How a Black Lesbian Took Down a Racist, Pandemic-Partying Fraternity in the Deep South
“They’re scared to go downtown because they don’t want me to expose them, and I’m like: good!” Arianna Mbunwe said of fellow students at the University of Georgia.
In his 35 years as a professor at the University of Georgia, Joe Fu has seen the university kick plenty of fraternities off of campus. Before last week, though, he’d never seen a frat shut itself down.
But on Sept. 19, after racist text messages among their members went public, the university’s chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha did just that, announcing they would be self-suspending, something Fu told The Daily Beast was “almost unprecedented.”
The racist and sexually graphic text messages targeted Arianna Mbunwe, a UGA junior who has amassed a large Twitter following for her willingness to call out both the administration and students over the wild spread of coronavirus on campus. Two weeks earlier, she had tweeted an anonymous tip that the fraternity was breaking COVID guidelines to host events, writing, “now Lambda Chi it would be a shame if someone found out about your little parties….”
Members of the frat responded with bile.
“Lord give me the strength to not call that woman a racial slur,” one frat member texted, receiving 11 likes. Another, with the username “Ghost of Aunt Jemima,” responded by making a graphic sexual reference about her. Someone else posted a photo of her with her girlfriend and wrote, “what a foul miserable creature.”
When a fellow student sent screengrabs of the racist texts to Mbunwe, who is Black and a lesbian, she did what she does best, posting the images in a tweet, along with the caption, “Lambda Chi Alpha being racist and obsessed with me a thread 1/3.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Mbunwe said she was disappointed, but not surprised.
“I’ve gotten used to racism at UGA these three years,” she told The Daily Beast. “You just never imagine yourself being the direct target. But now that it is me, I decided to take the opportunity to go harder, push back even more.”
The fraternity’s suspension made national headlines and earned a stern rebuke from the national organization. But if it seems like a coincidence that the campus with one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the country—over 3,000 cases—is the same one facing a uniquely pointed reckoning on race, it shouldn’t.
“The strategy from the university is literally to evade and just pretend and wait until it’s all over and then just start tweeting about football again,” Mbunwe said of racism at UGA, noting that students at the center of controversies in the past seldom faced expulsion. “They say they condemn racism and they say they’re diverse, but when it comes for their chance to take a stand and prove that, they don’t.”
“And they’ve done the same thing with COVID,” she added. “They talk about it, but they don’t actually do anything. And the students pick up on that, that they’re not going to face consequences for their actions.”
Greg Trevor, interim senior executive director for marketing and communications at UGA, told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement that “UGA disputes any suggestion that it maintains an unsafe, unsupportive, or racially insensitive environment.”
But no other college has been asked to reckon with race as publicly in recent days as the University of Georgia. Two days after Lambda Chi Alpha self-suspended, Otis Reese, a former safety on UGA’s football team, wrote an open letter in which he said “racist events seemed never-ending” at the school, pushing him to transfer to Ole Miss—a school not without its own share of racist baggage.
Then on Friday, UGA’s Hispanic Student Association wrote their own open letter, this time accusing UGA’s administration of failing the Latinx community and students of color on campus.
“You know what they say—the system was built this way, it’s not broken,” Nicole Garcia Sanchez, the president of UGA’s Hispanic Student Association, told The Daily Beast. “And I think they’re comfortable with the way the system has worked for them so far. And it’s what we’re seeing with Arianna, and what she’s been trying to call out.”
The university did not respond to a request for comment on the letters.
Supporters on campus said Lambda Chi’s retreat—coupled with the anger the fraternity members directed at Mbunwe in the first place—is a testament to the unique and unlikely power she has amassed at the oldest public university in the country.
“She’s not just a woman, she’s a Black queer woman—one of the least protected people in America—and she’s taken on this whole institution herself. And they’re scared, and that’s why they’re attacking her identity,” said Adia Aidoo, a senior at UGA and a friend of Mbunwe’s. “If it were a white guy calling them out for not wearing masks and going downtown to bars, he’d be the hero. Everyone on campus would love him. But it’s like, ‘We don’t want to hear this from her.’”
Of course, coronavirus and race have been entangled almost as long as the virus has been on U.S. soil, with the mortality rate among Black Americans twice what it is among white people. Although the messages among members of Lambda Chi Alpha were the first time Mbunwe said that she’d seen students explicitly try to take her down with racism, she has been repeatedly attacked for taking a hard line on students who don’t comply with coronavirus guidelines.
At first the fire coming her way was mundane, like a few half-hearted Twitter parodies, or a rumor that Mbunwe’s zeal for calling out fraternities and sororities stemmed from her anger over getting dropped by every sorority she tried to join her first semester. (“I didn’t even know what rush was until halfway through freshman year,” she told The Daily Beast).
But in Mbunwe’s experience, racism and COVID denial have a lot in common.
“It’s this attitude of, ‘We don’t care.’ Or it’s, ‘It doesn’t affect me so it can’t be that big of a deal,’” Mbunwe said. “I feel like people think we’re making up discrimination, racism we face on campus, because they’re in their own world with UGA.”
“And it’s that same attitude with the virus… ‘It’s me, it’s my life.’ They’re at a university where their decisions impact others and going out downtown has consequences in the community beyond getting themselves sick.”
Few students know this as well as Mbunwe. In April, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp decided to reopen many businesses in Georgia, with few restrictions. Mbunwe’s mother works retail and her father is an auto mechanic, both jobs that bring them into close contact with customers, and weeks after they went back to work, both had contracted COVID, her father with a case severe enough to require hospitalization, she said.
For months now, Gov. Kemp has refused to impose a mask mandate in Georgia, even against the direct advice of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, and Mbunwe said she thinks each of her parents—who she said tested positive weeks apart—contracted it at their jobs.
“They’re OK now. But yeah, I blame not having a mask mandate for putting my parents at risk,” Mbunwe said.
Like Gov. Kemp, UGA’s president Jere Morehead has refused to implement a campus-wide mask mandate—although masks are required inside buildings—something Mbunwe has repeatedly criticized.
“So yes, I look at this a little bit differently than some of the other students,” she added.
And while, as Mbunwe says, “the Greek community is pretty pissed at me,” there are plenty of students who aren’t. Since August, her account has grown from 300 to nearly 6,000 followers, and her tweets regularly earn hundreds of likes and retweets.
Still, UGA’s administration, for the most part, appears just as conflicted as its student body over Mbunwe’s role on campus. After discovering the racist text messages, Mbunwe filed a complaint with the university’s Equal Employment Office, which is charged with investigating allegations of misconduct and discrimination. The office responded, and initially did so with sympathy.
But by early last week, it had turned the tables on her.
Last Tuesday, Kristopher Stevens, an associate director in that office, emailed Mbunwe several screenshots of her own tweets. In one, Mbunwe had said the philanthropy projects of white sororities “screams white saviors to me.” In another, she had written “white gays have no personality besides imitating black women.” A third said simply, “pee pee poo poo fuck you Morehead,” a reference to the UGA president, Jere Morehead.
Stevens then followed with a question for Mbunwe, asking in the same email, “Could you reply and let me know how you distinguish these messages from those you reported to EOO as alleged policy violations?”
In her response, Mbunwe argued that reverse racism does not exist, then included her own request: assign a Black woman to her case. The EOO complied, but the result was not what Mbunwe said she had hoped for. In fact, Janyce Dawkins, who is the director of UGA’s Equal Opportunity Office, doubled down on Stevens’ request for Mbunwe to explain herself.
“It kind of goes to show you, just because someone has the same identity as you, you can’t expect them to sympathize or empathize with what you’re going through,” Mbunwe said. “… Her responsibility is to first protect the university.”
In a statement, UGA told The Daily Beast that “while we cannot comment specifically on a pending investigation, we certainly deny the suggestion of ‘entrenched racist views’ in our administration,” a reference to an accusation Mbunwe had lobbed at the administration after Stevens’ email.
Mbunwe might be notching wins, but she’s far from complacent. She has called for the expulsion of the Lambda Chi Alpha students who tweeted about her, and has asked for Morehead’s resignation.
She’s also winning admirers inside the faculty for being a COVID-19 watchdog. Fu, who is also an outspoken critic of UGA’s response to coronavirus on campus, told The Daily Beast, “She has a good track record.”
“What they want to do above all else is ignore and pretend it’s not happening,” he added. “And she’s already pushed them off the ignore position.”
Whether she will get what she’s asking for this time remains unclear. But at least when it comes to coronavirus, the impact she’s had on campus is inescapable.
“I’ve heard from people that they’re scared to go downtown because they don’t want me to expose them, and I’m like: Good,” Mbunwe said. “If that scares them from going downtown, great. That’s what I’m trying to do.”