The University of Georgia’s Multicultural Greek Council and National Pan-Hellenic Council met in a virtual panel on March 5 to answer the question: “Do Greeks of color think the same?”
The MGC is an umbrella organization for multicultural fraternities and sororities nationally and at UGA. The NPHC is another umbrella council made up of several historically African American Greek life organizations, seven of which have chapters at UGA.
Representatives from the two councils came together in an event to find a “middle ground” by discussing similarities between the organizations, the question of race, Greek life’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic and more. The conversation was moderated by the MGC president, Donna Chong and the NPHC president, Christiny Reeves.
“We all are people of color. We are all people of color within Greek,” Lloyd Phinney, president of Lambda Phi Epsilon, said to begin the conversation. “We don't have the bond that we deserve, especially considering a lot of MGC’s history comes directly from the efforts of those who started the National Pan-Hellenic Council.”
Compared to the traditional Greek life organizations under the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, both NPHC and MGC organizations are relatively new. What is known today as traditional Greek life originated in the 1700s –– but it was not until the early 20th century that African American Greek organizations arose, to be followed by multicultural organizations.
“We’re like the new kids. We’re the freshmen in high school,” Phinney said. “And IFC and Panhellenic are the seniors and juniors and the National Pan-Hellenic are the sophomores and juniors, and [MGC is] just trying to fit in.”
While NPHC was founded in 1930 with chapters that began a few decades prior, MGC as an institution was not founded until 1998.
“I think it's important to consider when you’re comparing yourself to other organizations and other councils, was it actually feasible for your organization to come about?” said Alexandria Jefferson, co-chair of Women’s Health Emblem at Alpha Kappa Alpha. “My organization was founded in 1908. You have to think about that historically and where Black people were at that time.”
The question of race, culture and religion
Though the NPHC and MGC organizations have racial and cultural origins, most are not exclusive to one race, culture or ethnicity.
“A lot of times the comment I get is ‘Why are you in a multicultural organization? You're white,’” said Marshall Bellando, president of Sigma Beta Rho, a South Asian interest fraternity. “It's kind of like a slap in the face to the rest of my brothers a little bit ... Any idea that we can only feel welcome in groups that look like us –– that's a [bullshit] notion, you know?”
A few of the panelists were of multiple ethnicities and others were in leadership positions despite the fact that their race was not a part of the organization's original intended minority group.
Sejal Mistry is Indian and is the current president of Alpha Sigma Rho, an Asian-interest sorority. Mistry said she dealt with racial questioning from the sorority’s alumna both when she initially joined and even more so when she ran for a leadership position. They made comments such as “You’re not even Asian,” and “You’re not Asian enough," she said.
Anusha Khan, former president of UGA’s MGC and member of Sigma Sigma Rho, dealt with similar problems, but more so in regards to her external community of Pakistani-Muslims.
“It’s not very common, specifically at UGA for example, for someone who is Pakistani and Muslim to be in Greek life,” Khan said. “It's interesting to see how people can interpret your presence in any organization –– being a Muslim girl, being a part of Greek life and how they can view that as a disconnect from my faith.”
Erin Ocana, president of Sigma Gamma Rho, and Fawaz Syed, president of Phi Beta Sigma, are in even more difficult positions as people of dual ethnicities. Ocana is half-Black, half-Guatemalan, and Syed is Pakistani and Taiwanese.
Ocana said that while she felt welcomed and accepted into NPHC, she dealt with some external and familial offhand comments that insisted she did not belong to her organization or her council.
“I chose what I chose. I don't have to prove it to you. You’re not going to undermine me,” Ocana said.
Syed agreed. He recalled a “Meet the Greeks” event in which the panel was asked, “Why are half the Sigmas not Black?”
“We understand that the principles that our organizations were founded on are not based on the color of your skin or your race, it's based on what you can put in,” Syed said. “If you're going to be an integral part of the chapter, an integral part of creating a better community … why wouldn't we accept you?”
Not a social club
Although the organizations are not exclusive to certain demographics, all the panelists recognized that their own organizations are more meaningful and valuable than the traditional Greek life organizations.
“It’s a lifelong commitment to us, but a temporary one to them,” Jessica Davis of Alpha Kappa Alpha said in the Zoom chat.
Brandon Marshall, member of Kappa Alpha Psi, said that while IFC and Panhellenic Council members have gone into detail with him about their own Greek organizations, it’s important to keep the activities of his own secret and “just give [them] what’s on our national website.”
“They will really ‘talk bad’ on their fraternity or sorority,” Marshall said, “Whereas we try to really uplift our letters and try to elevate the status of who we are … This is something that's really sacred to us, and I just never feel like they've understood that.”
The panel also agreed that their diverse backgrounds and their majority status as people of color added to their disappointment with the way Greek life in general has handled COVID-19.
Marshall, who serves as one of the directors of Greek unity for UGA’s Student Government Association, worked on a plan to create transparency with UGA as far as COVID-19 cases.
“We didn't get a reply, or anything, from IFC or [Panhellenic],” Marshall said. “They were just not trying to work to better off the community, [not] trying to do any type of COVID relief.”
Phinney went on to discuss how both councils created strict safety guidelines in wake of the pandemic as well as the hefty fines they would confront if those guidelines were not followed. NPHC and MGC organizations do not get nearly as much financial support as IFC and Panhellenic ones do, so the fines are not something they take lightly, he said.
Emotions run high
The panel ended with Chong, who came up with the initial idea for this discussion, in tears.
“We are so much closer than we think,” Chong said. “And I really hope that this starts the ball of unity, you know?”