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.
The founders of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity were denied access to the campus library at Indiana University because they were black. The founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority protested when white women ordered them to the back of a women’s suffrage march in Washington, D.C.
Too often, black Greeks place too much significance on stepping, and overemphasize its historical weight. We claim that the stepping tradition was passed down from some ancient African traditions. (It wasn’t.) We claim that we’ve been doing it for nearly a century. (We haven’t.)
According to Philander Smith College president Dr. Walter Kimbrough, author of Black Greek 101 and the person who has done the most research on the origins of stepping, stepping is a relatively recent tradition, growing out of probate shows of the 1970s.
Black cultural traditions like stepping are always nurtured within our community, exposed to the outside world as an artistic gift, and then adapted and adopted by others who want to participate. The idea that our traditions can remain purely “black” is folly.
Black Greeks, and African Americans in general, shouldn’t fear appropriation of our art forms. We should instead be good stewards of our own traditions, work to improve them and demand respect by anyone, black or not, who attempts to bring tribute to it.
With that in mind, anyone watching Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority’s performance would not only agree that they respected the art form, but that they also gave a show that is worthy of a win. And for that, black Greeks should remember our roots and congratulate them on a job well done. Because to not do so says more about us as black Greeks than it does about Zeta Tau Alpha as a white sorority.
Lawrence C. Ross Jr. is the author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities and a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Follow him on Twitter.
For more about the Sprite Step Off controversy, check out "Sprite Step Off: In step with the times, or going a step too far?"
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.