If you take a close look at the Bid Day pictures of Panhellenic sororities or composites of Interfraternity Council fraternities, you will notice an unmistakable trend: the predominance of white people looking back at you. Put another way, if an alien landed at Duke, not knowing anything about campus greek organizations, it might guess that the primary determinant of Panhel or IFC membership—versus membership in the National Pan-Hellenic Council or the Inter-Greek Council—was white skin.
Self-segregation is a complicated phenomenon with complicated causes. Why our greek community is fractured into respective majority white, black, Latino and Asian fraternities and sororities can be explained by numerous reasons: different backgrounds and interests, discomfort in rushing an organization mostly comprised of people of a different race, the social ostracization that can result from joining the organization, and so forth.
Yet many Panhel sororities and IFC fraternities do not view themselves as promoting self-segregation. For example, some groups are colloquially known as “black sororities” or “Asian fraternities,” but rarely are Panhel and IFC groups referred to as “white.”
Indeed, Panhel sororities and IFC fraternities provide valuable community to dozens of students of color. But this does not counter the fact Panhel and IFC groups are historically white and embody the traditions and rituals of white society, particularly Southern white society. These practices are even more pronounced at Southern state schools, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Panhel and IFC groups take them more seriously. This is not to imply people of color cannot have positive experiences in Panhel and IFC groups. Rather, these groups are historically institutions embedded in white culture and are disproportionately comprised of white students.
Then why are are NPHC and IGC groups called self-segregating so much more often? It is telling that Panhel and IFC are considered the center of greek life at Duke, while NPHC and IGC are merely thought of as fringe or niche offerings. This mental schema speaks less to a difference in membership numbers and more to the racial normalization that occurs in many areas of society.
We certainly do not mean to accuse Panhel and IFC groups of racism. We only point out that self-segregation is not limited to what are known as “cultural” fraternities and sororities, since Panhel and IFC also have a culture that is distinctive and racially informed, at least implicitly. Thus, the often-invoked anthropological approach to NPHC or IGC fraternities or sororities is unacceptable.
Again, self-segregation is a sticky issue, one that doesn’t have clear causes nor singularly positive or negative effects. Both white and minority students choose to rush particular greek organizations for a multitude of reasons—such as family ties, friends and the desire to belong. All these individual decisions, in the aggregate, produce the self-segregation we observe today.
However, without decrying self-segregation outright, we want to pose the following question: What does diversity look like at Duke? A crucial component of our college education is allegedly mingling with students of various backgrounds. So we should ask ourselves whether true cultural exchange—an exchange that flows in all directions—is occurring at Duke.