Greek Life As University Sanctioned Lunch Tables

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“You can’t sit here!” Ah, the classic grade school stinger that some remember all too well. A cool kid rejects a loser from their lunch table, sending them off to dine in a much less desirable location. The “loser” goes home crying, his parents tell him that he shouldn’t want to befriend people like that. For some that was just in the movies. For others it was a reality.

After starting college at UC Berkeley, a school known for its progressive and socially active culture, I thought a supposedly more mature student body would never indulge in this “cool kids vs. loser table” nonsense. But I was wrong. I discovered that the hierarchy returned in a much more virulent form: Greek Life.

At the beginning of every semester, hundreds of students rush a fraternity or sorority. Some get into the house they wanted, some are rejected and settle for another and some don’t end up in a house at all. The University-sanctioned lunch table.

There’s a strict social hierarchy within the Greek system and the top houses seem to have the most conventionally attractive members. Texas Tech University psychology professor Alan Reifman believes that recruitment is based in large part on appearances. “Observers associate positive traits with physically attractive people and negative traits with less attractive people,” Reifman said. Therefore top fraternities mix with top sororities and bottom fraternities mix with bottom sororities. If you were popular in high school, the best that it could really get you was a hot date to prom, but in college popularity of this kind has serious ramifications.

Around 85% of Fortune 500 CEO’s, 76% of Congress, 40 of the last 47 Supreme Court Justices and every president since the inception of social fraternities in 1825 are fraternity members. Yep, Teddy Roosevelt was fratting it up near the turn of the century. The same guys you see playing beer pong and blasting Drake on their front porches could run this country. With that said, only 1% of the United States’ population has ever participated in a social fraternity.

The end result is an extremely powerful network that’s available to very few people. Women have access to a network of other women through their sorority but, by definition, are excluded from the network of men. Greek life is also largely restricted for people of color, even though Berkeley is only 30% white. Many people of color are discouraged from rushing considering the racist legacy of Greek life having actual racial barring clauses. Greek houses to this day litter the news with racial exclusiveness, like SAE’s racist chant at the University of Oklahoma and the viral recruitment video of Alpha Phi at the University of Alabama depicting solely white members. Same goes for poor people, as membership and a whole slew of hidden costs make joining a house pretty expensive. The standard seems to be wealthy, white, heterosexual, able-bodied and conventionally attractive, therefore any deviation from that standard is inherently disadvantaged by the system.

Since these organizations don’t publish demographics, there are no definitive statistics. However, we do have ethnographic studies, including research spearheaded by Mississippi State University sociology professor Matthey Hughey at three anonymous East Coast colleges that found only 3.8% of non-ethnic interest Greek Letter Organizations is people of color. It also found people of color were not pursued in recruitment like their white counterparts, actively discouraged from recruitment or discouraged by the prospect of placement in a less desirable house. For the few people of color that joined non-ethnic interest Greek Letter Organizations, they were discouraged from full participation, specifically in the networking aspect according to student interviews in the Hughey study.

Let’s look at how this hierarchy plays out on our campuses. Top houses have more members and are more socially active than bottom houses, meaning their members will probably meet and network with more people on campus. Speaking from experience, I had access to way more social activities when I was Greek compared to when I was non-Greek, and even that paled in comparison to the amount of social activities houses that were higher on the totem pole had access to.

Being in a lower tier house even affects its members psychologically. “Sociologists and psychologists have theorized about many possible ways people cope when in a group viewed as having low status,” Reifman said. “Such coping mechanisms can include anything from trying to hide one’s stigma to being mistrustful and even violent towards other people.”

People are naturally social, and joining a social group seems like a necessary thing to do in college. “Identification with groups, whether with sports teams, political parties or other organizations, can be very powerful, to the point where members of the same group can see each other as being like family and view people in competitor groups with great hostility,” Reifman said.

Greek life subtly perpetuates a system of privilege through these behaviors. Sure, rejection makes sense in other organizations you apply for because the applicant should be qualified to do the job they’re applying for. With friendship and philanthropy, unless you’re an asshole, you are qualified for the job.

I got roped into the promises of Greek Life, and I personally regret signing my bid. Any incoming freshman interested in Greek life should remain socially conscious. In Greek Life you may make some friends, you probably will have some good times and could have a good network upon graduating, but is it all because of something unethical? In the end it’s not worth selling out. It’s not worth going back to high school.

Dano Nissen is a sophomore English major at UC Berkeley. He enjoys listening to Pearl Jam and watching The Simpsons.

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