What Rushing a White Sorority Taught Me

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(The Root) — I had just gotten in from cheerleading practice when I got the call. On the other end, a chipper girl I'd met for the first time the night before gave me the good news: The sisters of Delta Gamma wanted me to be one of them. I'd made it past the first round and had been all but guaranteed a bid for membership.

Exhausted from rah-rahing, I croaked my gratitude before offering my regrets. I'd gone to the "rush event" at Columbia University as a favor to an upperclassman, another black girl, on the cheerleading squad. The young women I chatted with over cheese and crackers had been sweet and sincere, but I'd had my heart set on another Delta — Delta Sigma Theta — before I ever stepped foot on campus. So I said a polite "Thanks, but no thanks" and pulled out my dog-eared copy of In Search of Sisterhood.

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I'd forgotten all about my brief brush with another sorority until last week, when news broke that four traditionally white sororities at the University of Alabama had blocked two black students from joining. The most common response to the story sounded a lot like a shoulder shrug. Quiet acceptance as opposed to a massive call to arms seemed the reaction du jour for those familiar with Greek life on predominantly white campuses.

In an article with the histrionic headline "The Final Barrier: 50 Years Later, Segregation Still Exists," the university's student newspaper offered a behind-the-scenes look at the formal rush process in which current chapter members and their alumnae advisers vote on potential pledges. According to the Crimson White, only one black woman has ever pledged a traditionally white Panhellenic sorority at the university, and that was a decade ago, in 2003. On Monday, the university president ordered sororities to increase diversity in their recruitment process.

Many weren't surprised by the stark numbers or especially upset by them.

"I hate to tell you guys this, but sororities are not the last segregated institution in American life. We're far, far from the 'final barrier,' " wrote one commenter on the student newspaper's website.

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Another poster on a follow-up story at the Huffington Post, about prominent Alabama leaders, wrote, "Stop the presses! Sororities in the South discriminate. It's not stop and frisk so whatever."

My own friends — most of them sorority sisters — saw the article and the headlines that followed and had the same reaction: "And water is wet?" Others wondered why a black woman would even want to join a white sorority in the first place, particularly when there are chapters of black Greek organizations on Alabama's campus. Separate but equal, it seemed, wasn't all that bad a philosophy after all.

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But having experienced both sides of the coin — dipping my toe in the "rush" process for a traditionally white sorority and then diving headfirst into "membership intake" for a traditionally black sorority — I had a slightly different take.

As with most college freshmen, my singular goal that first semester was to fit in, in whatever way I could. For the next four years that campus would be more than just a house of higher education; it would also be my home. So I tried out for the cheerleading squad because I'd cheered all through high school. I auditioned for the dance ensemble to put the previous decade's worth of ballet lessons to good use. Everyone I knew was doing the same thing: planting a flag to make this unfamiliar world manageable, more their own. Greek life was a part of all that.

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As clearly as I saw myself as a member of Delta Sigma Theta when I got the call from Delta Gamma, I remember feeling proud of myself for having been accepted. Of course I wasn't going to join (and I'd have to explain to my future prophytes why I went to that rush event), but the power of acceptance can't be overestimated.

Certainly a sorority is far from the last bastion of racism on American college campuses. Most of us can tick off long lists of things that desperately need more diversity, chief among them the student population, faculty and school administration.

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In a place where most of the students and faculty didn't look like me, it was beyond encouraging to know that our differences weren't insurmountable. I hadn't been anything but myself at that first-round rush event, cracking corny jokes and complaining about the coed bathrooms, and that had been enough. That said something to me about my place not only within the safe walls of my campus but also in the world waiting for me outside them. I had something to offer. And isn't that the type of deliberately hopeful notion that universities are supposed to be instilling in their students?

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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