A few weeks ago, I found myself embattled in a heated debate with a fellow Duke student about the merits of greek life on college campuses. And by heated, I mean that I calmly countered her ad hominem and straw man arguments with logical reasoning as she shouted at me. A few minutes after she left the conversation in a huff, she returned to deliver an “apology” of sorts. “I’m sorry we ended up on that topic. I’m sure you could have been a nice person…”
The delivery and tone of her voice made the implication obvious. She was sure I could have been a nice person…had I not chosen to join a fraternity—presumably wasting away my college years with excessive drinking, anti-intellectualism, gross mistreatment of women and general hedonism. Since coming to Duke and joining a fraternity, I’ve certainly received my fair share of judgment, but none really hit me the same way this one did. I’ve never shied away from defending my choice to wear greek letters, but never before had a complete stranger so blatantly reduced me to every negative stereotype associated with those letters.
This type of pigeonholing—of reducing my identity to that of a “frat boy”—is something that unfortunately happens all too often at Duke and beyond. Whether it’s skin color, religion, gender, sexuality, political viewpoint or, in my case, greek affiliation, we stereotype people based on the most obvious characteristics they display to the world. The difference, though, is that people generally admit that judging people based on those first five traits is unfair, offensive and morally wrong. But when it comes to greek affiliation, no one really sees it as a problem.
Since my debate a few weeks ago, I’ve talked to a number of people about why they think this is. The first, most obvious reason is that you can’t choose your ethnicity, gender or sexuality. This is, of course, true. The second, somewhat-related reason is that in choosing to “go greek”—in choosing to allegedly self-segregate into a group of predominantly white, straight, upper middle class, elitist bros—you cut yourself off from diversity and the issues that affect any and all minorities on campus. By doing this, you effectively choose to be labeled as closed-minded and anti-intellectual. And since you decided to label yourself, no one really feels sorry for you.
I’d like to address that second reason.
My first counter to that point is somewhat of a personal anecdote, so bear with me for a paragraph. I can’t speak to the other fraternities or sororities on this campus, but my particular fraternity is probably one of the most diverse greek organizations, if not one of the most diverse student organizations, on this campus. (I’m fully aware that I’m going to be accused of pulling the “I have black friends” card, but just roll with it for a minute.) One of our founding documents states in part that, “friendship among members, sharing a common belief in an ideal and possessing different temperaments, talents and convictions is superior to friendship among members having the same temperaments, talents and convictions.” The members of our chapter in particular pride ourselves on embodying this tenet. Gender obviously aside, we have brothers of just about every skin color and ethnicity. We have brothers of various religions and sexualities. And we have political viewpoints at every end of the spectrum.
But let’s just pretend for a moment that wasn’t true. Let’s pretend my fraternity is predominantly white and straight and Christian and upper middle class as the stereotype would suggest. Would that necessarily mean that no diversity exists at all? My answer would actually be “no.”
It’s no secret that diversity is something that is highly valued at any institution of higher learning. Diversity certainly includes race, religion, sexuality and all of the other personal attributes that can usually be defined in a word or two. But the most important type of diversity in promoting intellectualism is diversity of thought, and that’s something that transcends race, gender, religion, sexuality and class. It’s something that you’d probably be surprised to find is present in most, if not all, greek organizations, if you only took the chance to listen before writing “frat boy” across every greek male’s forehead.
The bottom line is that we all self-segregate to a degree. We all shut ourselves off to certain viewpoints in our close circle, whether we like to admit it or not. Sadly, it’s sometimes those who accuse others of being closed-minded or intolerant who are the worst offenders of this. (I’ve seen way too many Facebook statuses from such people saying, “If you don’t agree with this, I’m de-friending you.”) I can only speak for myself personally, but my friends in high school didn’t have the diversity of thought that my fraternity does. And I’d hazard a guess that your friend group in college might not either.
So, yes, maybe greek organizations do self-segregate in some ways, but they also self-desegregate in ways that you might not.
Here’s how I see it: Maybe it’s time to desegregate from that frat boy you’ve pigeonholed. You’re going to have to take that sign off his forehead first, though.
Scott Briggs is a Trinity senior and the editorial page editor. His biweekly column is part of the weekly Editor’s Note feature and runs on alternate Fridays. Send Scott a message on Twitter @SBriggsChron.