On March 7, I was prepared to do a routine for the charity event SAMS Lip Sync Contest and enjoy some fun routines provided by Greek Life, but was confronted with situations of cultural appropriation and white privilege, which made me uncomfortable and feel an other as a part of the Allegheny community.
We performed second to last so we enjoyed all of the other performances with ease. While watching the performances from the different sororities and fraternities I became increasingly uncomfortable. A sorority did a piece dealing with different years and in the middle of their performance a sorority sister put on a large black, curly haired afro wig and strutted across the stage smiling happily. This disgusted and appalled me. I know women of color who are within that sorority, I know women who I’ve seen at Social Justice Events in that sorority, and no one thought that this would be a horribly offensive act?
After seeing that, it put me off for the entire event and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to perform with my teammates I would have walked out. The second thing that made me very uncomfortable was the large amount of step that seemed to find their ways within the sororities and fraternities at the show. Step, or stepping, is a mix of military moves associated with drill run on the yard and African foot dances. It was brought together and popularized by the Pan-Hellenic Council in the mid-20th century. Step is important to me because it carries aspects of my African heritage mixed with modernity of my American one. After being denied from historically white Greek letter organizations stepping was something that Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations could have something that was solely theirs.
As a student leader who is involved in bringing Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations to Allegheny, I know that a lot of our Greek students here are upset because they don’t understand why HBGLOs are a need for this campus and its students. The ones I have talked to have told in strange conjunction with each other that they “don’t understand why Blacks need their own thing, why segregate themselves instead of being a part of a mixed group. That’s racist.” It’s not racist. For me, I am interested in being a part of a Historically Black Greek Letter Organization in my future. It isn’t that I don’t want to be in a mixed group because HBGLOs are mixed groups. It’s that I want a history that was made with me in mind, where woman saw they weren’t being accepted and made something new for them and the women of the future.
So that’s why I found it offensive and alarming when step, a historical part of these organizations was used as a part of an act for a contest. Something I’ve noticed as being a part of Social Justice and inclusivity groups is that you’re automatically thought of as being a troublemaker when you challenge an idea, action, or the words of a person, or organization. This is what I was met with immediately after voicing my outrage when the routines where happening to those around me, eye rolling and confusion with pitiful looks of “I don’t understand” or “Oh…I see what you’re saying but…” and there would start the excuses for the organizations’ behavior. It was only afterwards when surrounded some Social Justice involved people that they reaffirmed me that I wasn’t crazy for seeing their actions as problematic and offensive to my history.
The problem sat with me for a while, and being a sophomore on this campus I have seen my fair share of problematic stunts by students, faculty, and Greek Life and wasn’t sure if emailing the President of the PanHellenic council would be worth it. The time arose when the Greek forum was announced, so I decided to voice my opinions there. The Greek Forum, as I heard, was for non-Greek people to voice their opinions on their image of Greek Life at Allegheny College. There were maybe thirty people there which made me excited that people came to also voice their opinions. Later in the forum with a show of hands it was revealed that out of the 30 plus people at the forum only six were non-Greek. After a couple of Greek Life members spoke on how their organizations changed their lives for the good, Zak Sprowls of Delta Tau Delta stood up and said (and I paraphrase) that maybe it was in the best interest of the forum to let non-Greek people speak since this is supposed to be about bettering the organizations, not complimenting each other. His words were met with slow head nods and some snaps from people who would later talk.
I felt that after hearing his words I now had a chance to speak about something that wasn’t positive on Greek Life’s part. I commented on how I felt offended and reasoned why action like this could hurt their organizations. I explained that if these organizations are striving for diversity and inclusivity they can’t ridicule and take people’s culture by using it as a prop. I explained a little of this in the forum but the problem with wearing an Afro wig or stepping is you’re using someone’s culture as a funny tidbit in your piece. You don’t have to live with that hair or know and belong to that history. That is the major problem. You put on a wig and make everyone laugh but you have the ability to take it off. You don’t have to live with the nasty calls, the names, and people thinking because your hair is so different that it gives them license to touch it, which is something that happens to me all the time, at home and at Allegheny. You take it off and you’re back to you, while the Afro is always me and represents something to me.
Though I explained why, I felt like the only words anyone heard from me were “white privilege and cultural appropriation.” These two words phrases should be held in organizations’ conversations all the time, for positive representation and for keeping the women of color feeling safe and not tokenized. The response to my opinion was a nice comment from the President of the PanHellenic council saying that all the leaders of the organizations are Safe Zone training. What? I work in the CIASS office and I know that though Safe Zone Training does talk about privilege it doesn’t talk about it in the capacity needed for these organizations. By that I mean that conversations of power, privilege, and difference are conversations that have to happen often, they have to be in depth conversations where people learn and think about themselves in ways they hadn’t before. It has to be something that leaders and organizations actively work to combat and know more about, it’s not a one day event of information.
Though I applaud them for wanting to be allies to their sisters and brothers of their organizations, that had nothing to do with what I said. Besides being asked to write a Campus opinion piece no one has said anything to me about what I said besides, with the exception of the other speakers about the negatives of Greek Life at the forum. I hope that Greek Life at Allegheny really looks into the way they present themselves and their organizations. Just because something has become popularized doesn’t mean it hasn’t stemmed from a culture or that it doesn’t mean something to someone. All organizations in order to be progressive, inclusive, and fair have to have reoccurring conversations about privilege in all capacities, especially white privilege. It’s easy to take someone’s culture and use it for some event because you don’t have to think about your race everyday of every second. To be a better Allegheny community we have to learn to think of not just ourselves but who we represent and who we may offend by the actions or lack of actions we take.
Edit: I want to clarify that I never said “white people shouldn’t step.”