The “White Moderate” Problem: Diversity and Inclusion in Greek Life at Whitman

Claire Ommen, Staff Reporter

Throughout this year, members of the Whitman Greek community have begun to grapple with racism in Greek Life’s past – and present. Sophomore Kylin Brown, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion on Whitman Panhellenic, is currently involved in a project to research the history of racism within the Greek system at Whitman in order to institute programs to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion in Greek life and on campus at large.

“My motivation [was the fact that] I’ve felt what it’s like to be excluded,” Brown said. “I formed this committee of women and I hear every weekend about why they didn’t feel they belonged at times, or what hurt the most.”

Her research into the history of Greek life brought up the blackface incident of 2006. In 2006, Whitman College was shaken when two members of the Sigma Chi fraternity, juniors Brice Crayne and Bryan Ponti appeared at a party in blackface. 

Brown criticized The Pioneer article written about the 2006 incident, as well as the historical documentation of racism within Greek life at Whitman. According to Brown, past depictions of Greek Life tend to present an uncritical picture of the institution.

“All the photos and all the [Whitman Pioneer] articles from the past, going back to the 1950s, were very idealized. Everyone’s sitting outside in the courtyard having a blast. The racist history was pretty short and neat,” she said.

Brown expressed concern that racial issues today may be similarly reduced, citing the 2006 article, and attitudes that she has experienced on campus.

“The Pioneer article that was written about [the 2006 incident] seems to be coming from the side [of Crayne and Ponti], and I wanted to address that, and talk about what it means to say ‘he and his friend were just dressing up’ as a publishing entity.”

This article, written by Sophie Johnson in 2006, does to a certain extent sympathize with the two young men. Johnson quotes the then President of Sigma Chi, James Hovak, defending Crayne and Ponti: “I know that they wore black paint, but I never thought of it as a racial issue.”

She also quoted Crayne saying “I felt like someone had passed judgment on me; someone had called me something I definitely am not, and that’s a racist.”

It is this dismissal of racial issues by members of the Whitman community that bothered Brown during her research and in her role as VP of Diversity and Inclusion. She invoked Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, saying that, “The real enemy is the white moderate.”

Brown maintains that in 2018 white fragility still breeds apathy amongst many students, and represents a serious problem for inclusion and equity at Whitman College. She drew parallels between the apathy demonstrated by some students in 2006 and her own experiences as VP of Diversity and Inclusion on Panhel.

“I kind of feel like that’s a theme at Whitman, to see [racism] and not want to say something because if you say something it could come out wrong. You’re too scared to say something wrong so you say nothing at all,” she said.

This lack of dialogue was also concerning to Whitman junior Ye Rim Cho, Vice President of Recruitment on Whitman Panhellenic. Although she feels supported by her own sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, Cho stated, “As a person of color … I don’t really feel supported by the entire Greek community because I think we have a lot of work to do in order to include all students’ voices.”

Although white apathy remains a problem for inclusivity in Greek life, both Cho and Brown feel that Panhellenic is moving in a positive direction, and even is ahead of the curve compared with Greek life at other colleges. Cho is working to reform sorority recruitment.

“Recruitment is very problematic currently,” Cho said. “Many Potential New Members (PNMs) have felt tokenized and exotified during recruitment, including myself. The way that it has been structured in the past has not really allowed for genuine and authentic conversations for all students, especially those coming from marginalized backgrounds.”

Historically, one of the greatest problems with racism in sorority recruitment was the reliance on recommendations from alumni of the sorority. This practice was fully abandoned at Whitman in 1969. More recently, the rapid pace of recruitment events fosters superficial conversation, and makes it difficult for women who may feel marginalized in a predominantly white organization to feel comfortable. According to Cho, sorority recruitment has also been problematic for its use of coded language to reference the race of PNM’s, thus allowing race to be a veiled factor in admittance to the organization. As stated above by Cho, this leads to sentiments of tokenization and exotification, and deters some individuals from participating in Greek life.  

Brown and Cho are both working to help shift Whitman Greek life away from its racist history and promote a more inclusive environment.

“In my position of VP of Diversity and Inclusion I’ve been trying to make an action plan to actually get things going beyond recruitment to make Greek life more inclusive and more equitable,” Brown said. “To do that we need to make education programs that will enforce inclusion in the chapter that already exists.”

Brown participates in the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee with Zoë Kelly, the President of Whitman Panhellenic, as well as Barbara Maxwell and Kazi Joshua. Representatives from the Inter-Fraternity Council also sit on this committee but were unavailable for comment. According to Brown, this committee is focused on generating dialogue within the Greek community, creating systems of support for students who may feel marginalized within the Greek community, and increasing the diversity of the Greek community in the future.

Some programs being undertaken include discussion panels of marginalized identities within Greek life, movie screenings, and a Black History Month lecture series, and more inclusive recruitment strategies.

These strategies include a new Code of Ethics for Panhellenic recruitment.

According to Cho, “This code of ethics is an agreement that clearly outlines that we will not be using coded language, microaggressions, microaffirmations and other language to describe PNMs during membership selection. These are just a few things we have been working on.”

Cho acknowledged that apathy also presented a challenge to her project regarding recruitment.

“I don’t think many sorority women, especially those coming from privileged backgrounds will ever fully understand why we need to be making these changes, but that’s not really my concern,” Cho said. “My priority is to listen and do my job as VP Recruitment on Panhellenic to make these spaces accessible and equitable for all PNMs and sorority women.”

Meanwhile, Brown highlighted the long term implications of the racism and issues of diversity on campus.

“If sororities can’t make themselves a supporting and welcoming space for all students they won’t exist anymore they’ll fail,” Brown said. “We just can’t continue to have such a homogenous organization.”