Racism in Fraternities and Sororities

3115 words (12 pages) Essay in Education

18/05/20 Education Reference this

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Literature Review

 The purpose of this literature review is to examine the research that has been done to address impact of racism on sorority and fraternity culture. There is a lot of current literature and many studies that examine how failure of sorority and fraternity organizations to combat racist practices leads to discrimination of students of color. There is also some current literature and studies that say how joining a fraternity and/or sorority does not significantly impact student’s development of intercultural competence throughout college. This paper will present many sides of this issue and examine all variables. The researchers in these studies have no known biases.

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This study is necessary and logical because racism and oppression are harmful to college students on many campuses throughout the United States. Understanding why racism exists on college campuses is the first step to fixing the problem. Therefore, determining if fraternities and sororities perpetuate racism and oppression is a very important study.

Racism in Fraternities and Sororities

 This topic is becoming more important than ever because the numbers of people who are from minority groups are attending college in greater numbers than ever before (Joyce, 2018). According to Joyce (2018), since 1976 the number of white students enrolled in college decreased from 84 to 58 percent. Despite these overall numbers, the primarily white fraternities have remained mainly white (Joyce, 2018).

Findings in a study by Zimmerman, Morgan, & Terrell (2018), suggest that sorority culture puts pressure on women to diminish the prominence of their race and how prominent race is for others. These women admit to ignoring issues of race in order to not stand out from their peers. This issue of ignoring race and not addressing it is problematic and allows issues of racism to continue in these Greek life organizations. A gap in the research here is if there are other variables besides not wanting to stand out from peers that make women in sororities ignore issues of race.

 History of racism in Greek life. The history of racism in Greek life is very important to discuss because it impacts what is happening today. According to Salinas, Gillon, & Camacho (2019), the fraternity system was a product of America’s elite: the white, the Christian, and the wealthy. The early fraternities were expensive, therefore eluding anyone that didn’t have a lot of money to join (Salinas, Gillon, & Camacho 2019).

Racism, hate crimes, and Greek life. According Van Dyke & Tester (2014), the presence of fraternities on campus is associated with a campus climate that is dangerous for minority group members.

In their study on hate crimes on college campuses, Van Dyke & Tester (2014), found the following: 

“that each additional fraternity on campus is associated with 8% more ethnic/ racial hate crimes in the full model. A campus with 30 fraternities is likely to have 0.82 racist hate crime events, whereas one with only 10 fraternities is unlikely to experience any, with 0.18 racist hate crimes expected” (p. 302).

Racism and oppression in the recruitment process. Another point of view on this topic is that oppression and racism begin during the recruitment process in fraternities and sororities. According to Salinas, Gillon, & Camacho (2019),“racially marginalized student populations often experience oppression via recruitment and socialization practices at the institutional, cultural, and individual levels” (p. 29). Salinas, Gillon, & Camacho (2019), also argue that members of current fraternities and sororities require members to replicate social norms, language, and values of the organization. Because of this, racial, ethnic, minoritized students are typically not recruited into these historically white fraternities and sororities. This lack of diversity is present in recruitment videos as well. For example, in a 2014 Alabama Alpha Phi recruitment video, there wasn’t any racial or ethnic diversity. All the actors in the video were white women with long blonde hair, dressed in bikinis (Salinas, Gillon, & Camacho 2019).

 An article by Walker-DeVose, Dawson, Schueths, Brimeyer, & Freeman (2019), contains excerpts from interviews with students attending college in the south. What stuck out the most in this article was an interview with Andy, a white student who is part of a segregated fraternity on campus. In his opinion, separated fraternities are “how it’s supposed to be” (Walker-DeVose, Dawson, Schueths, Brimeyer, & Freeman, 2019, p. 367). He then goes on to express more of his racist beliefs as well as the racist beliefs that his fraternity has during recruitment. When asked if African-Americans could join his fraternity, he says, “we’ve had a black person come to our house and we talk to him and everything like that, but I don’t think some of the guys would let that happen (let him join)” (Walker-DeVose, Dawson, Schueths, Brimeyer, & Freeman, 2019, p. 367). This is not representative of all fraternities and sororities, but it does show the racist attitudes that prevail and affect recruitment on certain college campuses, especially in the south.

 As far as sororities, Marla, an African-American student, says she has been invited to sorority events by her white friends, but she feels too uncomfortable to attend the events. She says, “I feel like there are certain things that you just don’t really…want to do or …feel like you can’t do as a minority here. Mostly like within the whole, fraternity/sorority row..any functions that they have..I don’t feel comfortable going, even if I am invited.” She also says, “I don’t feel like I have any white friends” (Walker-DeVose, Dawson, Schueths, Brimeyer, & Freeman, 2019). This shows how much segregation is apparent in Greek life on certain college campuses. It also shows how uncomfortable students of color feel even attending Greek life recruitment events because of the color of their skin.

Racism in Greek life theme parties. At multiple institutions, fraternities have been put on probation, suspended, and fined for sponsoring racially themed parties where members have dressed up in racially insensitive outfits (Martin, Parker, Pascarella, & Blechschmidt, 2019). According to Beatty, & Boettcher (2019), in 2012 at Penn State University, there was a picture taken of Chi Omega sorority members where they were wearing sombreros, ponchos, and mustaches, and holding up signs that said “will mow lawn for weed + beer” and “I don’t cut grass, I smoke it” (Beatty, & Boettcher, 2019, p. 43). This is clearly a racist joke toward those of Latino culture. However, seeing as this chapter was ultimately shut down by its national organization (Beatty, & Boettcher, 2019), this is also an example of the national organization stepping in and helping to stop sororities and fraternities from being able to promote racism.

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In 2013, there was a “colonial bros and Nava-ho’s” Thanksgiving theme party that involved many fraternities at California Polytechnic State University (Beatty, & Boettcher, 2019). At this party there were several men dressed up in colonial-era outfits and women wearing revealing Native American-themed outfits. There was an investigation by the university after this party, however, they found that since no policies were directly violated by the party, they couldn’t do anything to punish the Greek life organizations involved (Beatty, & Boettcher, 2019). This is an example of the university failing to proactively take a stand against these acts of racism. When universities fail to take a stand I this instance, these racist theme parties, and acts of racism continue to be present in these Greek life organizations.

Intercultural Competence

A study done by (Martin, Parker, Pascarella, & Blechschmidt, 2019) measured whether members of fraternities and sororities develop less intercultural competence during college than their peers who are not members of Greek life. The result of their study was that sorority and fraternity membership does not significantly affect the development of intercultural competence in these students throughout the 4 years of college (Martin, Parker, Pascarella, & Blechschmidt, 2019). This challenges much of the literature that says that racism is indeed perpetuated in these Greek organizations.

Another study done by Martin, Hevel, Asel, & Pascarella (2011) found that members of fraternities and were equal to students who were not affiliated with Greek life on both measures that they used to assess intercultural effectiveness. Therefore, this also supports the point of view that Greek organizations are in fact not racist and are open to many different races, cultures, and viewpoints. This also challenges the assumptions that membership in fraternities and sororities hinders efforts to promote diversity on campus. This could also show that Greek organizations are becoming more and more diverse as time goes on (Martin, Hevel, Asel, & Pascarella, 2011).

Ethnic-based Sororities and Fraternities

 Along with the historically white fraternities and sororities, there are also Greek life organizations for other cultural backgrounds. Latino/a and African-American fraternities and sororities show support to these minority groups.

 Latino/a sororities and fraternities. A study by Garcia (2019), found several students who participated in their study and felt that they didn’t quite fit in to the university as a whole, but that they felt a sense of belonging in their specific subcultures within their university. Students wanted to be part of a group where “people look like me” (Garcia, 2019, p. 11). These Latino/a Greek life organizations gave these students a chance to be part of a group where they fit in and feel as though they belong, on a campus where they otherwise do not feel that they do (Garcia, 2019).

African-American sororities. Another important aspect of this topic is that of African-American sororities. According to Hughey (2011), when the movie Stomp the Yard was released, it helped bring African-American fraternities and sororities, also known as “black Greek Letter Organizations” into the eye of the mainstream world. In their study, Greyerbiehl, & Mitchell (2014), studied the experiences of African-American women who joined historically black sororities at predominantly white institutions. They found that black sororities gave African American women at predominantly white institutions a level of community support that they couldn’t get in any other organizations (Greyerbiehl, & Mitchell, 2014). “These black sororities create a space where African American women’s identities are not in tension with dominant identities” (Greyerbiehl, & 0-Mitchell, 2014, p. 291).

 Another study done by Delgado-Guerrero, Cherniack, & Gloria (2014), explores this same topic. It aimed to find out the reasons why women of color decide to join cultural-specific sororities. Through the use of an online survey, 159 narratives of women of color that were attending predominately white institutions in the Midwest was conducted. The study found that joining a sorority of women who share similar cultural backgrounds is more strongly felt among women of color in cultural-specific sororities than in traditional white sororities (Delgado-Guerrero, Cherniack, & Gloria, 2014). It gives women of color a feeling of empowerment and a sense of family to be around those that are of their same cultures (Delgado-Guerrero, Cherniack, & Gloria 2014). It is great that these sororities are providing social support to African American women. However, these African-American sororities wouldn’t be needed if African-American women were more accepted into the rest of the sororities on campus. This shows that the segregation of sororities based on race is maintaining racism on campuses.


 Thus, it appears that there has been a decent amount of research done to examine the effects of racism on Greek life culture on college campuses. There is literature that supports that racism is perpetuated by Greek life organizations There is also literature that says Greek life members are not more racist than non-members. There is also literature that emphasizes the importance of culturally-specific fraternities and sororities, such as African-American and Latino/a. More research on this topic will help to determine if racism is a true issue in these organizations. This is necessary because as time goes on, colleges are becoming less predominately white, and therefore the Greek life organizations should not continue to be predominately white. Minority groups should not have to suffer because of historically white fraternity and sorority culture. More research will help people to understand this issue, and exactly why it is continuing, which is the first step to fixing it.


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