Black-and-White Perspectives: Division and Tokenization in Vandy Greek Life

Black-and-White Perspectives: Division and Tokenization in Vandy Greek Life

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Danny Harris and Adriel Bineza contributed to this article.

An examination of the racial politics of this college campus would be remiss without discussing social life through the lens of race. At Vanderbilt, social life revolves around Greek Life for a significant portion of the student body. The National Panhellenic Council (or NPHC, a collection of historically black fraternities and sororities), Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Conference (Panhel) all make up the Greek community at Vanderbilt. However, the controversial racial dynamics between IFC and Panhel (both predominantly white) and NPHC beg the question as to whether Greek Life really functions as a community at all in its current state.

To help tell the story, we sat down with an IFC member, a Panhel member, and two NPHC members who appeared in the first article of this series.* We also spoke with Alex Livingstone, Vanderbilt Intentional Diversity Experience exec officer, in an effort to get a perspective from an organization actively working to alleviate current tensions.

The Office of Greek Life aims to stimulate a more positive attitude towards diversity within the Greek community by requiring students to obtain Diversity and Inclusion Greek Member Experience (GME) points. These points can be obtained at events hosted by organizations such as the Multicultural Leadership Council or Vanderbilt Student Government. Yet many members of Greek organizations, NPHC, IFC, and Panhel alike, voice opinions that this policy misses the mark. “I think engagement with GME should be more impactful and productive. I feel like the people who do interact with the Diversity and Inclusion events are mostly the ones that already interact with black people,” says Vanessa, an NPHC member, pointing out that these events generally do not tend to leave a profound impression on those that need it the most. Many members of IFC organizations also contend that the mandatory nature of GME is counterintuitive; there is no real instructive value in attending Diversity and Inclusion events if this is not done of an individual’s own volition. Sarah, another NPHC member, insists that GME, if not executed correctly, can serve as kind of cop-out for organizations saying, “there are very minimal relationships and when they try to foster relationships, they almost tokenize the fact that ‘Hey we did something with this [organization].’”

A secondary, but important, function of Greek organizations is philanthropy. Sarah feels that even this goal is affected by a bias towards IFC and Panhel organizations. When asked where she has noticed this bias she responded, “Events like Kickoff Cookoff were very much so for [IFC and Panhel] but our members are expected to go and help with it because it’s a ‘group thing’ but we didn’t benefit from it much.” It’s also worth noting that prior to last year, no NPHC sororities or fraternities were included in Kickoff Cookoff. Despite this, Alex Livingstone of VIDE is hopeful that philanthropy can be a source of unity between Panhel and NPHC rather than a source of division. She informs us that, “A lot of sororities have similar philanthropies… both [ZTA and AKA] of our philanthropies are breast cancer awareness research.” Optimistically, she continued saying, “So, through partnering through VIDE, we are not just working through a philanthropy, but also making friends.”

Philanthropic and member education policies aside, the most schismatic issue underlying the discord in Greek life seems to be one of cultural difference, or more accurately, indifference. In Sarah’s experience, IFC and Panhel can have a tendency to be insensitive towards racial issues. She complained that, “IFC and Panhel tend to tokenize black people… you go to their tailgates and they wanna play ‘Mo Bamba’ and say the N word. If you can’t respect my existence as a black Greek, then definitely don’t be displaying our music.” When organizations eagerly include black music at their events, yet make no attempt to include black students, many feel that they are interacting with the culture in a way that is appropriative rather than appreciative. Sarah doubled down on her opinions adding, “And I think it’s ridiculous that we go to an event and we got white girls doing Caribbean dances. Hip Hop is one thing, but to appropriate Caribbean culture for an event for your benefit?” Once again, the problem is appropriation on account of lack of representation or permission.

Philanthropic and member education policies aside, the most schismatic issue underlying the discord in Greek life seems to be one of cultural difference, or more accurately, indifference.

As two black students within what is often termed “White Vandy” Greek Life, Mel and Scott observe culture appropriation and tokenization from within the Greek organizations. While relatively less concerned with appropriation, Mel would like to shift the effort toward making Panhel and her sorority a place in which appropriation would not even be a problem – this means making her community a place which is representative of the community at large. She claims “the pledge class needs to look like Vanderbilt looks like.” If this ideal can be achieved in Greek life, cultural barriers can start to be broken down between all groups on campus. Mel hopes, “20 years from now you will come back and visit Vanderbilt and look at a composite photo and not pick out just that one black kid.”

Scott recounted a personal story about exclusivity within his fraternity’s chapter during recruitment. To preface the story, Scott noted that there is a student within his chapter who is from Africa and happens to be white. This year, there was a black freshman from Africa who expressed interest in joining the fraternity as well. Scott explained that some brothers were hesitant to include the freshman from Africa on the grounds that he would simply not get the fraternity culture. Scott felt that he could not affirm his brothers’ sentiments and told us: “In my mind it was almost like them trying to rationalize why this kid that is black from Africa wouldn’t fit it without looking at it objectively.” Unfortunately, Scott admits, “Had I not stood up, that kid would’ve never had a shot.”

Amid the often implicit and at times explicit dissension that exists between Black and White Vandy or IFC/Panhellenic/NPHC, there is some common ground. Thankfully, there are folks contemplating and taking actionable steps toward solutions. Our friends at NPHC believe in initiatives which seek to promote meaningful conversation, and ultimately change. Vanessa advocates for “more diversity training for Greek officers… It should be mandatory for anyone holding a position in a Greek org. If we have to do alcohol awareness training, this should be mandatory too.” As it stands now, Greek Allies participate in a fairly extensive training program prior to the beginning of the academic school year as a part of the Greek Inclusivity Alliance. The Office of Greek Life could see it fit to require the prominent members of the Executive Board for each Greek organization to either attend this training program or at least a limited number of GIA meetings.

Incorporating members of fraternities who have separated themselves into racial echo chambers into GIA and other like-minded organizations could be very impactful. One former member of GIA claims, “GIA felt like a group of people who really care about diversity being in a room together and learning more about diversity. There was no one there that had non-inclusive views or who wasn’t already an activist in their own way.” Similar to Sarah’s sentiment above, it seems as though the ones that need to be educated the most are the ones that don’t get involved. Likewise, the former GIA member goes on to note, “None of the people that needed to learn the lessons that GIA was teaching were actually in the organization or hearing those lessons.”

Sarah adds, “We all need to build a community where we can have more of these types of conversations and facilitate these types of conversations within our own chapters. I love discussion and wish that we had an opportunity to voice how we feel about it as a council.” Creating the time and appropriate formal structures that would make such conversations more amenable is difficult for college students and administrators.

From where Scott stands, it all comes down to being transparent with those around you. He posited, “People are afraid of offending people and asking these direct questions… I would rather see people be honest about why they want certain ideas put forward rather than skirting around the issues of race.” Scott emphasizes the necessity for improved communication to remedy the division in Greek life; a recurring theme we have seen among our interviewees recommended solutions. We ought to find a way to encourage folks to have candid conversation about race with those in scattered groups, and even with the closest of one’s friends, on campus.

Dr. Noble, as a professor, researcher, faculty-head-of-house, and Director of the BCC, is undoubtedly hard-pressed for time. And further, as seen above, it is also extraordinarily difficult to program events and organizations that will be well received throughout the entire Vanderbilt community. Nonetheless, after a good deal of thought and experimentation, Dr. Noble launched the Vanderbilt Intentional Diversity Experience in Spring 2018. The program brings students together in a one-on-one capacity by pairing participants of different races who share common academic interests, hobbies, and passions indicated in the initial survey completed by those involved.

VIDE has the intent of eliminating the initial formality of an organizational pairing into a relationship that is more casual between the partners. Alex Livingstone, an executive board officer of VIDE, accordingly notes, “Vanderbilt has a lot of panels and formal discussions, but it’s really hard to make friends honestly…” Many dissenters are surely quick to note that this program is not entirely organic and also provides certain members of the IFC/Panhellenic communities with yet another opportunity to inauthentically flaunt their purported cultural competency. Dr. Noble, Livingstone, and other proponents of VIDE make clear that the program is more an individual relationship than a public show. Livingstone adds, “Intention also highlights that just because you are in VIDE, it doesn’t mean that the work is done… It takes a lot more effort than most would anticipate.” One gets out what one puts in, so to speak.

“Vanderbilt is a place where if you’re not consciously aware of what you’re doing in the most minute decisions, you can look up and very easily find yourself in very segregated places on campus…” – Dr. Noble

One potential worry is that VIDE sounds like a “get yourself a black friend” type of program. We raised this concern to Dr. Noble who sees the possibly imperfect program as a way of combating a problem that would exist in even greater prevalence without his initiative. He likewise claims, “Vanderbilt is a place where if you’re not consciously aware of what you’re doing in the most minute decisions, you can look up and very easily find yourself in very segregated places on campus – be it Greek Life or maybe even right here in this building – you can be segregated in the sense that you’re around nothing but black people.” Dr. Noble, in his role as Director of the BCC, is working to overcome complacency in an effort to educate folks about the black experience historically and in its totality on Vanderbilt’s campus today.

There is internal conflict within every group which must be addressed; we must always set our own house in order to engage with others in a healthy way. Sarah likewise pointed out, “Most of the black girls that rushed this year were Sophomores… A lot of girls sat there and grappled with the fact of Black Vandy versus themselves. Will people think I’m still black? Will people accept me still?” These questions are the kind which we will inspect in the next part of this series.

As we have seen, Mel, Scott, Vanessa, and Sarah as black students at Vanderbilt all have varying perspectives and accordingly differing solutions to the division we face throughout all local Greek life. Dr. Noble and those involved with VIDE have institutional approaches to changing the social circumstances. It us up to us, the students, to decide what the best way forward is – the onus of the future is exclusively on our shoulders to be inclusive, or not.

*The NPHC members will continue to be referred to as Vanessa and Sarah. The IFC and Panhel members will respectively go by Scott and Mel to preserve their anonymity.

About author

Adriel Bineza

Adriel Bineza is a junior from La Vergne, Tennessee, majoring in Biological Sciences. He has been involved in VSVS and served on Vanderbilt Student Government's Economic Inclusivity Committee. He is interested in attending law school and pursuing a career in intellectual property and patent law after graduation.

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