Last week, Nathaniel Frum wrote an Op-Ed defending Delta Upsilon (DU) in the wake of instances of racism coming forward from other fraternities around the country. His core argument was that DU does a great deal of charity work, which therefore makes them a wonderful organization and a positive asset to our community. In fact, he claimed, “We can come nearer to our shared goal of a civil and open community if more at Swarthmore emulate our example and support our positive actions.”
The issue with this claim is that this does nothing to address the negative impact of DU, and charitable actions don’t excuse bad behavior. To put it simply, filling slots for a blood drive does not cancel out the unsafe environment which many students complain about. The letter’s claims of charity and moral superiority are missing the point. Frum also explained that recent instances of racism in Greek life are isolated incidents that have nothing to do with Swarthmore’s chapter of DU. I disagree.
Fraternities were founded on exclusion tied to race, class, and gender/gender presentation. Although it may seem less explicit now, they still operate under these exclusions, thus resulting in homogenous groups of white heteromasculinity. As a result, they tend to perpetuate racism, misogyny, and homophobia, which is why people of color, women, and queer folk often feel uncomfortable/unsafe in these spaces.
I am obviously aware that there are (very few) queer and/or non-white fraternity brothers, but this does not change the fact that the culture is still problematic and makes others feel unsafe. One person’s comfort does not invalidate another’s discomfort.
It is obviously difficult for me to discuss my frustration with fraternities without bringing up personal experiences, so for the sake of this piece I will open up about the past four years. I am a white gay man, and my identity has largely shaped how I have interacted with fraternity culture on this campus.
My freshman and sophomore years I frequently encountered sentiments along the lines of “See, I think you fit in here because you’re not like other gay guys. You’re not all girly and stuff.” At the time this was a huge compliment; my identity felt validated by those I admired. These were the cool people who I had looked up to in high school and who have the most social capital, and they liked me!
What I didn’t understand at the time is that I wasn’t being validated… I was being excused. What they really meant was “We can ignore the fact that you’re gay, don’t worry.”
After some self-reflection I realized that this attitude was very toxic for me. Fraternities are large groups of men that conform to white, cisgender, heterosexual masculinity, and when outsiders can’t follow suit it becomes an unsafe environment. If I ever did anything “gay” (read: femme) I got strange, judgmental looks from brothers; I felt like a zoo exhibit. Frum explained, “A core tenet of Delta Upsilon is to ‘build better men,’” but these men looked down on my identity with scathing disapproval.
After some time I began to realize that I wasn’t the only one who felt unsafe. I had many discussions with those of various identities, and it seemed that people of color, transgender and gender nonbinary folk, women, and intersections of those groups had similar complaints. I had read numerous pieces, both from Swat and national publications, of instances in which people explained why they felt unsafe. I even heard testimonials from many of my friends. One explained how numerous fraternity brothers had spread rumors of her promiscuity in a demeaning manor. Another friend was called a racial slur. Like Frum, I had dismissed these as isolated events in which someone felt uncomfortable, and which seemed independent of DU.
Unfortunately, that notion is false. These organizations function on the exclusion of marginalized communities, and this is inherent to their structure – even here.
There are dozens of instances of racist parties hosted by fraternities across the country. In 2013 several fraternities at California Polytechnic State University hosted a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party, and Duke University’s chapter of Kappa Sigma hosted an Asian themed party. In that same year, Swarthmore College’s chapter of Phi Psi released bids in the form of a collage of nude and semi-nude women.
All of these events show extreme racial and/or gender insensitivity, and there are many more that have made national headlines. I don’t know what number would show the skeptics that this is an institutional trend, but I’m settling at three right now because this is a short piece.
These instances give us an idea of what goes on behind closed doors, but the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) incident at Oklahoma University gives us a clear picture – or rather video – of what many fraternity brothers think and what they are taught to think by their fraternity in the quest to “build better men.” As many of you know, the video released shows some fraternity brothers chanting about hanging black men (using a slur) from trees. Now, you may think, “Wow! That doesn’t sound like the fraternity brothers I know – this must be an isolated incident.”
What you may not understand is that these acts of aggression and violence is what many marginalized folks fear when they step into fraternities. Why are the brothers staring at me? What are they whispering to their bros right now? What do they say behind closed doors?
Many have told me about conversations that they have overheard between brothers in which they hear homophobic sentiments, often including the word “faggot.” This doesn’t surprise me.
Those stares I receive when I don’t perform masculinity properly mean much more than discomfort – it represents their hatred for my identity. I don’t need to hear what they say behind closed doors to understand that, although there is ample proof.
Now we as a society have seen what goes on when it’s “just the bros” explicitly, and it’s exactly what marginalized communities have been saying for years. People have shared their personal and traumatic experiences, and our natural response is to dismiss them. I think it is time to stop pretending these acts of violence are random and address the problem at hand.
My purpose in writing this piece is obviously to make an argument, but more than that I want to propose action. If what I say is true, and fraternities are part of a racist, sexist, homophobic system that functions of the oppression of others, why do we have them at Swarthmore College? I think it is time we don’t.
People have been trying to eliminate these boys clubs for a very long time, and there really isn’t a reason to keep them. They have survived due to their financial connections and influence (privilege), but we as an academic institution dedicated to creating a safe environment for its students need to sever these ties.
Thanks for convincing me to write this piece, Nathaniel Frum. Your words inspired me to take action.