In a heated argument, one Thursday night when Brothers had gathered to hang out over unspeakable amounts of alcohol, a white boy (and Brother) of mine declared: “But none of that shit matters here man, you’re a Brother now.” That shit being one of four Black men in the fraternity. Being a quantifiable anomaly in collegiate landscape that was my Brotherhood. Being Black bodied in White lineage.
In 2014, at the University of Mississippi (a.k.a. Ole Miss), a noose was found around a statue of the school’s first Black student, James Meredith. After a reward was offered, a fraternity turned over three young men to the investigators. “It is embarrassing that these men had previously identified with our fraternity,” said Brian C. Warren Jr., CEO of Sigma Phi Epsilon. And just like that justice is done, these criminal outliers were gutted and there is no more conversation available. But that is not how fraternity works…
It feels like every year another (white) fraternity or sorority is taken to task over some egregious act of blatant racism. We think of the Arizona State Tau Kappa Epsilon’s MLK Black Party, or the Dartmouth College Alpha Delta & Tri-Delta’s Bloods And Crips Party. We think of this story fictionalized in Dear White People. We think of the countless listicles compiling Instagrams and Facebook photos of white kids in Blackface, or “urban” attire. We think of the UCLA Sigma Phi Epsilon “Kanye Western” themed party, just last week. (Yup, same frat that hung a noose on the statute just last year.
I am a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon. We were founded in Richmond, VA in 1901. We believe in Virtue, Diligence, and Brotherly Love. When I joined in the fall of my sophomore year, I longed for a space carve to myself into while surviving college. I had lived with boys in boarding school and I wanted to find that brotherhood again. I wanted to believe in brotherhood. I wanted to believe men can build together and find safe conversations for their bodies. I wanted to believe they can hold each other accountable. I wanted to imagine better for men. I want to, even now.
There is little appeal to shacking up with a bunch of white dudes; submitting your body, mind, and time to an uncertain amount of labor, information, and sacrifice under the guise of Brotherhood. Being Black and man already comes with a variety of realties. Our brotherhood is visible on every street corner and news headline. Being a Black man jumps you into an involuntary brotherhood that teaches you daily the possibility and risk of your body.
When you join a fraternity, you feel this intoxicating air of protection. When you join a fraternity, you become a witness to the possibility of your body. You feel invincible after being broken and shaped new. You feel hardened and stronger. When you join a fraternity your experience is what binds you above all else.
While what happens in the Brotherhood stays in the Brotherhood, I don’t need to disclose any secrets to tell you: these “isolated incidents” of racial violence that permeate college culture, year after year, are inherited. The institution of Fraternity and Greek Life in this country is built like most other institutions we comprehend. These parties and incidents are planned and organized and discussed long before fruition. These hymns and chants, (thank you Oklahoma SAE), are taught across the country.
When you join a fraternity, you are taught the history. Names, and founders, and locations, like scripture, you whisper the ghosts of dead white dudes to memory. You learn about the founding, the meeting room, the ritual. When joining a fraternity, you are taught to believe in something greater than yourself. That taking on the charge from a history of (dead white) men who wanted something better than themselves. One of our founders (Lucian Baum Cox) is cited saying:
In the understanding of fraternity, Brotherhood means all that you are is consolidated and made available to your kinship. It is here, this idealistic conversation of Brotherhood falls flat.
Though innocuously and not unfairly understood as a white boy’s club of misogyny and sexual assault, Fraternity life on college campuses year after year adds a swath of men of color to their ranks. While there is also a long and under documented history of fraternities exclusively for Men of Color, the “frat” scene often erases how race complicates Brotherhood.
When you join a fraternity, you are told if you take on certain values, carry yourself in a certain way, conduct your affairs in a certain fashion, you will be reap the benefits of all other who have chosen such things. When you join a fraternity, you are told you taking on these things will make better than yourself.
However, being Black in a white fraternity means: you are now expected to supersede your body. Transcend the subjectivity of Blackness for a mythic Brotherhood of “resources”. Make yourself available for the “common storehouse of experience.” There is an inherent impossibility for Black boys and most men of color in fraternity. We look at founding fathers with faces impossibly distant from ours.
So, what of the Black Brother, the Brown Brother, the Brothers of Color never fully able to reap the benefits of these “values.” Where are these values when our Brothers feel so comfortable commodifying our culture and bodies for humor and jest? How are we taught that as Brothers, we are somehow able to transcend the subjectivity of our lives?
Talking to some fellow alumni one night, we were trying to figure out if we should say, “we were Brothers” or “we are Brothers.”
One Brother goes, “We’re Brothers for life”.
I say, “Well, I’ve been a brotha for life.”
* note every mention of “fraternity” in this piece should be read as the White, heterosexual, patriarchal understanding of the collegiate culture.