What we talk about when we talk about ‘colonizing’

Letter to the Editor

Last week, these pages featured two articles about Greek life at Case Western Reserve University. I think this is an important conversation for our campus to continue.

Reading the news in the Daily this week that a new Greek organization was going to “colonize” a chapter on campus, I practically stopped in my tracks. Not because I think CWRU has too many fraternities and attention should be focused on those we already have, as last week’s editorial “Crowding colonies” argued. Not even because I think Greek life is some kind of evil that needs to be prevented from expanding. It was the language itself.

“Colonize”? Really? And chapters are “colonies”? With absolutely no consideration of what colonization or colonies have meant historically? I guess this is the usual jargon within the Greek system, but I was shocked to see this language being used so casually to talk about starting new chapters. Let’s take a look at some recent headlines before we talk about “colonizing” chapters, though.

This last year has not been kind for the national public image of Greek life. Chapters at universities across the country have been suspended or reprimanded for a host of racist incidents, from Mexican-themed parties (as if tequila and sombreros constituted a “Mexican” identity); to a hip-hop-themed party with cups made out of watermelons on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; to Asian-themed parties where white people wore kimonos as costumes (as if “Asian” were a single, monolithic culture).

Meanwhile, much was made about all-white sororities at the University of Alabama who denied membership to several black candidates. A study of eight east coast Greek chapters found that they were over 96 percent white. Historically, many Greek organizations had whites-only clauses until the late 1960s.

I know, I know. No chapter at CWRU would ever do anything so outrageous. I believe this and agree for the most part. But this is about broader issues than whether or not our campus chapters are as egregious as the chapters that have made national headlines.

The connections and social networks that being a Greek plug you into are often touted as a benefit of joining the club. Just look at the percentage of Congresspeople, Supreme Court Justices or White House Cabinet members that have been members of Greek organizations. By Greek organizations’ own admission, they are networks of power. It is not at all a stretch to say that access to this power has been and continues to be highly racialized across the country. At the very least, this should be cause for thought and conversation on our campus as the administration tries to increase our involvement with national Greek organizations.

But I’m supposed to be talking about the word “colonize” here. So sure, I hear you. I’m making mountains out of molehills. Even with all the incidents of racist behavior at national Greek organizations, even with troubling issues of racially-based access to Greek power, “colonize” is still just one little word. What’s the big deal, right?

The United States is a country with a deeply and brutally violent colonial past. Let’s not kid ourselves by confining this to some far-off “past.” Let’s not imagine that a history of colonialism and racism is somehow not part of the fabric of everyday American life.

In an age where Greek organizations across the country continue to think it’s funny to throw parties that perpetuate racist stereotypes, in an era where historically-powerful Greek organizations continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by white people, the naive and unthinking use of words like “colonize” and “colonies” reeks of the ignorance and privilege that is Greek life at its worst.

Jason Walsh
Undergraduate student