It has happened so many times that it feels like a single, repeated memory. I’ll be walking back from discussion or dance practice with a new classmate or teammate also heading east up Channing Way. As we reach an intersection, I stop her from turning down the street without me.
“Is it alright if we cross here? I’m just right up there.” I point to the large three-story house just down the street, its letters emblazoned on the front.
“Oh, you’re in a sorority?”
My smile freezes in place a little, as it does every time I hear these words. I look at her as we walk, trying to figure out if her expression indicates genuine curiosity, polite interest or a fixed mask to hide her complete and total judgement.
I’ve gotten the latter before. It’s not pleasant.
It’s not without reason. The Greek community has been prominently in the news for a lot unfortunate choices and incidents recently, both nationally and at UC Berkeley. As sexual assault has entered the forefront of campus conversations across the country, fraternities and sororities find themselves increasingly on the hot seat for issues of party culture and power dynamics. Anyone who’s lived within four blocks of a UC Berkeley sorority house has heard the cheering and seen the swarms of girls and undoubtedly made their own assumptions about the insanity that is Panhellenic Fall Formal Recruitment and the droves of overly dressed-up screaming and clapping sratty zealots. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see what is superficial, what is hierarchical and what is problematic.
What is good comes from the inside. It comes from the women who will talk me through my struggles, who give me academic and professional help and have taught me to be more open to other perspectives. It comes from my friends who are some of the most diverse, genuine and driven people I have ever known. It comes from hours of community service and thousands and thousands of dollars raised from assorted philanthropies. It comes from striving for academic excellence, as evident by the fact that the Panhellenic average GPA is higher than both the all-women’s and all-campus average GPA. But from the perspectives of uninvolved onlookers, these things can get lost, hidden behind the one woman you met during a discussion section who rubbed you the wrong way or that article you read one time that made you feel uncomfortable in the same stomach-twisting way it did to me.
When someone finds out I’m in a sorority before they’ve truly gotten to know me, I worry that they’re instinctively reducing me to ideas and stereotypes of what I am. I wonder if their thoughts go to the superficial social climbing from the sorority in “Scream Queens” or if their mind takes them instead to the catty girl-drama from Ted and Barney’s sorority sister double date as featured in one of my least favorite episodes of “How I Met Your Mother.” The worst stereotypes of Greek women are ones that I’m happy not to know in person, but the associations will still come. Movies such as “Animal House” and even “Legally Blonde” have helped to perpetuate an idea of who a sorority woman is that doesn’t represent the experiences of thousands. It’s an unfortunate part of the territory.
And I wonder if what I think of this community ever occurs to them.
To say that the Greek community at this school is perfect would be not only incorrect but irresponsible. Of course, there are issues, ones real enough not to be overlooked. Every time I hear a story of something gone wrong, I feel the pang of sadness and feel that hint of responsibility for something I wasn’t there for. Every account of sexual assault angers me. Every public debate with the city fills me with endless frustration.
But I am not willing to be complacent in the status quo, and the actions of this community make me comfortable in believing it is not either. Saying that Greek students do not want to make their community safer ignores the strong efforts of Greeks Against Sexual Assault. Saying that Greek students are not conscientious dismisses what Greening the Greeks has achieved in making this community a more sustainable and aware one. Saying that Greek students are systematically exclusive ignores the great work Panhellenic has done toward making sure more women from more backgrounds feel comfortable entering our community, including the institution of the new Panhellenic vice president of community development this year.
I believe in making a community better from the inside and leaving it safer and more welcoming than when I found it. And my involvement in Greek life has made me better as well. I may be a small piece of this larger community, but I make a difference by being part of the conversation and working the best I can to be a role model for what Greek life can stand for. I am much more than the letters on my chest, but I also can’t help but take pride in wearing them.
We are not perfect, and we have never presumed to be. But the value in any community is recognizing faults and actively working to become stronger.
When I next walk home with a classmate, it’s likely that little will change. There will still be that polite show of interest, and the intentions and feelings behind it will still remain unclear. But hopefully they will get to know me better in the weeks to come, and hopefully they will see past the letters to the person behind them.