It’s the closest thing to Armageddon that many Black Greeks have seen since Laurence Fishburne’s character, Dap, ran around the fictitious Mission College campus yelling, “Wake Up!” in the classic movie, School Daze. Stepping, a bastion of black Greek life, has just undergone a revolution, and some black folks are pretty ticked off about it.
It all started on Feb. 20 when Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority, a predominantly white sorority, entered the Sprite Step Off National Step Competition in Atlanta, and beat three National Pan-Hellenic Council sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta, winning the $100,000 first prize. While many black Greeks gave the ZTAs their due, the blowback was immediate from a lot of angry black Greeks who couldn’t believe a white sorority could honestly beat black sororities.
The Sprite Step Off, broadcast on MTV2, distributed $1.5 million in prize money via regional competitions to winning step teams from around the country. With musical guests like Lupe Fiasco and Ludacris, this was the first national stepping competition to gain such widespread exposure, and the finals in Atlanta were highly anticipated.
And while the nine African-American fraternities and sororities signed a licensing agreement with Sprite, earning an estimated $75,000 per organization, there was nothing in their agreement that prevented a non-African-American fraternity or sorority from competing. Enter Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority from the University of Arkansas.
Immediately after word got out that Zeta Tau Alpha had won, Twitter and Facebook blew up with accusations that Sprite was biased in favor of the white sorority. Others claimed that it was a stunt for MTV2, which broadcasted the contest.
Some postings even said white organizations shouldn’t be allowed to participate in stepping competitions in the first place, since stepping is a black Greek cultural tradition. Others accused Zeta Tau Alpha of being the equivalent of modern-day minstrels, debasing the art form by their very presence.
Then on Feb. 25, Sprite announced on Facebook that they had discovered “a scoring discrepancy” that they could not resolve. They decided to make ZTA and AKA co-winners of the competition, giving each organization $100,000 in prize money.
But in the grand scheme of things, that outcome is a minor detail. There’s a bigger principle at stake here. In 25 years as an Alpha, I’ve helped judge countless stepping contests. And although judging is subjective, there’s no way anyone can objectively state that the ZTAs didn’t perform to a standard which would merit getting first prize in the Step Off. (See the videos below of the winners and runners-up, and tell me if I’m wrong.)
The problem with the arguments presented by the critics is that they tend to gloss over the question of whether the Zeta Tau Alpha steppers were actually better than their competition. Instead, most of the criticism has been reactionary and sought to deny Zeta Tau Alpha the opportunity to compete based solely on their skin color.
By doing that, black Greeks do a disservice to our historic legacy. African-American fraternities and sororities were born in circumstances that sought to combat judgments based on race. And to do the same as those who would deny us opportunity, based on the notion that we’re somehow protecting our black cultural integrity, is morally bankrupt.