In 2018, Natalie Wilson was playing in an intramural softball game at Iowa State University when an incident occurred that is forever etched in her mind.
Some of her sisters in her sorority, Sigma Kappa, attended the game and, as she played, held up a sign that read: “Token.” The sign meant that Wilson, the only Black member of the sorority at the time, was the chapter’s “Token Black Girl” — referencing an “award” her sisters had given Wilson months prior.
Wilson’s claim of racism in her sorority is not unique (neither Sigma Kappa at Iowa State University nor its headquarters responded to multiple requests for comment on her allegations). Sororities and fraternities have made headlines for their apparent racist antics, parties, and membership selection over the years, with members coming under fire for wearing blackface, dressing in racially inappropriate costumes, and allegations of not giving bids to women of color.
During the racial justice protests of 2020, several Greek organizations, and their parent organization, the National Panhellenic Conference, released statements vowing to address racism in their midst.
However, the NPC's statement rang hollow to many Black former sorority members.
“I don’t think it was sincere, and I don’t think they even cared,” Bria Jones, a former sorority member at the University of Arkansas, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s kind of scary though, because I don’t know who actually cares enough to change it.”
But many Black sorority members do care enough to try to make real changes in Greek life. Now, emboldened by the racial justice movement of 2020, these women are speaking out. They believe that sororities have a choice: They can either completely reimagine the way they operate or continue to fail their Black members.
Ameena Challenger, who is Black and was a member of a sorority at St. Louis University from 2014 to 2018, told BuzzFeed News she believes sororities need to be completely reimagined for women of color to feel truly welcomed.
“If sororities come from protecting, validating, and sectioning off white femininity and white womanhood, then it can only change so much,” Challenger said.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News about the allegations in this story, Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, said: “In the past few years, the conference has been clear about the need to recognize and correct the ways the sorority community has historically benefited and centered the experiences of white women and women of privilege. We believe that we must acknowledge the impact of past and current policies and systems that stand in the way of the inclusive communities we seek to create. But we’ve made and are making crucial progress at the NPC level, member organizational level and chapter level to make our community more diverse, inclusive and culturally competent – while seeking to break down systemic barriers.”
Several incidents have thrust racism in Greek life under the microscope over the past year.
Most notably, a scandal erupted around Bachelor contestant Rachael Kirkconnell, who apologized after photos of her at an Old South fraternity party, where she wore an Antebellum-style dress for a plantation-themed ball, went viral. The incident reignited the discussion about Greek life in the South.
A few weeks ago, as Alabama’s rush took over TikTok, many women felt emboldened to share their stories of bad experiences in Greek organizations. Some spoke out about getting in trouble for what they posted on Instagram. Others talked about the cliquey nature of sororities, and some even went so far as to call it a cult.
The National Panhellenic Conference oversees 26 national and international sororities, including all of the ones mentioned in this piece. When the first sorority was founded in the 1800s, it was a way for the few women on college campuses to bond, said Diana Turk, who wrote Bound by a Mighty Vow: Sisterhood and Women's Fraternities, 1870-1920. When Black women and Jewish women started to attend college, some sororities began having written or unwritten rules excluding minority groups, Turk said.
During the racial justice protests of 2020, the NPC promised they would put a new focus on racial diversity. In a June 2020 blog post, NPC directors addressed the issue of race and said they must “consider — and change — the systems and norms within the Panhellenic community that have historically benefited and centered the experiences of white women and women of privilege, more generally.” Many sorority chapters also posted statements promising to do better.
However, many Black sorority members want the NPC to pay more than just lip service to diversity. The Black sorority members who spoke to BuzzFeed News all came from different schools and different chapters but shared one common experience. They all said they, like Wilson, faced racial bias during their time in Greek life and think it will take more than promises to do better to change the culture.
Victoria Liverpool, who is Black and was a Sigma Delta Tau at the University of Rochester from 2019 to 2021, said she has been particularly outraged to watch her sorority’s response to the racial justice movement of 2020. Liverpool said she faced microaggressions the entire time she was a member of Sigma Delta Tau.
When BLM protests broke out, Liverpool claimed she asked the chapter’s board, of which she was serving as a member, if she could write a statement. Instead, she said, the chapter president wrote one on her own and posted it with a photo of the sorority’s motto, “One hope of many people.”
“I can’t even call it a statement,” Liverpool told BuzzFeed News.
It was Liverpool’s final straw with Sigma Delta Tau. Liverpool sent an email to the board, which she posted on Twitter, announcing she would resign.
“I refuse to work with people who don't want to hear me or care about me as a black woman,” she wrote on Twitter. “I love the girls of this organization but I cannot be a part of something where I have to fight everyday.”
Kelovey DeBraux, who is Black and served on the sorority’s board along with Liverpool, said she resigned for the same reasons.
“I cannot in good conscience serve a board that seemingly does not regard black women’s lives and opinions equally for a day more,” DeBraux wrote in the email announcing her resignation, referencing Liverpool’s allegations. “I cannot serve a board that is led by individuals with such a narrow understanding of the world and its impact on different cultures around them.”
Arielle Savoy, the current interim vice president of Sigma Delta Tau at the University of Rochester, told BuzzFeed News that the president who posted that statement was “dismissed” from the sorority. Savoy said the sorority has implemented bylaw changes and discussions to make sure everyone is heard. Savoy, who is Black, said she feels “welcome and heard” in the sorority.
Microaggressions were a common experience related by Black sorority members. Alex, a former sorority member at the University of Alabama, who is biracial, said she faced them from the beginning of her membership in 2014.
When Alex, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, entered one sorority house during recruitment week, she said she heard women whisper, “I’m kind of upset that the Black girl didn’t drop.”
She said her sorority sisters referred to her as “that Black girl” constantly throughout her three-year membership from 2014 to 2017. When she emailed the sorority’s president detailing her experiences with her sisters and asking to be treated with respect, the sorority president responded with an email (which BuzzFeed News reviewed) five days later, where she apologized for her late reply but not for the members’ actions.
Instead, she asked for the women’s names so she could talk to them. Alex didn’t think the response sufficed, so she didn’t bring up the issue again.
“It felt like they just wanted to sweep it under the rug since I was clearly one of the few people adamant about changing the culture for the better,” she said. “I thought about just dropping, but at that point, I also didn’t want to give the girls satisfaction of me dropping or leaving the sorority so I stayed.”
Even sisters who are not women of color told BuzzFeed News they were disturbed by the casual racism they witnessed during their time in Greek life. Mackenna, who is white, and was a member of Gamma Phi Beta at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga from 2016 to 2018, told BuzzFeed News racism was omnipresent in her sorority experience.
Mackenna, who declined to give her last name, recalled one sorority activity, where she said she heard her sorority sister say that her favorite thing to do with her dad was drive through poor neighborhoods and watch the “porch monkeys.” Mackenna claims she told board members and was “vocal” about how wrong it was, but nothing was done.
“It was so common for people to say the n-word, whether it was in conversation or in a song,” Mackenna said. “And there was really no shame to it or even an understanding of why it’s wrong, which in itself is concerning.”
In a statement in response to Mackenna’s claims about the complaints she made, a spokesperson for the national chapter of Gamma Phi Beta said it was “unaware of this incident until today, but we can assure you that we will work towards identifying this member and following our international disciplinary process.”
Many Black women said they faced discrimination from their first interactions with sororities. Some recounted painful experiences they had during the recruitment process, or “rush,” where potential new members visit their college’s sorority houses and meet with members.
Jana Mathews, an associate professor of English at Rollins College, who is writing a book about Greek life said sororities participate in what they call “values-based recruitment,” which means they choose new members based on shared beliefs and common interests. Since that is pretty vague, Mathews said it is ripe for implicit bias.
“Most white fraternity and sorority members don't see themselves as racist, but they have no problem dropping a person of color from their recruiting pool because of ‘fit issues,’” Mathews told BuzzFeed News. “What they don't see or understand is how hobbies and interests are racially coded in America, and that a ‘bad fit’ is just a softer way of saying that people of color don't belong.”
While Mathews was researching for her book, she sat in on one sorority’s recruitment week. She said white potential new members got “glowing reviews,” while several members used microaggressions to describe a Black potential new member, like calling her “loud” and “crazy.”
Even when sororities did choose them, the Black sisters said they faced conflict. Melina Psihountas, a Phi Mu at the University of Missouri from 2017 to 2018, told BuzzFeed News she was the only Black woman in her pledge class, yet her sorority was considered one of the more racially diverse sororities on campus. The sorority’s reputation as “racially diverse” also led it to be considered a “bottom house,” she said. (Phi Mu headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.)
Mary, who is white and declined to give her last name, but who was in a sorority in the South, said that during recruitment week in 2015 when she and her sisters were deciding who to let in, several women shared microaggressions toward the Black potential new members.
“I just remember hearing women who I thought I shared similar values with say things along the lines of, ‘We don’t need women like that in our chapter,’” Mary said.
Sororities and the NPC now face the weighty task of following through with their pledges to do better. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Weatherford, the NPC’s CEO, said the organization is aware that it has historically centered around white women and women of privilege. The conference is making changes to ensure a more diverse system, including ending legacy policies that disadvantaged women of color, created diverse leadership positions, and launched recruitment reform committees to help all women join sororities, she said.
Jones, the former sorority member at the University of Arkansas, said that if sororities are really interested in making a change, they could start by really listening, including, and promoting Black women.
“There should be more people speaking to the perspective of minorities because that’s the only way to make change,” Jones said. “They don’t know what we feel like and they don’t care to know what we feel like, they’re not asking and nobody’s telling.” She also believes representation is important, and that women of color should be in leadership roles.
Some members are also advocating for themselves. Sydney Roberts, who is in Alpha Phi at the University of California, Berkeley, said that even though she is Black, she has light skin and benefits from colorism. She said she hasn’t experienced racism directly within her sorority, but she has felt out of place at times. This year, she is the diversity chair for her sorority, and with the help of her sisters, she has implemented practices to help women of color feel more welcome.
“We’re doing pre-recruitment training to talk about topics like racism and implicit bias and heteronormativity, classism, microaggressions,” Roberts said.
For Wilson, it took her years to finally understand why being called the token Black woman was wrong.
“It took me a while to get over the shame I felt for not speaking up in those moments, but growth and education has happened over those three, four, five years now to get me to the young educated Black woman that I am,” she said.