A Feminist of Color’s Mixed Feelings About “Working from Within”
By: Maanasi Shyno
**I want to make absolutely clear that in this article, when I refer to “the sorority” as an institution I am discussing predominantly white sororities participating in the formal rush process and “traditional” Greek Life at Dartmouth.**
As a feminist of color in a sorority, I am constantly grappling with what it means to experience both racial and gender oppression in Greek spaces. Throughout my time as a Sigma Delt, I have been trying to answer one question in particular: is the sorority worth saving?
As a feminist, one of my main concerns before rushing was whether being in a sorority was something I could find morally acceptable. After all, Greek Life is known to perpetuate sexist gender-based violence, homophobia, racism, and classism — all of which feminism condemns. Yet, as a remote sophomore feeling cut off from college life due to the pandemic, I wondered if I’d be missing out on an opportunity to build community with other women on campus.
I took these mixed feelings with me into every pre-rush sister date I went on, but only felt comfortable bringing it up with a white ‘20 in Sigma Delt. “As a woman, how do you deal with being in a system that perpetuates sexism and other harms?” I asked. Without a pause, she responded that sometimes you have to be inside a system to truly understand whether to work from within or from the outside. “There’s no harm in trying it out and going inactive or depledging when you figure that out for yourself,” she said easily. And with that, I found some reassurance to give being in a sorority a shot. But I soon learned that not only would there be harm, but it was inevitable.
As a woman of color trying to fit into a predominantly white system, I found myself struggling to feel fully at ease, and not for a lack of trying. During sophomore summer, I threw myself into the house fully, serving on the Exec Board as an Equity and Inclusion chair, attending every event, and scheduling one-on-one meals with almost everyone in my rush class. And yet, I still found myself feeling out of place at tails, and frustrated when dealing with microaggressions or with the lack of attendance at equity events planned by me and my co-chair.
I walked away from the summer feeling discouraged and unheard. What made it so confusing was that there was no person or group in particular that made me feel this way. Rather, it felt much more like the sorority as a system did not come with the apparatus to help me fit in easily as a woman of color. Even though I knew my co-chair and I were tasked with the impossible task of ‘fixing racism,’ I felt like I’d done a poor job at advocating for marginalized folks in my house and “working from the inside” to change things. What’s more, when I was encouraged to run for the full year position in 21F, it was hard for me to feel complimented (even though this was how many people meant it). Instead, I felt a strange pressure to run, even though it had been a stressful and thankless experience over the summer, because I had begun to see equity work as my contribution as a woman of color rather than the responsibility of the sorority as a whole.
Over the past eight terms that I’ve been affiliated, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether “working from the inside” to change the circumstances of BIPOC affiliated in any predominantly white and privileged system, especially Dartmouth’s Greek system, is possible at all.
The Greek system was simply not built for people like me to find belonging and community easily. By this I mean that BIPOC were historically excluded from Greek Life and when inclusion and anti-exclusion policies began being adopted, adequate changes were not made beyond this to ensure BIPOC didn’t experience alienation within their houses. In fact, it’s only in the last few years that most houses have added DEI positions to their leadership boards. If I’m being honest, I am not sure how much structural change can be created in these roles, or if programming can undo the reverberations of these racist histories. There are countless stories of how this manifests today in bias during rush, racist party themes, and the way the colloquial tier system (A-side, B-side) ranks “more Asian or BIPOC” houses as less desirable. While not commensurable, this struggle to belong is true for students who are FGLI or from working class backgrounds, queer, or disabled who have also been historically excluded from Greek Life. And these experiences are compounded for students who occupy the distinct position of belonging to multiple excluded communities.
As someone who deeply cares about equity, I knew I’d be contributing in some way to Sigma Delta when I joined; that’s why I ran for the Summer E&I Chair in the first place. Eventually I understood that, as a person of color, I’ll always have to do some sort of labor in my house to make things better for me and others. Even when I wasn’t on the exec board and not as active in the house, I found myself speaking about BIPOC issues, supporting E&I initiatives, and facilitating conversations around race during rush. I always feel compelled to share my perspectives and insights during bias trainings and sisterhood conversations. Even though I wasn’t explicitly expected to do any of these things, I still found myself doing them because it felt necessary and I expected it from myself. But once I realized my labor was never going to be anything more than a band-aid, I started asking if there was anything useful I could do right now other than pushing for a radical upheaval. By this I mean the abolition and complete restructuring of Greek Life as it exists today, which given its current pervasiveness in Dartmouth culture, would require not only time, energy, and resources from the Abolish Greek Life movement, but a complete shift in campus sentiment towards Greek Life. Additionally, there is no way to guarantee that it will be completely uprooted; it could be replaced by very similar cultures.
“Working from the inside” is riddled with complications when we consider the ways in which the sorority reproduces systemic societal issues. Perhaps it was foolish for me to hope an institution founded on exclusivity and exclusion could offer me a full sense of belonging or respite from the ‘otherness’ of my identity. Perhaps there is only tearing everything apart and starting anew. As Audre Lorde says, “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Even if we began to reorient and challenge the sorority’s place in Dartmouth culture, with 60% of the student body being affiliated it would likely take an incredible amount of organizing and time to move the needle. In the meantime, BIPOC will continue to rush and continue to struggle. With this in mind, are the current options simply to stay frustrated, leave, or never join in the first place?
But that feels unfair too. Despite my experiences, I’ve also had many moments where I felt a sense of belonging in Sigma Delt. For example, I felt the feeling of conviction in the air when we first gathered to talk about campus gender violence during the summer, the supportive energy around our winter sisterhood spotlight night, or the pride we felt teaching freshman women and nonbinary folks pong in the fall. And of course, I found community in my relationships with the other BIPOC members too. Upperclassmen were validating, uplifting, and inspirational. The BIPOC ‘24s are an absolute joy, showing up to every E&I event and BIPOC dinner with enthusiasm. Beyond this, I’ve benefited from and bore witness to how helpful it is to be connected to a group of people who want to help out when possible. Sigma Delts have lent me textbooks, brought me food while I was sick, and provided me with helpful career advice.
I can not deny how essential being in community with other women has been and continues to be in my life. It’s no wonder that myself and other women seek it out in the sorority, the most popular space for women on campus. While we might seek sisterhood for different reasons, or have other motivations for joining a sorority, sisterhood in the abstract is a consistent core driver. When I think about all the lovely people I might not have met without being affiliated and particular moments of sisterhood in Sigma Delt, it doesn't feel right to tell other BIPOC not to rush, to avoid Greek Life because Greek Life can not be fair to them. But it also doesn’t feel right to encourage them to rush either.
There is something undeniably attractive and crucial about the way I feel when I am around women and gender minorities. There is something unspoken about our shared understandings and support for each other. It is a semblance of the solidarity bell hooks defines as sisterhood: feminist solidarity against patriarchial oppression. The issue with attempting to build sisterhood, in its true political sense, is that building solidarity across racial and class lines is challenging. Historically, white, wealthy women in the feminist movement have struggled to align themselves fully with working class women of color, and participated in the subordination of other women as a means to fuel their own advancement. This continues to manifest in the sorority — especially when white, wealthy women do not engage in equity work and conversations, nor commit to educating themselves and learning from others. There is no way for a feminist sisterhood between women of all backgrounds to be realized in the sorority when racial, class, and other oppressions continue to be reproduced in the sorority.
Perhaps we can never live in the master’s house, even with remodeling. Perhaps the sorority will never be a space where BIPOC can feel comfortable and fully included. But this simply means that there may not be a way to build a meaningful, political sisterhood through the vehicle of the sorority.
As noted by hooks in her 2014 essay “Sisterhood is Still Powerful,” the vision of sisterhood should not be abandoned simply because the process of completely restructuring the sorority seems out of reach (16). It is still important to search for and create ways in which the sorority can take into account the needs of BIPOC, low-income, and queer members and combat structural issues in Greek Life. It is important to continue to find ways to build solidarity in the sorority while looking for the right tools to tear the institution apart and rebuild.
Is it the responsibility of doubly marginalized people (people experiencing multiple oppressions) to stay and/or do this work? Absolutely not. It is the responsibility of the sorority as a whole to grapple with racism, classism, and homophobia within the Greek system.
I bring this all up not to argue that BIPOC or those marginalized in other ways should or should not rush. I simply think this decision should be well-informed, with an understanding that while it is possible to make things more comfortable and inclusive of marginalized people, eradicating systemic harm in Greek houses is impossible.
Personally, I have been struggling to figure out what the right approach is for me. I thought the answer was to distance myself from Sigma Delta and focus on other communities, like Spare Rib. However, when I caught up with my little in the spring and gave her some advice about a disappointing experience in the house, I became more uncertain. After all, if I hadn’t been around, or if other BIPOC had distanced themselves too, how many options would she have had to find the kind of support the ‘22 BIPOCs had offered me?
Nowadays, the answer doesn’t seem so simple. What should I be doing for myself? And what do I owe my friends?
And what do we do about the sorority? Sisterhood is worth seeking, but no reform would make the sorority the right place for me to find it as a BIPOC, even if I can in many senses feel understood. So how do we increase awareness both of what the sorority can offer and what it severely lacks? What could we dare to envision in its stead?
I won’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. At the end of the day, I don’t know if being in Greek Life is really my thing. I don’t know if I could ever feel truly comfortable in a sorority, or any predominantly white setting for that matter. What I do know is that the sorority can’t be saved with reform. We will need to dream much bigger if we want to find alternatives to fill its role on our campus, especially ones that do not reproduce the same harms. Until then, I’ll do what’s right for me — supporting my peers where I can and being protective of myself.