Brown Bag Lecture series. . .
“Privilege and Race in the Greek System”
Presented by Sara Bagby
Feb. 27, 2007
First-year MA student Sara Bagby relied on research, interviews, and her own experience with the Greek system of sororities and fraternities on college campuses for her brown bag talk. Stating at the outset that this is a topic she is still very much in the process of working on, she set the stage for her presentation by showing a video clip, used as a Greek marketing tool, of several sorority and fraternity men and women at play—play that immediately illustrated prevailing group cultural values, particularly in regard to gender and race.
As an undergraduate and a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, Bagby began to understand issues of social justice and to see the disconnect with those issues in the Greek system. She saw that as a problem and wanted to address it; thus began her journey in tracing race and privilege in the system. As her work progressed, she drew up a model of characteristics and values that showed privilege in a broader context and revealed that privilege is not simply a function of wealth and whiteness. In fact, although she has not yet taken her research fully into the area of the black Greek system, she has found that many of the same characteristics and values obtain in both the white and black organizations. Her presentation concentrated on the white system and its overarching attitude toward race and other signifiers of privilege.
Bagby’s model describes “privilege” as the “capital” in a system that determines placement and ease in society. The “currency” of the system is a list of characteristics that can be “spent” as capital in the system, so that the more characteristics a person has the “richer” he or she is and the more privilege accrues to him or her. The “superlative privilege” is being a member of the Greek system, which is based on the amount of capital owned to begin with. The system siphons off those in the general college population who have accumulated the most “currency of privilege” and invites them to join the Greek community.
Status, in the white Greek view, is based on Greek membership, amount of capital, and diversity of currency. The top characteristic in the siphoning off process is race. However, the various characteristics can operate dynamically, so that a deficiency in one area can be offset by higher numbers in other categories. Whiteness, gender, and wealth are the top three values. Among the other characteristics are morality, political power, birth class/family background, educational level, leadership skills, experiences/opportunities, sexuality, physical appearance, networked relationships, and social etiquette/awareness.
The black Greek system was formed in opposition to white sororities and fraternities, although with similar values. Originally, the black groups were predominately service-minded and later took part in the Civil Rights Movement. Nowadays, the black groups have more in common with the white groups, with both having similar outlooks on privilege and its currency. Bagby noted, however, that in both systems there are exceptions in which overtures to people of other races can lead to membership. But the continued segregation of the two systems implies little understanding of each other, and, certainly, there is little interaction.
What the two systems do have most in common is the embodiment and perpetuation of the characteristics and values of privilege. Large financial investment in membership is required. Traditional gender roles are structured and reproduced. Pride in character, standards, and education is upheld. Physical appearance and ability to network are important.
Greek life grants inherent privilege and a lifelong expectation that the bonds and loyalties of membership allow for continued privilege, including the sidestepping of many of the normal blocks ordinary people encounter. While only about three percent of the national population hold Greek membership, Greek alumni make up more than 40 percent of those occupying positions of leadership and influence in government, business, and society.
Another question Bagby plans to pursue: When membership in the Greek system fosters racism, classism, and gender stereotypes, “what does it mean that such people are catapulted into positions of leadership and prominence?” She also intends to explore the implications of the system for issues of social justice and how this affects the course of the nation. Not least in her continuing work on this topic, Bagby will further examine the ways in which the black and white Greek systems differ and how some sororities and fraternities are changing their values.