How Racism Lives in Joining Processes

How Racism Lives in Modern Fraternity/Sorority Joining Processes

by Matt Mattson

Let’s start by saying this. YOU are probably not to blame. But YOU can help work against racist infrastructure and systems that linger in fraternity and sorority joining processes.

I should also open with a comment about which organizations we are mostly talking about here. “Historically white” fraternities and sororities. That term in itself is uncomfortable for many, but is both accurate and not an uncommon phrase. To be aware of which organizations we mean by using this term is a first acknowledgement of the fact that racism exists in fraternity and sorority joining processes.

This is not an all-encompassing list. This is not even a review of the pertinent research on the subject. These are simply observations from a guy who does fraternity/sorority growth education and consulting for a living. I look at this stuff all day long, so I happen to have a point of view that perhaps can see it a little better than others. And this is written by a white male who is a member of an IFC organization. I’m certainly blind to many things that I should see, and I invite others (see the bottom of this blog) to share their thoughts with me. I’m going to screw this up, I’m sure. But I’m hitting “post” anyway.

Oh, and this barely touches on the ways in which heterosexism, ableism, classism, religious oppression and more all live within the system.

If you are a student leader or a headquarters professional or a volunteer, please read this: These are observations about the system, not about you. They also aren’t observations about your organization. Nobody is suggesting that you are intentionally creating this. I mean, you might be contributing to these things, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. These are general observations. Here are four important questions to reflect on and discuss with other stakeholders after reading this.

  1. How is our chapter/council/organization contributing to these racist realities?
  2. How can we fight against these systemic realities?
  3. What else contributes to racism in the way we attract, select, and secure members to our chapter?
  4. What are we going to do about it right now?

Two more parenthetical notes before we dive in…

We (Phired Up & TechniPhi) know that WE ARE PART OF THE SYSTEM. A big part. And we own our role and responsibility. We have the technology much of IFC and Panhellenic recruitment runs through. We teach chapters how to be successful within the system. And we’re raising our hand here to say that we’re actively working to improve these things.

We can help you with this work (imperfectly). There are others that can help you with this work too. Nobody is asking the 19-20 year old VP of Recruitment to fix all this stuff today. We know it is a long-term commitment. We wish there was a short-term magic solution. We are ready to work alongside you to fight against racism and other forms of oppression showing up in the way people join fraternities and sororities.

Here are 10 Ways Racism Lives in Modern Fraternity/Sorority Joining Processes.

A Long History of Discriminatory Practices and Policies
It is really no secret that many fraternities and sororities have a history of discriminatory practices and policies. Many historically white fraternities and sororities were founded during a time when only white students were allowed to enroll in universities, and following that period many organizations had written policies that specifically allowed only white, Christian members. This history is not only known by many, but also features as a primary plot point in the story of why culturally-based fraternities and sororities exist. This background knowledge for students and their parents is perhaps the most obvious (but rarely discussed) factor in racism being a continuing presence in the joining process of fraternities and sororities today.

Blatant and Less Blatant Selection Practices
There have been any number of stories historically white fraternities and sororities potentially using race as a reason to reject a potential new member. Chapters throughout North America still use literal “blackball” systems of selection which allows one quiet racist or otherwise discriminatory member in the chapter to keep BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students or students from marginalized identities from getting in. And the conversations that members have during the selection process can be full of code words and phrases like “fit,” “he might not mesh with the guys,” or “she’s not going to feel like this is a place for her” that members use to justify the fact that race is, for some chapters, a factor in selection. (Sections of this passage were reinforced by this excellent research article by S. Brian Joyce titled, “PERCEPTIONS OF RACE AND FIT IN THE RECRUITMENT PROCESS OF TRADITIONALLY, PREDOMINANTLY WHITE FRATERNITIES” published in Oracle in February of 2018.)

Blatant Symbols of Historical White Supremacy
A potential member can walk into some fraternity houses across the country and see symbols of the confederacy on display over fireplace mantles and within fraternal paraphernalia. They might see pictures of men marching at night in hooded robes. They will often see old (and recent) composite pictures with nothing but white faces that tell a story about a chapter’s past and infer what selection criteria might be. What these symbols represent to organizational members doesn’t matter much when it comes to the perception of those symbols in the eyes of prospective members and their parents. And one chapter displaying these symbols (or with a reputation of racism from the past) tells a story to potential members and parents whether we like it or not.

We Have Groups For You Over There
Students of color are often told (explicitly or implicitly), “There are groups for you over there.” Or perhaps they’re asked, “Have you checked out NPHC or MGC groups on our campus?”

What Does A New Student See?
“Is this a group for people like me?” That’s a normal question many college students ask themselves, in one way or another, when they join any student organization. Any number of factors are likely to play a role in their own individual answer to this question. Race is certainly a factor for some students. Do they see people who look like them and share cultural identity with them? In many cases, the answer is simply no. Remember, racism doesn’t have to be intentional.

Legacies, Referrals, and Recommendations
At some institutions, the amount of legacies (individuals whose close relatives were members of that organization) showing interest in a particular fraternity or sorority chapter can be so high that new member classes can be nearly filled to capacity (in the minds of chapter leaders). Because many times the majority of these legacies are from white families, the mathematical possibility for a person of color to gain admittance to a historically white fraternity/sorority chapter on some campuses is exceptionally low. The same math holds true for referral pipelines and letters of recommendation. [Update: Policies have recently changed within NPC organizations which is worthy of celebration. Policies and practice are two different things.]

Continuing Racist Acts in the News

Fraternities and sororities have been featured as perpetrators of terrible acts of racism and racial violence on college campuses in recent years. Potential members and their families can read the news and Google related stories.

Language & Structure
Expansion and colonization have been named as problematic terms that conjure ideas of European imperialism and the genocide of indigenous peoples.

Here’s a tough pill for our team to swallow. Our own software was originally built to serve IFC and Panhellenic organizations, and the language within it (which is being written out in an upcoming iteration) implicitly excludes many non-historically white fraternities and sororities. To build upon language, we need to look at the details of the infrastructure. Here’s a quote from one of our developers about our current fraternity/sorority growth technologies as we’ve looked at them with critical eyes this week, “We have an app that lets people assign scores to their peers based on criteria that could disadvantage them, and another that tells people what groups they are and aren’t allowed to join. That’s not for me!”

Appropriation in Marketing
Historically white fraternities and sororities have appropriated other cultures for their own marketing and recruitment purposes in plenty of ways. Here’s an example. Here’s another. Here’s another. I only searched for about 2 minutes to come up with those three examples.

Prioritizing IFC and Panhellenic
When we do marketing strategy work for entire fraternity/sorority communities, members of NPHC and MGC organizations regularly share that they feel like they’re always promoted alongside Panhellenic and IFC groups, but “in the back of the brochure.” Incoming students are often given very early opportunities to “sign up for recruitment,” but really what that means is to sign up for historically white organizations. Panhellenic and IFC groups get top billing (especially during the summer and early fall) in promotion and support.

Lack of Effort
Put simply, many historically white fraternities and sororities just don’t try very hard to recruit and retain BIPOC students. They probably aren’t against it and very rarely are actively trying to discriminate. But many groups just don’t have this at the top of their priority list from our observations. To be clear… some do! And some are trying hard.

How to Combat Racism in Recruitment

Well, the Top 10 list above is not the most fun thing to read, but it’s exceptionally important. Also, we know that more and more of today’s college students (not to mention professionals and advisors) are, to put it plainly, more woke than our members from even just a few years ago. We are in an age when an article like this shouldn’t really ruffle too many feathers. Most student leaders will probably read this and nod affirmatively (and add a couple more of their own astute observations to the list).

The question is, how do we actively combat racism in recruitment? (Please note that I didn’t say, “How do we recruit more students of color to be members?” That’s dehumanizing to say the least. We need to be focused on actively combatting racism and oppression in our joining processes, and creating environments that are actually inclusive and are actually equitable and that actually honor the humanity of everyone we encounter in a joining process.)

That’s a big question, and we are absolutely not going to pretend to have a special 7 point plan that will eliminate racism from 100 to 200 year-old institutions. Here are a handful of tactics that student leaders can actively use to move the needle this year.

State This as a Goal
It’s time to graduate from phrases like, “We’re about quality, not quantity.” Let’s try, “We envision a future where systemic oppression is eliminated from our organizations, and it starts with the way we attract, select, and secure new members. This will be a top three priority for our chapter/council for the next five years at least.” Naming it as a top strategic goal gives it power. This will certainly lead your chapter/council toward building a modern sorority/fraternity experience for modern students.

Actively Admit Your Shortcomings
Make your own Top 10 list of ways your current system is racist or otherwise oppressive. Talk about your organization’s past (not just the nice parts of the story). Share it publicly. Say you’re working on it. Work on it. Show progress every semester. It will be too slow for your patience and far too slow for the patience of others. But it will be better than not starting. Also, make an additional Top 10 List each new semester (now you’re up to 20, so the pressure’s on!). This work will be on-going.

Your campus is FILLED with professionals (and other students) who would love to teach your members, coach your chapter/council, and support you as you work to combat racism in the joining process. Seek that education. Not once. Not a program. Not a keynote speaker. Consistently and as part of the chapter/councils’ regularly scheduled experiences. It doesn’t have to be a big event either… lunches, coffee meetings, and 1-on-1’s are great learning environments. Ask, “I’m looking for people to help me see, understand, and root out systemic oppression in our joining process. Can you help or can you connect me with someone who can?” Important note: Don’t burden the folks who have experienced oppression with the additional task of educating you about how to stop oppressing. Especially if it isn’t their job to do so. There are a LOT of resources that exist on your campus that are specifically built to provide this education, and if you can’t find what you need on your campus look on the internet for help.

Don’t Be Bullied By The Back of The Chapter
Strong leadership knows the difference between right and wrong. If you got elected to a leadership position it wasn’t to be a facilitator of everyone’s feelings, it was to lead. Which will require strength and resilience. You’ve got that. Don’t be bullied by the back of the chapter. Don’t be bullied by some alumnus. Listen to them, learn from them, then always know the difference between right and wrong. Act on your conscience.

Build Genuine Relationships Outside Your Circle of Comfort
Not so you can recruit some BIPOC students, check a box, and say “problem solved!” No, build these genuine relationships to improve yourself and your chapter/council. Build trust with new groups. Yes, the campus cultural center is a good idea. The Black Student Union leadership is a great idea. But again, don’t see this as a scorecard. This is about being a humble learner, a relationship builder, and a helper.

Ask Your National Organization and Umbrella Group Leadership For Help
If your organization is a member of the NPC or NIC, reach out to their leadership. Our conversations with current leaders at both umbrella organizations suggests that there are a lot of great professionals and volunteers who really want to fix these problems too, but maybe they’re looking for students who are driven to do the work alongside them. If your chapter is a member of NALFO, NAPA, NMGC, or NPHC, all of these umbrella organizations have fruitful records of doing this work. They are there to support you to fix these systems. Call your national organization. Call your advisor. Work with your campus-based professionals. All of these stakeholder groups are looking to you, student leaders, to lead the way into the future. You’re on the ground. You know what’s happening. You know how to make a difference.

Practice Combating Racism in Other Ways
You’ll get better at identifying and removing racist or otherwise oppressive systems in fraternity/sorority joining processes if you’re working on the cause in other ways. Ask around. Keep an eye on social media. Find events, rallies, protests, lectures, etc. you can attend. Read some books. Get involved. If you’ve read this far, you probably already are.

Thank you for reading. Share if you like. Email me, Matt Mattson, Phired Up & TechniPhi’s President and co-Founder ( with your comments or recommended additions.

A note from Matt Mattson: Phired Up & TechniPhi is decidedly imperfect as a company when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusivity. I’m proud of the work we’re doing, but we have A LOT of work to do.  As the President of the company, I take responsibility for that and for what we will become. We want to serve 100% of our industry. We have incredibly talented staff who want that same thing. It would be inauthentic of us to post something like this without saying out loud, “We are the builders of the system. We have created inequity. We have perpetuated white supremacy. We have contributed to the problem.” I hope it goes without saying that we didn’t mean to do those things… but it doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re here to do the work on ourselves and our industry to make progress. Oh, and we should have written this 15+ years ago. I’m sorry we didn’t. I’m sorry we haven’t done more to address the issues named in this post. We are committed to this work moving forward. We hope our focus, now, on this little corner of the world – the way people join fraternities and sororities – is a small contribution our company can make to the larger efforts in society. We stand by and full-heartedly support those larger efforts to honor those who have been murdered and lynched for being black through protest and revolution as well. Thank you for reading.