You can see the entire party from the balcony. Skinny white girls dance on shaky tables and dough-faced white boys, the freshman pledges, hastily serve beer in the far right corner. The female attire varies: sometimes the girls are dressed in silky red and black geisha gowns, sometimes in mock Native American headdresses with fringed tank tops, and other times it’s gangsta chic—tight black dresses with bling as far as the eye can see. Some boys might sport black face while dressed as members of the marines or army.
Although USC fraternities and sororities do not keep statistics on the race, ethnic, or economic backgrounds of their members, the Greek scene is overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and, frankly, racist.
People often forget that the National Panhellenic council used to enforce racial segregation by means of strict codes and laws. Legal clauses that excluded both “Negroes and Orientals” from West Coast chapters of USC’s beloved Sigma Nu fraternity existed through the late 1950s. At the time, sisters were highly encouraged to follow “unwritten” rules to “routinely deny membership to Asian Americans, along with African Americans, Jews, and the working class,” as Edith Wen-Chu Chen writes in Brothers and Sisters: Diversity in College Fraternities and Sororities.
While these formal laws of racial separation are no longer on the books, there is a de facto segregation and promotion of less than subtle racism still prevalent in campus Greek life. I’ve walked down “the row” during rush to hear Sigma Chis yell “Hey, Mama!” as they clinked their beers together. Members of ZBT have told me, “You don’t seem black, are you one-quarter or one-half? You are just so…articulate.” I’ve held a fake smile before the “All-American” Pi Kapps, who told me, “Wow, you are just so pretty, for a black girl,” and “you are the prettiest black girl I’ve ever seen.”
But my peers and I shouldn’t merely resent, mock, or even criticize USC’s Greek culture because we have forgotten how miserable some of these sorority sisters and fraternity brothers really are. Students like me, who are not part of this rarefied social system, should still try to understand what is driving this specific crowd of students to indulge in such ridiculous behavior.
Maybe at one point I would have envied these students who grew up in privileged families so often laden with trust funds. But I’ve heard the stories about the premature deaths, depression, lifelong eating disorders, alcoholism. They’ve opened my eyes to yet another example of what it really means to be rich and white—and miserable—in America.
I try to empathize, or at least, understand the pressure for these privileged students to join USC Greek life, because I’ve seen the way it has transformed some of my former friends (for the worst).
I’ve seen girls I had known from childhood sports teams, who suddenly no longer recognized me. I no longer recognized them because the pressure to go blonde, be stick thin, and take pride in these superficial trademarks of their sororities reshaped their former identities.
I still miss my friend, a girl from a privileged white family that had a multi-generation history in a sorority at USC. She turned to me as someone to keep her honest after she first dropped her sorority. She didn’t like the person she had to be in the house, especially when she was bullied for trying to acknowledge that she was gay.
Her wealthy family imposed its own monetary and social punishment for stepping outside the sorority. She lasted about six months, trying to consciously form her own identity outside of expectations to: marry “a Sigma Chi” “be a Stepford housewife,” and “raise a Catholic family.”
From speaking with USC fraternity brothers, it almost seems worse for the boys. Many of them do not have the choice of opting out of their planned futures as the breadwinners. “I’d rather die than work on Wall Street,” one fraternity brother told me, who was already worried about the financial expectations of his family.
There is also a greater homophobia within the fraternity houses than the sorority houses. The need for silence almost goes without saying. Others shared stories of friends who suffered from bulimia in an open secret. One male student told me about a teammate in a fraternity who struggled with an eating disorder. “When they all went to Taco Bell, he ate two plates. But then he went to the bathroom and made himself vomit it all up,” he said.
As I uncovered these stories, I found a way to empathize with members of the Greek system. That is not to say the students who submit to the elitism and racism promoted by the USC Greek system are wholly sympathetic. But It’s deeply upsetting to watch their transformations, and it is a problem that goes far beyond the Trojan experience.
The expectations and abuses of the Trojans who’ve “gone Greek” tacitly and explicitly promote dangerous subcultures, ranging from rape culture to complete social apathy. If these “rich kids” are really going to be running the country in the near future, then we should probably start caring about what they are really doing, why they are doing it, and how their choices will impact the cultural fabric of our nation.