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Race and Racism in Fraternity and Sorority Life: A Historical Overview: Race and Racism in Fraternity and Sorority Life

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This chapter briefly explores the history of race and racism in fraternity/sorority (F&S) life through the themes of exclusion, racial uplift, and cultural relevance.
1This chapter briey explores the history of race and racism in
fraternity/sorority (F&S) life through the themes of exclusion,
racial uplift, and cultural relevance.
Race and Racism in Fraternity and Sorority
Life: A Historical Overview
Kathleen E. Gillon, Cameron C. Beatty, Cristobal Salinas Jr.
In order to understand the complexities of race, ethnicity, and culture in
present-day collegiate fraternity and sorority (F&S) life, it is imperative to
engage with the histories of this social establishment. In this chapter, rather
than provide a strict chronological overview of the history of F&S in the
United States, we provide an analysis of three themes that are integral to
understanding the creation and continuance of collegiate F&S life in re-
lation to race and racism. Those themes include: access/exclusion within
broader higher education, racial uplift, and cultural relevance/validation.
Access to and Exclusion Within Higher Education
The formation of Greek-letter organizations in the United States is most of-
ten traced back to the creation of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776 at the College
of William and Mary (Hughey, 2009). While this organization was liter-
ary in nature, it had many of the characteristics we see in present-day so-
cial F&S—for example, the use of Greek letters, motto, rituals, and ofcers
(Hughey, 2009). During the nineteenth century, Greek-letter social organi-
zations, which were organized and separated by normative notions of the
gender binary, began to emerge and expand on college campuses. Member-
ship in these organizations reected the broader collegiate student popu-
lation of the time. Regulated by both formal and informal racist practices
and policies that allowed for broader access to higher education for White
students (Hughey, 2009), these college-going practices resulted in the cre-
ation and expansion of organizations referred to in this chapter as histori-
cally White fraternities and sororities (HWFS). It is important to note that
White students during this time period were dened not only as racially
White but also as Anglo-Saxon in ethnicity, and protestant in religion.
While HWFS were growing and expanding, the participation of Stu-
dents of Color in higher education continued to be regulated by racist laws
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Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/ss.20289 9
10 CRITICAL CONSIDERATIONS OF RACE,ETHNICITY,AND CULTURE
that excluded them from attending college or segregated them into spe-
cic colleges and universities. Some Black students had found educational
homes at private historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and
the more recently created public HBCUs, often referred to as the 1890s
schools. Additionally, some Students of Color—Black, Latinx, Native Amer-
ican, Asian—although small in number, were attending historically White
institutions (HWIs).
For those students, access did not translate to full opportunities to
participate in university life at HWIs. Rather, access was often intertwined
with exclusion for Students of Color. By the turn of the twentieth century,
this exclusion had manifested in specic ways on college campuses includ-
ing denial of residential housing, use of recreational spaces, and at institu-
tions where Greek-letter organizations were present, exclusion from F&S
life (Rogers, 2012). These restrictive policies created conditions in which
Students of Color were “socially homeless, invisible to the majority, with no
virtual or physical dwelling” (Rogers, 2012, p. 20). Racist policies such as
these took a toll on Students of Color and provided an impetus for creating
new social organizations specically for Students of Color.
The creation of many Asian American F&S reects this narrative. The
rst Asian American fraternity, Rho-Psi, was established in 1916 at Cornell
University by a group of Chinese American men (Chen, 2009). Ten years
later, Pi Alpha Phi fraternity was established at the University of California–
Berkeley. The members of Pi Alpha Phi were all friends who came together
to create their organization in response to the prevalent racism that they
faced on campus. In addition to experiencing housing discrimination, these
students were also ostracized in their academic disciplines. They majored
primarily in science and engineering elds, which at the time, and arguably
still today, were/are dominated by White men.
Between 1916 and 1970, eleven Asian American F&S organizations
were established, many of which were local ones located on the west
coast where substantial populations of Asian Americans were living due to
(im)migration patterns. Two of those organizations were Japanese Amer-
ican sororities—Chi Alpha Delta founded in 1928 at the University of
California–Los Angeles (UCLA) and Sigma Omicron Phi founded in 1930 at
San Francisco State Teachers’ College. While these organizations provided
some protection against racism at an individual level, they were greatly af-
fected by racism at an institutional level. Chi Alpha Delta unsuccessfully
tried to secure a house on sorority row at UCLA for almost three decades.
In 1938, they were given the opportunity to purchase the UCLA Religious
Conference Building which was owned by the Janss Investment Company.
An owner of the company refused to sell to the sorority, stating that he
would not sell to “Orientals.” By the time laws were lifted that had re-
stricted People of Color from owning property (also known as restrictive
covenants), housing prices were so high that the sorority could not afford
to purchase any housing in the area (Chen, 2009).
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RACE AND RACISM IN FRATERNITY AND SORORITY LIFE 11
At the same time that colleges and universities were excluding Stu-
dents of Color from broad participation in campus life, the HWFS that
were founded during the nineteenth century were enacting similar exclu-
sionary practices. Although there is little evidence to suggest that Students
of Color wanted to join these early HWFS, many of these organizations
ensured that it would be impossible to do so by creating policies referred
to as “white clauses.” These racially exclusive policies were often incorpo-
rated into the formal constitutions of HWFS, essentially stating that only
students who were White would be considered for membership. Further-
more, White as a racial category was often linked to Christianity as a way
to refuse membership to Jewish students (Hughey, 2009). For more de-
tailed information about white clauses, we refer you to Chapter 2 of this
publication.
Racial Uplift
Historically, African Americans’ (which we use interchangeably with Blacks
in this chapter in reference to race) aspirations to nd activities in higher
education to empower, uplift, and support them while receiving an educa-
tion motivated them to create organizations for themselves. This is obvious
in the start, rise, and longevity of historically Black Greek Letter Organi-
zations (BGLOs) in response to reconstruction and during the time of Jim
Crow America. As noted, African Americans were not welcomed to join
any of the HWFS, and many university administrators would not allow
African Americans to form their own organizations at HWIs (Clark, 1970).
African Americans were concerned not only about being socially accepted,
but about fellowship for the sake of protection and promotion of ideals, in
spite of white supremacy, in order to uplift Black Americans (Kimbrough,
2003). The rst two BGLOs, founded in 1906 and 1908, were partly mir-
rored to White F&S (Wesley, 1961). However, unlike the socially focused
HWFS, the mission of BGLOs included a principle of service to the com-
munity (Kimbrough, 2003).
BGLOs were formed in America at a time when racial segregation and
White supremacy were a way of life. The 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of
Plessy v. Ferguson constitutionally upheld racial segregation in public places
(specically railroads) and legalized the doctrine of “separate but equal”
(Fireside, 2004). This separate but equal doctrine meant that society must
be racially segregated, but allegedly ensure equal opportunities to all races
(Fireside, 2004). This doctrine was evident on the campuses where the rst
two BGLOs, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity,
were founded. At Cornell University and Indiana University, both HWIs,
the same racial tension and segregation that dominated the country also
supported the education structure of these institutions where Students of
Color found themselves restricted from fully participating in campus and
academic life.
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12 CRITICAL CONSIDERATIONS OF RACE,ETHNICITY,AND CULTURE
Eventually, African Americans developed strategies, philosophies, and
organizations out of response to their need for racial uplift and access to
higher education. One example of the response to the need for strategizing
for racial uplift was “The Niagara Movement” of 1905. This event, led by
W. E. B. DuBois and W. M. Trotter at Niagara Falls across the Canadian bor-
der, was the precursor to the establishment of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Notably, DuBois went on to
become a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. The purpose of the
meeting was to discuss African Americans’ dissatisfaction with their place
in society, as well as with the policies of accommodation and conciliation
promoted by African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington (Ru-
bicon, 2006). African American students attending Cornell University were
highly engaged with the Niagara Movement and the call for advancement
of People of Color in America.
Cornell University was one of the few universities in the north at the
time that allowed Black students to attend. According to the Public Broad-
casting Service (PBS) documentary Alpha Phi Alpha Men: A Century of Lead-
ership, Cornell University was seen as a liberal university where many Black
scholars from the south traveled to receive a higher education (Rubicon,
2006). In the early 1900s, a strong Black neighborhood had been formed
in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell University is located. Historians sus-
pect that this neighborhood was formed because it was a stop on the Un-
derground Railroad (Rubicon, 2006). Black students found lodging and a
support network in the Ithaca Black community because they were not
permitted to live in campus residence halls (Rubicon, 2006). Many of the
Black students found jobs at the university as cooks, janitors, and tutoring
other Black students. They were not allowed to participate in co-curricular
programs or activities. One founder of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Henry
Arthur Callis, found work at a White fraternity house waiting tables
(Wesley, 1961).
Callis, and the other founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, did not
have the social support of the university outside of the classroom (or in the
classroom for that matter). Black students could not participate in sports,
debate teams, student government, or fraternities. In 1905, the Black male
students at Cornell University formed a social study club in response to the
prejudice they experienced and in order to support and retain one another
(Wesley, 1961). Over the next year, this social study club evolved into a
fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, with rituals and initiation similar to White fra-
ternities. It is posited that the similarities in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity
and White fraternities are because some of the founders witnessed these
fraternity rituals when working at White fraternity houses (Wesley, 1961).
This brotherhood, for the sake of security and encouragement of principles
that could help Black students get ahead as a race, was now the foundation
for the fraternity. The fraternity became a response to their lack of social
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RACE AND RACISM IN FRATERNITY AND SORORITY LIFE 13
capital, and for Black male students on the campus of Cornell University
their own form of social capital.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough (2003) pointed out in his book, Black Greek 101,
that similar activities were going on at the campus of Indiana University in
Bloomington, Indiana. By the year 1870, Indiana University had established
four fraternities on campus (Kimbrough, 2003, p. 22). At the same time,
residents in Bloomington started to acknowledge the presence of African
Americans in the Bloomington community, although not always in positive
ways (Clark, 1970). For example,
In 1867 the Editor of the Student newspaper wrote about an encounter with a
Black man who walked by him without speaking after the editor greeted him
by the name of “Sambo.” The editor was incensed by being ignored and wrote
that he was “in favor of the nigger” in his right place. (Kimbrough, 2003,
p. 23)
The student newspaper also reported that the Ku Klux Klan was establish-
ing a dangerous presence within the university by 1872. Even though there
was a hostile climate, Indiana University records show that three black stu-
dents entered the university in 1890. By 1903, Kimbrough (2003) cited that
the Black Greek society of Alpha Kappa Nu was formed, eventually becom-
ing Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity in 1911. Clark (1970) noted that the change
in the fraternity name was due to comments made by White Indiana under-
graduates who used a derogatory racial epithet when saying the name of
the organization. These organizations and the foundation of their princi-
ples grew out of the response to white supremacy during the Jim Crow era
of American history.
It is important to note that while Black men were organizing for racial
uplift at HWIs, Black women were also organizing in response to racism and
sexism at HBCUs. Racial issues faced by Black men at Cornell and Indiana
University were parallel to the patriarchal issues faced by Black women at
HBCUs such as Howard University. By 1910, Howard had only graduated
twenty-three women. Women’s lives were heavily controlled by the univer-
sity. Mail was interceded by a matron, women could not venture off campus
without a chaperone, and expulsions, which were common practice, were
often in response to women engaging in activities deemed inappropriate by
the university such as drinking, smoking, and entertaining the opposite sex
in an unapproved manner (Rogers, 2012). Paula Giddings (1988) wrote, “it
was no accident that the rst Black fraternity was established at a PWI and
the rst Black sorority at a coed HBCU” (p. 29). In fact, the rst three Black
sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, and Zeta Phi Beta, were
all established at Howard University as they searched for both racial and
gendered uplift.
The same concepts that legalized racial segregation in America, and the
power structure that caused BGLOs’ founders to form these organizations,
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14 CRITICAL CONSIDERATIONS OF RACE,ETHNICITY,AND CULTURE
still are in place today. The recurring themes of self-segregation, exclusion,
and being the “other” within fraternity and sorority organizations are still
relevant to BGLOs at HWIs. Many Black F&S members continue to share
that their organizations provide a place of protection from racism on cam-
pus and a means of uplifting the African American community (Brown,
Parks, & Phillips, 2005; Chambers & Walpole, 2017; Johnson, Chambers,
& Walpole, 2012; Kimbrough, 2009).
Cultural Relevance
In addition to racial uplift, multicultural F&S organizations emerged in
efforts to create a sense of validation and cultural relevance in light of
the oppression and marginalization they experienced in higher education.
When Students of Color were prohibited from engaging in a full campus
experience and/or joining HWFS, they were being invalidated, “treated as
empty receptacles and/or incapable of learning ...expected to disconnect
with the past ...and are oppressed, silenced and cast in subordinate roles”
(Rend´
on, 1994, p. 48). As racially diverse student populations (African
American/Black, Latinx, Asian American, Native American) started to en-
roll and experience isolation in colleges and universities, they learned to
negotiate a racist campus culture and climate through the support of their
multicultural F&S. These students created groundbreaking history in the
fraternal movement, as they formed fraternal organizations—fostering and
validating learning communities of peers.
As a new wave of immigrants were entering colleges and universities
in the 1980s and 1990s (Rend´
on, 1994), more multicultural F&S organiza-
tions started to appear in colleges and universities (National Multicultural
Greek Council, 2009). Students continued to be interested in joining orga-
nizations that were culturally relevant. Oxendine, Oxendine, and Minthorn
(2013) explained that this was also true for Native American students.
Before historically Native American F&S were created in the mid-1990s,
Native American students’ only option was to join social organizations that
may have been inclusive but were not culturally relevant. The notion of
cultural relevance is central to the creation and sustenance of these F&S
and marked a revolutionarily and “auspicious beginning” for fraternities
and sororities (Mu ˜
noz & Guardia, 2009, p. 2009). The forerunner of multi-
cultural fraternity and sorority organizations was the National Pan-Hellenic
Council (NPHC), formed in 1930 by historically Black F&S. Decades later,
in 1998, the National Association of Latinx-based Fraternal Organizations
(NALFO) and the National Multicultural Greek Council (NMGC) were
created. Last, in 2004, the National Asian Pacic Islander American Pan-
hellenic Association (NAPA) was established (Barber, Espino, & Bureau,
2015). The creation of these councils is signicant in that it shows the
growth and importance of racial/ethnic/multicultural organizations within
college F&S life. Since the rst multicultural F&S organizations and
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RACE AND RACISM IN FRATERNITY AND SORORITY LIFE 15
councils were founded, “Their development offers a tremendous catalyst
for Latino and Latina [as well as African American/Black, Asian American,
and Native American] student[s’] success and cultural awareness” (Mu ˜
noz
& Guardia, 2009, p. 2009), and it transformed these students into “pow-
erful learners . . . who became involved in the social and academic fabric of
the institution” (Rend ´
on, 1994, p. 29).
Rend´
on’s research has shown that students seek to be validated inside
and outside the classroom (Rend´
on&Mu˜
noz, 2011). Often times, students
get invalidated in their learning environment, and they pursue validation
through their family members, peers attending college and not attending
college, signicant others, tutors, teaching assistants, and resident advisors
(Rend´
on, 1994). Within this context, we understand Students of Color, who
were often prohibited from joining White F&S, to have formed and created
their own fraternal organizations as a strategy of reproducing validation.
In order to foster a validating learning community for Students of Color,
Rend´
on (1994) suggested that colleges “promote pride in cultural, gender,
and sexual orientation through college sponsored activities and organiza-
tions” and that “cultural pride is recognized and fostered in-and out-of-
class” (p. 50). These organizations served as a vehicle for Students of Color
to be validated in a culturally relevant manner.
Conclusion
As illustrated in this brief chapter, the themes of exclusion, racial uplift,
and cultural relevance/validation are woven throughout the histories of col-
legiate fraternities and sororities. We hope that this chapter has served as
either a reminder or perhaps new information regarding the histories of
race, ethnicity, and culture in F&S life. Going forward, we ask readers to
consider, how are you engaging critically with histories of F&S life? Whose
histories do you know? Whose histories do you need to learn more about?
Which histories are privileged in the telling of F&S life, and how might
you challenge this practice? Last, how are you working with F&S organiza-
tions, especially racially and ethnically minoritized organizations, to docu-
ment the histories of their organizations? As critical educators, we must be
mindful to not only be critical consumers of history but also critical pro-
ducers, keepers, and documenters of history.
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KATHLEEN E. GILLON is assistant professor in higher education at the University
of Maine. She is a member of Alpha Xi Delta Fraternity.
CAMERON C. BEATTY is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and is an
assistant professor in the Educational Leadership & Policy Studies Department
at Florida State University.
CRISTOBAL SALINAS JR. is assistant professor in educational leadership and re-
search methodology at Florida Atlantic University. He is a member of Sigma
Lambda Beta International Fraternity.
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR STUDENT SERVICES DOI: 10.1002/ss
... Fraternity and sorority life has had such an impact on students at different institutions regardless of the council (Delahoussaye, 2017). For example, students involved in Greek-lettered organizations tend to have an overall higher grade point average than those students that are not involved in Greek-lettered organizations (Gillon et al., 2019). Students in fraternities and sororities also have the opportunity to participate in specific service and volunteering projects that are specific to each fraternity and sorority (Gillon et. ...
... The IFC and PHA had both formal and informal racist practices and policies that allowed them to keep Black students out of their organizations. These practices helped with their organizations success and provided broader access to higher education for White students (Gillon, Beatty, & Salinas, 2019). Many PWIs allowed these practices to be a part of the IFC and PHA because the institution had similar policies and practices that kept Black students away from many different campus activities and organizations (Williamson, 1999). ...
... Racist policies such as exclusion from IFC and PHA organizations took a toll on Black students and provided a reason for creating new organizations specifically for Black students (Gillon et al., 2019). Black students wanted to create Greek-lettered organizations that best fit them since they were excluded from many opportunities for involvement at PWIs, but it was not easy. ...
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This is an autoethnographic study that focuses on the ways in which the office of fraternity and sorority (OFSL) can better support the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations and its members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The study examined what the OFSL could learn from the multicultural center about their approach to supporting NPHC students at Nebraska. The three questions that helped guide this study were: What does the OFSL do to support NPHC organizations at Nebraska? What are the needs of Black students in the NPHC at Nebraska? How does the multicultural center provide support for Black students at Nebraska? This study utilized Critical Race Theory (CRT) to help form the interview questions. CRT also guided the data analysis process by focusing on the five tenets which are: counter storytelling, permeance of racism, whiteness as property, interest convergence, and critique of liberalism. As a result of this study, four themes were found regarding supporting NPHC students better at Nebraska: the OFSL benefits from the work of NPHC students, there is a need to support and center Black students at Nebraska, NPHC students find community within the multicultural center, and it is everyone’s responsibility to serve Black students. These themes helped me understand what support the NPHC students are receiving now and who they are receiving it from. The themes also helped me understand how the OFSL can move forward when it comes to their support for NPHC organizations and students. This study offers actions that can be taken toward supporting Black students and NPHC organizations at the University of Nebraska. By having the OFSL utilize campus resources like the multicultural center to focus on centering and supporting NPHC students in their programs and meetings, NPHC students might build a better relationship with the OFSL and the University of Nebraska can indeed be the best campus in the country to be Greek. Adviser: Stephanie Bondi
... Almost 12% of undergraduates participate in Greek Life, yet fraternities and sororities were largely ignored as part of the campus food system. Inequities based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion have been structurally built into national Greek organizations since the first fraternity was founded over 250 years ago, and are the topic of much academic literature on JEDI and student experience in higher education (e.g., Hughey, 2010;Jozkowski and Wiersma-Mosley, 2017;Gillon et al., 2019). Exclusion of non-whites and non-Protestants was legally sanctioned in Greek Life until the 1960's, and students of color still face formidable barriers to belonging in historically white organizations. ...
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Universities and colleges are fertile foodscapes for action-based education. They are physical and socio-cultural sites where pressing food systems problems play out at micro to macro scales. Structural inequities based on race, class, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, dis/ability, and other forms of marginalization affect both access to food and to agri-food learning opportunities. In this article, we propose that students can learn through their everyday experiences of engaging with their physical and socio-cultural environment, namely the campus food system, by conducting foodscape mapping. Since 2015, the University of California Berkeley Food Institute has supported the Foodscape Mapping Project, in which students, staff, and faculty generate food systems knowledge while developing practical interventions to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). We investigate how campus foodscape mapping might generate substantive learning about JEDI in food systems education; the kinds of learning that take place through foodscape mapping; and the educational practices and institutional structures that can support learning through foodscape mapping. We identify at least eight forms and processes of expansive learning that emerged through mapping work, using students' own insights into what they were learning. Finally, we reflect on our learning experiences in running the project, and develop broader design elements that other campuses can apply.
... First, the current sample was predominately Caucasian and therefore representative of most Greek organizations (Gillon et al., 2019); however, future studies should examine whether the current findings would be replicated in a more diverse sample of Greek-affiliated students. Second, females comprised the majority of the current sample. ...
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... The reason provided involved the belief that brotherhood could only be established with those who were alike (e.g., along racial lines). Within predominantly white institutions (PWIs), culturally-based sororities and fraternities were established to center and uplift Communities of Color as a response to these exclusionary practices (Torbenson, 2009(Torbenson, , 2012, in addition to the hostile climates students faced (Gillon et al., 2019;Ross, 2000). Relevant to this project is the "similarity rationale" used by organizations to discriminate against those who identified with other races. ...
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