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Building bridges

There are twelve girls that live on my hall in my freshman dorm. Seven of them are white. Six out of those seven white girls are the only girls on my hall who rushed sororities. This is a personal experience, but to me it seems like a microcosm of those who choose to be involved in Greek life on campus. On the bus one day during rush week, I told a girl on my hall who wasn’t rushing about this observation, and added “Isn’t that weird?” She shrugged at me and said, “It’s kind of expected.” 

Along with the start of sorority rush two weeks ago came an onslaught of jokes and commentary about how overwhelmingly white Greek life is. One meme that featured a blank white square as a photo, with the caption “Panhellenic rush events overtake West Campus. 2018. (decolorized),” got over 1K likes in the Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens page. And while it’s fun to joke about frats and sororities, the homogeneity and implied elitism that lies underneath the jokes is something that needs to become a larger part of campus dialogue. If this type of homogeneity among rush groups is “expected” but not preferred, perhaps we as a campus community should be doing more to change it.

Duke’s class of 2020 class profile is 28 percent Asian, 12 percent black or African American, 10 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American. Even if I could find statistics about the diversity of rushees in sorority recruitment, I fear they would only confirm my suspicions: an overwhelming majority are white women, with a handful of Asians and even fewer blacks and Hispanics. Everyone comes to college wanting to find groups of people with whom they feel they belong. To me, it seems off that given the wide diversity of the freshman class, almost only white students feel they will find their “home” within Greek life. 

There are fraternities and sororities on campus that are historically black and recruit new classes when candidates are sophomores, However, while we call for diversity and inclusion, the separate existence of “black sororities” and “white sororities” seems like a piece of the 1950s that has stuck with Duke and other colleges into the 21st century like a stubborn wart. Separare Greek organizations for blacks and whites were most likely formed because of de facto segregation in American colleges even after institutions began to accept different races. But while Duke’s first black class matriculated 55 years ago, the integration of Greek organizations remains largely stagnant. 

When my friend who is half black says he’s rushing fraternities, people ask him, “Oh, are you rushing a black fraternity?” When I talked to a white friend about the lack of diversity I saw among sororities, she responded, “But don’t they have black sororities?” This isn’t an issue of “separate but equal” or not; rather, it is an issue of whether people are separate and content. They are separate and aware of the separation, but push it aside to focus on issues more easily fixed. 

In an ideal world, I would have rushed sororities. One of the personal characteristics that I pride myself on is being able to become friends with almost anyone. Part of me wonders why I didn’t rush, even as I remain aware of the system’s kinks based on the computer algorithm that eventually places everyone into different groups. But the reason I decided not to try sorority rush at all was because I felt a deeper sense of social distance from other rushees that I wasn’t sure my personality alone could accommodate. And it’s not just because sororities are primarily white—by way of the groups I’ve joined on campus and people with whom I’ve made genuine connections so far, the majority of the people I spend time with at Duke are white. 

Beyond the factor of race, Duke itself is an elite institution that attracts students of privileged backgrounds by way of its selectivity and tuition costs. As a result, Greek organizations, with added dues and the concept of “legacies” based on relatives’ involvement in the organizations, seem like a higher concentration of socioeconomic and racial privilege in one section of campus life. 

My impression might be completely based on the stereotypes about “sorority girls” that I’ve been fed through movies like Legally Blonde, or the Instagram profiles of Duke sororities and the girls I know in them, but I also haven’t seen much action undertaken to diffuse these stereotypes on campus. 

If the diversity of the rush class does not increase, we cannot expect the diversity of the institutions themselves to change either. I acknowledge that as a student who chose not to have any Greek affiliation, I cannot be the one who actively tries to change the system from within it. But I also think—even for someone like me, who is an optimist to a fault—that if I had rushed and gotten one bid to a sorority, this would not have notably changed the system to reflect the diversity of Duke’s student body. 

And while “diversity and inclusion” are grand words that are tossed around a lot and held in high esteem, who am I to demand that every institution at Duke be just as diverse, or more diverse, than its student body? I hold diversity and inclusion in such high esteem because I see exposure to people who are different than I am as a way to help solve some of the hardest problems that America and our world are facing.

Our own government can’t put aside its members’ differences in opinion long enough to decide on a budget that would save thousands of government employees from being unable to work during the government shutdown. This inability to agree could stem from a lack of exposure to differences in opinions. We must learn how to live with and build relationships with people who are different from us, and Greek life’s model could present the perfect way in which to do so.

Until we understand other people’s backgrounds and where they’re coming from, it’s harder to compromise. I am in no way saying that Greek life is the only way to meet people from different backgrounds; however, if it became one, it would be powerful. One of the hallmarks of Greek life are that as soon as you join, all of the other members become your “brothers” or “sisters.” You live together, you attend events and parties together, and alumni chapters connect members after their college days are over. Establishing these kinds of regular and familial relationships with people of different classes, races, religions and backgrounds would do a lot to bridge the divides between people who seemingly have nothing in common. Duke students should consider: if they will not step up to build these bridges, who will?

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays.


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