Allen: Why Greek Life is Beyond Reform

Kenny Allen, Op-ed Contributor

Greek life plays a strong and damaging role at Northwestern. A system where you have to pay to socialize will only be accessible to those who can pay, meaning society’s racial wealth gaps will always be reflected in membership. Even if these organizations try to make financial accommodations for those who can’t pay, the cost barrier to membership is a signal to low-income students that the chapters are not actively invested in their inclusion. If you’re a low-income student who would struggle to pay dues in the first place, you can only assume that more challenges will follow. Even with dues covered, you may not be able to afford Ubers downtown to bar nights, spring trips to faraway places, the formal attire expected at events, or meals on the days where your Greek house doesn’t provide food. Meanwhile, so many of the other members can pay for those things without a second thought.

At Northwestern, it feels as if Greek life has a near monopoly on social life. People living in Greek housing have the most access to unscrutinized space—opposed to regular dorms that have security guards and RAs to enforce rules— along with the financial means and community necessary to afford larger spaces when they move off campus. Any one of the chapters with a house on campus has more space reserved for them than low-income, black, or LGBTQ+ students do combined. This means that those without membership in or connection to Greek life have much more limited options in terms of structuring their social lives.

But the benefits don’t stop during one’s time at Northwestern. Greek life provides access to a vast alumni network after college. Access to this network can easily be turned into professional opportunities after graduation, giving a disproportionately wealthy group of people disproportionate access to wealth creation due to purely social reasons. This asset is allocated to people based only on their ability to fit in with current members and whether they can pay.

Single-gender social clubs also enforce heterosexism, patriarchy, and binary ideas about gender. If sororities specify that they’re for women, and fraternities specify that they’re for men, where does that leave people who don’t identify with either of those labels? Immediately after the rush process, chapters host mixers, parties aimed at new members hosted by one sorority and one fraternity. Additionally, new members are often encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to enter a pledge marriage, which is an agreement between a sorority member and a fraternity member to bring the other person to their organization’s events, guaranteeing an ability to participate in both sorority and fraternity life. Even though neither of these practices is inherently sexual in nature, they demonstrate that heterosexual norms are the ones that are accepted. In addition, because sororities can’t throw parties on campus, fraternities control access to parties and the alcohol that comes with them, which is especially relevant for underclassmen. Those who want alcohol and parties have to stay in the good graces of the men who control them. This gender-based power dynamic is present in all interactions with those fraternity members. It’s not a surprise then that fraternities have been drivers of sexual assault on campus.

As a result of the uprisings in the summer of 2020, when waves of white people seemingly woke up to the idea that they might be upholding racist systems, many Greek life participants at Northwestern grappled with how their membership may have contradicted their stated values. There were mass deactivations and votes to end chapters because people recognized that no efforts at reform would actually lead to equitable Greek spaces.

But now in Winter Quarter, rush is in full swing for many chapters. Some have shown that they’re at least thinking about how their institutions recreate inequality. Alpha Phi published an “Anti-Racist Guide to Greek Life” on their instagram page on Martin Luther King Jr. day. If that sounds like an oxymoron to you, you’re not alone. People flooded the comment section letting them know that an anti-racist guide to Greek life is simple: disband. This scrutiny is completely deserved. Participating in Greek life is a harmful practice that no amount of reform or number of anti-racist instagram posts will change. Thinking about the damage isn’t enough. But we need to make sure that we’re not only criticizing the groups that speak out. All of the chapters doing recruitment right now are prioritizing the benefits that Greek life provides them despite their knowledge of the harm the system perpetuates.

The attachment to these institutions as the ones shaping social life at Northwestern is an attachment to racist, classist, patriarchal exclusion. Because these are chapters of national organizations, fundamental change at our school won’t happen. Nationals can always intervene even if members are united in a direction. People have already proposed reforms, but none of them can fundamentally change what Greek life is: expensive social clubs whose value comes from their exclusivity. Many of the ideas for reform focus on diversity or making the experience hospitable to more people. The class element of the process will always shrink the pool of potential recruits to those who can afford it—already a whiter group— and even racial diversity wouldn’t be a success in itself. A diverse set of faces layered onto a classist and patriarchal institution isn’t something to be celebrated; it’s a way to make other forms of exclusion look more palatable.

When people are pressed about why they’re still attached to this specific experience despite all the criticism, they’ll often insist that they appreciate the community and the friends. All of these things are completely attainable without Greek life. Part of the reason the system has such a hold is because people rush so early in their time at Northwestern and can’t picture a social life outside of it. But we shouldn’t take its existence for granted. If you’re someone who’s invested in making this school a more inclusive one, that means divesting from Greek life. Freeing up all the financial and spatial resources tied up in the system will help build a new social life that more people have access to. But to participate in the Greek system, even if you can articulate critiques of it, is to invest in the cycle of harm it creates. If you’re a first year considering rushing, don’t. If you’re a current member, deactivate. If you’re in leadership, disband.

Kenny Allen is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.