Schwalb: A call for self-critical participation in PHA and IFC

Jessica Schwalb, Columnist

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By the end of the summer, my answers to prodding family and friends had become well-rehearsed: Yes, I’m in Greek life, but my chapter and my friends are more nuanced than the stereotypes. Yes, I buy into my Panhellenic Association sorority, but I acknowledge the implications of this participation. Upon returning to campus, however, it seems that recognizing the problematic nature of Greek life is not enough. If we decide to join, we must combat systematic injustices through our participation and put pressure on organizations to do the same.

PHA sororities and IFC fraternities have a racist, homophobic and violent history ranging from historic exclusion of minorities to torturous hazing practices to rampant sexual assault. Creating organizations around ideals of “manhood” and “womanhood” excludes and marginalizes non-binary students on campus. Regular mixers that pair sororities with fraternities bind us to the archaic idea that courtship is mostly, if not always, heterosexual. The ban on alcohol in sorority houses concentrates most parties, and often sexual violence, in all-male frat spaces. In peeling back the history of such institutions, it seems that there is no Greek life without a foundation of oppression.

These organizations do indeed have value: Greek life exposes me to previously unexplored areas of campus and certainly animates my Saturday nights. The meaningful friendships I’ve formed are not invalidated by the problematic framework in which they began. Still, my participation and money contribute to perpetuating the very things I claim to oppose: race and class-based exclusivity, highly heteronormative social events, even sexual assault. Does engaging with these spaces signal an acceptance of their racism, transphobia and violence? Is it enough that I acknowledge an institution’s problems if I then continue to fund them?

I am privileged to have this dilemma: My family is financially able to pay my tuition and quarterly dues, and as a cisgendered, white woman I look like much of the fellow PHA community. It’s not enough to tell my friends that NU is “different” or that “I think Greek life is problematic too.” It doesn’t make sense to complain about an organization and participate anyway. Yet these are conversations I’ve had with many people involved in PHA or IFC on this campus. As long as these institutions exist, the selfish part of me triumphs: I remain in Greek life despite its own race and class-based exclusivity because of the benefits it affords me. I may try to justify my participation by telling myself that I recognize its flaws. But this is insufficient.

The common defense that NU’s Greek life is different and better has gotten old. Indeed there might exist more blatant iterations of oppression on other campuses. Yet our institutions also exist within a larger framework of IFC and PHA’s history and rules; we are subject to oversight by national organizations that might not align with our idea of a “laid-back” Greek life. Still, we retain agency in shaping our own campus or Greek culture — we certainly have the power to and should strive for change. We must work to change these institutions, to make them better, from the inside and the outside.

Self-critical conversations do occur in pockets of campus, but they are hardly institutionalized within PHA or IFC chapters. What if our discomfort with these organizations could be channelled into a plan of action for changing what we can from the roles that we occupy? In addition to decrying the dangers of male-dominated frat party spaces, sorority women should host more of our own off-campus parties. In addition to condemning the lack of diversity in PHA and IFC (and at NU, more broadly) we should actively seek to recruit members from across campus, raise the bar for and make more frequent our conversations about race and increase funding for scholarships. These suggestions are elementary and do not negate nor remove these organizations’ inherent exclusivity. But the reality that Greek life exists on our campus, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, requires pragmatism. It is powerful for changemakers and critical thinkers to exist, and strive for progress, within PHA and IFC. We need more of them.

While participating in Greek life, we should do more than simply lament the problematic nature of the spaces around us. We should begin to break it down.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at jessicaschwalb2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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