I was one woman of color alongside six in a room of 80 women. The next year, I was one woman of color alongside four in a room of 80 women. The year after, I was one woman of color alongside two in a room of 80 women. And in my last year, I was one woman of color alongside zero on the executive board.
From the time I went through Panhellenic recruitment until the end of my college career, I knew I was going to be labeled a “basic white girl” by others for being a member of my sorority. It was a term that stereotyped all of sorority life, especially Panhellenic life. While I was not white, I understand why people make that assumption. Please take a look at any sorority’s social media and what our Panhellenic community puts into the world. Instagram feeds do very little to spotlight our women of color. Posters, banners, websites, booklets; there would always be an overwhelming lack of minorities.
Looking back at my collegiate life, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed that I never stood up for myself against racial aggression. And I am upset that I allowed those to speak to me in unacceptable ways. Sometimes I get angry at those that called themselves my sisters for not standing up for me, but that is unfair. I can never expect those around me to stand up when I could not do it myself.
Leaving my college days behind, I asked myself, “Why did I never speak up?” It took me a long time to figure it out, but I realized. The times I felt uncomfortable and laughed along with the ignorant comments were the times the people saying those nasty things were those I thought I could trust. They were my executive board members, my own big, the people you are supposed to turn to when things were not okay in our chapter.
“Do you ever just brag about winning the Vietnam War?” asked my chapter president.
My big laughed along, “Oh my god!”
“What?” my chapter president asked, “It’s a valid question.”
I had no response to that statement. Who was I to speak up against the president of my own chapter? To this day, I still remember that horrible moment where I felt beyond powerless.
“Are you like black now?” my big asked me suddenly. No context involved. I questioned her statement, confused about what she was referring to. “Well, only black people wear Timberlands. Why are you wearing them?”
My big was supposed to be my role model. At the time, I did not realize how misguided her statement was. Instead, I hid my shoes away and refused to wear them, worried I was taking on another’s culture.
In my last year of college, I found my way into the role of vice president. I always felt a little isolated by my fellow executive members and advisor. But there was one time that made me truly question my purpose in joining my sorority. I was the only woman of color on my executive board and voted to become vice president by the chapter members. One month into my role, the chapter president and advisor pressured me into forfeiting half of my position. They never asked that of any other executive member. I never was written up or asked by anyone to change anything I was doing in my role as vice president. So why did my president and advisor suddenly urge me to relieve half of my position?
No one else on my executive board received the same type of treatment as me. There were apparent favorites, and that was not me. I accepted that, but I would never be able to accept that I got singled out for no real reason. Rather than talk to me about making changes, my superiors decided to give my position away. Half of my vice president role went to two women, one who had run against me for my position but was never elected. I went from being the one woman of color in an executive board of 11 to the one woman of color in an executive board of 13. If my voice was unheard before, it was nonexistent now.
I genuinely do appreciate the growth I have had from being a part of the Panhellenic community. I often wish my collegiate journey within my sorority was more comfortable, but I understand I cannot change my encounters. My experiences have molded me into the woman I am today. I urge for differences within the community and for women of color to feel safe speaking up. Our Panhellenic community should not have one face. How can we preach diversity when we lack diversity?
What You Can Do
What I ask for the Panhellenic community moving forward is to ask your sisters of color how they feel about something you noticed was wrong. There are times when you should step in and be the hero, correcting those that are saying or doing offense things. But there are other times where your sibling of color may want to handle the situation differently or they did not even notice the aggression and might need time to sit on it. Be mindful of your actions because not every person wants to feel like a victim of microaggression or be singled out.
It is also important to recognize your privilege and to accept every person has privilege in their own way. The words you say may not be offensive to you, but to the person you are speaking to, they may be. Accept criticism and be open to being told you are in the wrong. We cannot learn if we are never told that something is wrong.
Our community is full of strong, independent, and powerful people and I know that when we work together to uplift and support each other, there will be positive outcomes.