership experience, ensured that all members were living up to AOII’s standards and values, and was the primary disciplinary arm of the chapter. As Risk Manager, I worked to ensure that everyone would feel safe at any event that we attended. Both roles were emotionally taxing. It was difficult to schedule meetings with fraternities and engagement from them was dismal. Changes to fraternity risk policy was always a touchy subject: fraternity execs thought that I was being a hardass and Panhellenic members weren’t willing to give up the social events that, for many, made their sorority experience worth it. I talked to countless AOII members, both former and current, about their gripes with my chapter and with Greek Life as a whole. Issues of sexual assault and unsafety; exclusivity and cliques; and racism and other microagressions were common topics. The story always seemed to be the same: everyone joined with the hope of finding community and everytime the institutions of Panhellenic Greek life let them down.
From my experience in LC, I knew the exact reasons for why people left and what solutions AOII could implement to make things better, which is why I made the decision to run for president. However, in running and talking with a variety of members in AOII, the fundamental issues rooted in my chapter and in Greek life as a whole came to light.
There is a huge learning curve for many members of Panhellenic Greek life on issues of racism. When the majority of Panhellenic Greek members are white and embody performative allyship, it becomes extremely difficult to push for change. It is common for BIPOC sisters to take charge of educating and creating content so the chapter would appear to be making progress in diversity and equity. The use of white-washed filters on official Instagrams, using visually diverse women in photographs and recruitment practices to “look good,” and preventing Black and Asian sisters from speaking in the 2019 recruitment cycle are just a few examples of the pervasiveness of racism in Panhellenic Greek life. Simply having a Vice President or Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is nowhere near enough when members of an organization refuse to acknowledge their proximity to whiteness and why they choose to continuously center whiteness.
When the majority of Panhellenic Greek members are white and embody performative allyship, it becomes extremely difficult to push for change.
Panhellenic sororities have honestly failed on an individual and organizational level to engage with anti-racism. Even with the mistakes of the 2019 recruitment cycle still fresh in our minds, members have failed to critically engage with or even show up for anti-bias training for recruitment this year. My chapter was told to do the bare minimum in terms of anti-bias training and still did not put in the work. Some even went far enough to say that the form of training made them uncomfortable. There is a foundational lack of understanding as to why DEI initiatives should happen and what Greek life’s role can be in advancing all women, especially BIPOC women.
Panhellenic Greek life has continuously failed to show up for multicultural organizations and multicultural Greek life, yet expects those same organizations to be welcoming to our efforts of collaboration and education. When our current VP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Assistant VP DEI organized events and sisterhoods centered on anti-racist work, there was an embarassing lack of engagement from the chapter. Their work in attempting to educate our chapter into taking collective responsibility and action in response to racism and discrimination has incited backlash, much of which is clearly rooted in bigotry. Another one of my sisters has been given snaps by the chapter for being a part of AOII’s International Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education Work Group, but is also continuously tokenized and cast aside by chapter leadership anytime she offers constructive criticism. My chapter has consistently failed to acknowledge the labor done by former and current BIPOC sisters to make real progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion and has, in fact, exploited the voices and work of our DEI working group during our latest cycle of recruitment.
Panhellenic Greek life has mistakenly treated DEI as a single action or an event. We have failed to protect and empower BIPOC individuals. Every year, Panhellenic Greek life has pushed the concerns of its members who hold marginalized identities under the rug, despite their labor to push us towards a more equitable future. Marginalized sisters are gaslighted when they raise concerns. Even within racial groups, wealthier sisters question how lower-income members could really struggle. Women of color, LGBTQ+ members, FGLI members have been silenced and disregarded by their cisgender, heterosexual, white, and privileged “sisters,” that Panhellenic organizations have always served. In Panhellenic and AOII’s commitment to performative allyship, it should not be a surprise that the majority of people that leave are women of color.
Outside of issues of racism and discrimination, Panhellenic Greek life has miles to go before becoming a safe space for all individuals. The lack of recognition of the Panhellenic and fraternal chapters on campus delegitimizes internal efforts to reform. Panhellenic Council is limited in what they can do. Ideally, Panhellenic Council is supposed to unite the sororities on campus for the advancement of the sorority experience. But the rigid national bureaucratic structure (NPC) that holds together 26 different international and national sororities prevents beneficial changes local to UChicago’s campus from occurring. Most individuals that make up the executive board of Panhellenic Council have little knowledge of the policies and processes of NPC and fail to do anything substantial to push against the institution and help its members at UChicago.
Every year, Panhellenic Greek life has pushed the concerns of its members who hold marginalized identities under the rug, despite their labor to push us towards a more equitable future.
Further, there is no external body to hold fraternities accountable other than sororities. The issue of providing justice for survivors of sexual assault and those who experience discrimination and racism from the fraternities or sororities, falls on 18-22 year olds, many of whom have vested interests in maintaining the status quo and do not have a well-rounded understanding of what justice looks like.
Although the recognition of Greek life by the University of Chicago is not the one catch-all solution to the issues I have mentioned, it could help to provide the institutional support necessary to even begin to reform Panhellenic culture from the inside.
In the end, being in Greek life constantly feels contradictory to nearly everything I believe in. Most who feel this contradiction either find reconciliation, or choose to leave; everyone finds the right balance for themselves. Looking back, I do not regret joining AOII, running for president, or the things that I did in my year of being on LC. I still believe, deeply, that in an ideal world, sororities or their equivalent could serve as femme-oriented spaces that work to empower individuals and advance the interests of those marginalized. I wrongly believed that AOII could ever become that space.
I am still a member of AOII, and I choose to stay because of the people that come after me. I no longer believe in the organization, but I do believe in the individuals who have devoted so much time and energy to making space for themselves and those they love. I have been lucky to find some sort of community within Panhellenic Greek life. I choose to stay because I hope to create that community for others.
I want to take this space to thank and acknowledge the work of those that have created community for me. To my Big, Vanessa: you are the only Big I could ask for and you have welcomed me and others with open arms and have actively worked to advance those around you. To my best friend, Kayla, who I rushed and joined AOII with: you have made the spaces around you infinitely better for those that will follow in your footsteps. To Ileana and Kate: you have been my pseudo bigs in so many situations and I could not ask for better big sisters. To Viky, AOII’s current VP DEI: I believe in everything that you do to create community and I will always support your efforts to change AOII for the better. To my littles: you both are so incredibly amazing women and I’m so proud to have you in my family. To the alumnae of color, who I mostly know through stories of strength and resilience: you and your efforts to make AOII and Panhellenic Greek life a less hostile place will not be forgotten. To so many other women of color in Greek life: take up space for yourself and force those around you to recognize you for the powerful person that you are. To those who I have never met but have labored to make those like me feel at home in AOII: thank you.