Greek Life can play a major role in Southern campus culture. Many girls can probably remember getting ready to go off to college and being asked the question, “So are you going to rush?” For Panhellenic Sororities, rush is the process that potential new members go through to get placed in a sorority. While many people agree that being a part of a Panhellenic sorority can be a wonderful experience, those sororities have had to reckon with fraught histories when it comes to racial harmony and diversity.
Fraternities came first, but sororities got their start in the mid-1800s. One of the first sororities established was Alpha Delta Pi in 1851. Many sororities grew out of the need for women to have safe havens as they still felt isolated and lonely at male-dominated higher education institutions. While sororities and fraternities were safe places for white people, Black people were not allowed to join those organizations and, as was the case with other social outlets, created their own sororities and fraternities.
The “Divine Nine,” which refers to the nine historically Black Greek letter organizations, still hold much importance and play a vital role in unifying, shaping, and being an impactful experience for Black students.
Although most majority-white sororities have non-white members today, the organizations often still struggle to create environments that embrace diverse memberships. For example, The University of Alabama did not formally integrate their sororities until 2013. Alabama’s rush going viral on Tiktok this past August was entertaining, but it also brought to light the experiences some women of color have in majority white sororities.
Bria Randal, who is currently the people and development chair at the retail company Spanx, was elected as the first Black president of her chapter of Chi Omega at Auburn University. She said her time being in Chi Omega was rewarding but not without its challenges, especially when she gained the title of president.
“It was the busiest honor of my life,” Randal said. “It was also the first time I felt a bit of imposter syndrome, which is common for women unfortunately. Everyone made it seem like it was such a monumental moment (being the first Black president of a Panhellenic sorority). While I knew this was somewhat true, I really wanted the spotlight to dim a bit in case I made a mistake in leadership – especially on the hard days.”
Although during Randal’s time at Auburn University, her chapter did not have a diversity chair or focus much on race, there have been some positive changes since her time in Chi Omega. They are now having more discussions about race and have a diversity chair.
“I think for a long time the women relied on someone like me or another POC to be their advocate, but soon learned that diversity takes more than one person on a brochure,” Randal said. “Diversity deserves honor and leadership, which is something I wish I pushed more for when I was president.”
Zoe Portis, a senior at Samford University, is a part of Alpha Delta Pi. ” I’ve made great friends through ADPI that I am super thankful for!” Portis said. “I’m the only Black girl to ever pledge ADPI in Samford’s history. So with that being said, I think there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to having conversations about race and diversity.”
Not only are local chapters starting to reckon with how they have handled diversity, these conversations are also being held nationally . The National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) within the past few years has recognized the need to fix the ways sororities benefit some while not others. On the NPC website, there is a Diversity Equity Inclusion page which details NPC’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as well as steps they have already taken to do so.
NPC formed an Access and Equity Advisory Committee for the conference to hear about reforms to address barriers to membership.
“We believe that we must acknowledge the impact of past and current policies and systems that stand in the way of the inclusive communities we seek to create,” Dani Weatherford, NPC CEO said in a statement.
In addition to reforms, NPC has also had its organizations review, change or end legacy policies that have often disadvantaged women of color or first-generation women in joining sororities.
Just like many other industries, Greek life has had to reflect on its history and the ways in which it has stifled progress in diversity and inclusion. But many current and former members of these organizations hope that these conversations continue to grow and women of color that choose to join predominantly white sororities feel more comfortable in these spaces.
“Being a Black woman in a predominantly white space, you are consistently convincing yourself that you are not where you are because they need a Black face, you are there because you are qualified and worthy,” Randal said. “I think it is important that women of color are not forced to have this debate in their head, which needs to be instilled by the leadership of sororities.”