Last week, author and educator Lawrence Ross visited the University’s Weis Center to deliver a presentation about racism within the Greek System. Ross received a BA in History from UCLA, and an MFA in screenwriting from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. He has authored two books; “The Divide Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities” explores the history of historically black sororities and fraternities, and “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses” illustrates how the legacy of racism manifests in institutions of higher education, particularly within the Greek System. Ross’ interactive presentation provided blunt but insightful commentary on the continuing impacts that white supremacy has on our educational and social institutions, and promoted an alternative to the current system, which would include inter-organizational dialogue, accountability and a reimagining of education surrounding race.
Ross aptly pointed out the common misconception that institutions of higher education are a utopia of learning and egalitarianism, saying “the same issues in society come to us in college.” Ross continued to explain that this claim is evidenced by rising rates of hate crimes on college campuses targeting racial minorities. He also argued that administrative approaches to dealing with these incidents are insufficient, describing the typical college president as “reactive” rather than “proactive” when it comes to holding perpetrators accountable and conducting thorough investigations into broader cultural issues on campus that lead to these inexcusable acts.
In the middle of his presentation, Ross had students engage in an interactive activity. He identified each racial identity represented on campus, and asked everyone with that identity to stand up. He called on white students to stand, and then subsequently asked them to point at an African American student that they saw sitting in the audience. Initially, I found this exercise to be uncomfortable and even offensive. But, I ultimately realized that this was the point. Ross later made clear that the purpose of the activity was to highlight an uncomfortable reality about race. He said, “we don’t ask white people to identify by race. When we talk about whiteness we talk about the individual, or the ‘default American’”. This really struck me. As a white student on campus at a P.W.I., I don’t often think about my race and how that impacts my positionality on campus. In Ross’ eyes, that is where the issue lies; casual ignorance about the role race plays in social dynamics on campus will only perpetuate a cycle that leads to exclusion and harm.
While some see the Greek system as irredeemable and movements like #AbolishGreekLife have called on universities to part ways with the IFC, Lawrence Ross posited that there can be institutional reforms made to make the Greek system more compatible with an evolving social landscape across American campuses. The role that some fraternities and sororities have played in various social movements through fundraising and educational campaigns is an example of how Greek life can harness its power and influence over college campuses and beyond for social good. Though these actions have created positive effects for the communities surrounding these Greek organizations, it is equally as important that these plans are executed in meaningful ways – used not only to redeem the Greek system, but to create positive and lasting change for all in the campus community and beyond.
I think we can all agree that the University can do better when it comes to talking about race in an honest and productive manner, particularly within Greek organizations. So, I urge all chapter leaders and members of Greek life to put Lawrence Ross’ words into action in order to make our campus a better place for everyone.