Identity Theft? Scholars Debate Cultural Appropriation in Greek Life - Higher Education
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Identity Theft? Scholars Debate Cultural Appropriation in Greek Life

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Earlier this week, a video surfaced featuring a White fraternity ― Virginia Tech’s Farmhouse ― as the winners of the institution’s Greek Unity stroll-off. It was not a new video, but the question was presented: Should Black American (and, more specifically, Black Greek) culture be flattered by the mimicry or concerned for potential misappropriation?

“I think you have to handle these on a case-by-case basis,” said Dr. Donald Mitchell Jr., who is an assistant professor of higher education at Grand Valley State University whose research areas include Black Greeks, HBCUs, intersectionality and diversity, and is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. “I don’t take any issue with this particular video because it seems as if the students worked with members of Black Greek organizations to organize their stroll.

“There were also BGLO members watching them stroll, which is an unofficial endorsement of the group and the event. So, at worst, because of the Unity event, now these White students know more about BGLOs, and in the most ideal case, there is some basic education going on about BGLOs prior to teaching them how to stroll.”

But Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, said such frivolous displays of unity don’t benefit the broader community.

“I’m over unity steps because there is no evidence they change student culture on campuses,” said Kimbrough. “If the only unity Greeks can have is through stepping and they never have any meaningful collaboration on issues, then it is simply another opportunity for cultural appropriation. We’ll do your steps but not support your causes.”

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Dr. Crystal A. deGregory, an expert on HBCU culture and history and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., said the line between imitation as flattery and mockery is thin.

“I’m not certain if every instance of mimicking behavior is indeed appropriation,” deGregory said. “There is the practice among Black Greek-Lettered fraternities and sororities in particular, of mocking steps in tribute to ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ organizations.”

She does, however, agree with Kimbrough, saying that the imitation seems a shallow attempt at unifying the organizations.

“What is evident in this instance is that the mimicry seemed to be devoid of the earnestness required to qualify as a tribute undertaken with the requisite levels of respect and reverence required to honor an institution’s traditions,” she said.

In other words, does the solidarity end with the stepping and strolling on the yard?

“I don’t mind the unity steps if there are more substantive things happening. If this is the only thing and they can’t do a Black Lives Matter or Ferguson or Baltimore forum together, then they don’t need to step together,” added Kimbrough.

Kimbrough went on to mention the recent events with Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s publicized racism. Citing the contradiction of the members likely looking forward to a Waka Flocka concert on campus, despite vowing to keep Black students off their membership rolls, he asked, “If the White groups only want to step but don’t actively recruit Blacks to be members, isn’t that the same as the OU situation? For me, yes.”

But Mitchell believes an attempt to understand the culture is a positive first step.

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“BGLOs are often pushed toward the margins of Greek spaces at predominantly White institutions,” he said. “So at the least, now more students and members of historically White Greek organizations know we exist. Now, if students or historically White Greek organizations decided to take it upon themselves and emulate or make fun of BGLO strolls without working with BGLO members then that type of cultural appropriation is offensive and shouldn’t be condoned, and I would be singing a different tune.”

“Am I flattered? No. Was I offended? No. Was I entertained? Yes,” Mitchell added.

Kimbrough said he believes that Black Greeks should cease participation in such shows, until there is a more substantive display of unity ― beyond copying strolls to perform on the yard.

One online commenter likened the display to other areas in which Black culture, once relegated to the corners of American pop culture, is hijacked and popularized by non-Blacks in this country.

“Is it entertaining? Yes. But so is Macklemore,” he said.

deGregory said he believes that this leads to a bigger question about who “owns” culture.

“Who owns these traditions?” she asked. “And does the spread of them to non-Black fraternal life amount to cultural theft any more than the spirituals, jazz, the three-part gospel harmony, rhythm and blues or hip-hop?”

Speaking of cultural theft in hip-hop, congratulations to Iggy Azaela for winning “Best Rap Artist” at the Billboard Music Awards this week …

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