An independent in a sea of Greek

Chase Isbell

There’s no escaping it. The Greek system has again taken its place as the most culturally salient social structure on campus, seeping into nearly every institution, interaction and icon Washington and Lee has to offer. Independent students watch helplessly as their peers become consumed with the grandiosity of “sisterhood” or “brotherhood” and the spectacle of participating in familiar activities which are drastically fetisished to better embody the glamour of Greek life. For example, basic interactions like forming friendships and participating in social gatherings become elaborate productions as the fraternities and sororities seem to, practically overnight, metamorphosize into public relations firms dedicated to the image of their organizations (with virtually nothing to address the systemic problems their organizations perpetuate). This dedication to image and superficiality over substance takes no prisoners. Perhaps the most difficult casualty to handle was Instagram (R.I.P. my early 2019 feed). Indeed, nearly every student becomes engrossed in flaunting the impressiveness of his or her respective fraternity or sorority, with a legion of first-year students to eat up all the glitter-filled, Busch beer-stained, blurry selfie-styled moments.

However, what remains abundantly clear is the effect Greek organizations have on the student body through their promotion of social exclusivity and elitism. The system behind Greek organizations relies heavily on the segregation of students into arbitrary categories. Then, the marketing strategies to advertise for these groups require further isolationist tactics, emphasizing the superiority of your own organization and relying on the assumption that prospective members will be drawn to this social superiority. This in turn requires a great deal of loyalty from members, as their social identity becomes intrinsically linked to their membership in a certain fraternity or sorority. This linkage then emphasizes the importance of celebrating the organization. The Greek system itself establishes this cycle of continuous luring then isolation, drawing in first-years through older members advertising the prestige of their organization, while ensuring these first-years later replicate this system by linking their identities and reputations with that of the organization itself. By doing so, fraternities and sororities dismiss any possible internal criticism, as criticizing your “brotherhood” or “sisterhood” directly criticizes your own sense of self. Many common Greek practices (think: wearing matching clothing) directly conflict with the promotion of individualism and, instead, foster a unity of identity and expression, making any type of subversion from the mainstream incredibly difficult. Furthermore, this stratified sense of identity not only alienates outsiders, but isolates the men and women in these organizations, making internal criticism an even less feasible task as it forces the members to confront what is likely one of their most significant social circles on campus. Greek organizations may promise friendship, connections, or what have you, but, given their structure, the only guarantee seems to be a continuity of the accepted norms and perhaps even a type of social isolationism.

However, this does not even begin to confront the deeply rooted elitism involved in Greek life. As I mentioned above, a sense of cultural and social superiority underlies the marketing of fraternities and sororities. This, combined with the effects membership has on one’s identity, drastically raises the stakes in the rush process. Now, first-years must in some way prove their “worth” to a group of older students for acceptance into the social club that is, in their minds, most superior. This pushes students to endure the horrific hazing these organizations participate in, not to mention the detriment to their mental health as their social “worth” is judged by a random group of upperclassmen. However, to maintain the organization’s superiority, those detrimental effects must be ignored, as these groups are all about reputation, sending clear messages that those who don’t make the cut (based on who knows what criteria) simply aren’t “good enough.”

Finally, independent students are perhaps hit the hardest with this elitism. Our friendships, organizations and even our existence are frequently thrusted into this culture of comparison and one-upmanship. It’s as if our lack of “sisterhood” or “brotherhood” invalidate our experiences on this campus because they don’t take the shape of the Greek norm, which is constantly being celebrated around us: on campus, in our classes, in our homes and online. In reality, there are logistical obstacles that prevent people from joining these highly elitist organizations (financial situations, lacking the “worth” of membership, having a gender identity which does not conform to male or female) and, of course, more subtle social factors (body types that don’t fit the norm, dark skin colors, queer identities, etc.). And plenty of us simply do not want membership into these organizations, especially those of us who wish not to replicate systems of oppression. I am happy for my Greek friends who have found “brotherhood” or “sisterhood” on this campus, but their organizations — through a culture of comparison — constantly criticize the supposedly inferior relationships those of us find without them and deliberately isolate students to the detriment of our experiences on this campus.