When I was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s, the Greek system was an entirely foreign concept to me—unsurprisingly, since I was a foreign student. My blonde roommate from Minnesota asked me in a thick Midwest accent if I was “gonna rush,” to which I responded, “Where to?” Observing her desperate courting of numerous sororities—made all the more nerve-wracking because of her fear of rejection for being slightly chubby and “not Texan”—confused me even further. After several months of observation, I concluded that the unspoken purpose of sororities and fraternities on American college campuses was to group into private clubs, by race and class, people who worried about not being able to coalesce into a social circle naturally and who thus felt compelled to rent friends.
These clubs threw a major wrench into my naive impression that the United States was an emancipated nation where people no longer segregated themselves by race or ethnicity—at least not formally. I mostly felt sorry for the young men and women who sported the T-shirts and sweatshirts with embroidered logos of their Greek clubs’ acronyms. I even recall once being invited by a friend to a fraternity party and worrying that I would not be allowed in because I am not white. At that time (I was only 17), I had very little conscious understanding of what was considered politically acceptable, but I instinctively understood the racial boundaries that had been drawn.
The contents of the recent viral video of University of Oklahoma members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) singing a racist and derogatory song should not surprise any of us who have any familiarity with college fraternities and sororities. As several former members have attested, the abhorrent song in question appears to be something of an SAE national tradition. Even the SAE house mother, Beauton Gilbow, whodefended her students after the video went public, has been caught spouting the N-word repeatedly on camera with a smile. Her justification that she was simply singing along to a rap song by Trinidad James reeks of the standard racist defense that if blacks can use the N-word, why can’t whites?