Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Captain Renault Award for Feigned Shock and Outrage

. . . goes to the national officers of Delta Zeta sorority.

My father called at 8:38 AM today. It was an unusually early call for a Sunday morning; when I saw the caller ID, I immediately worried something was wrong.

Well, something is wrong, but it isn't in my family.

Mom and Dad live in Tampa. Today's New York Times includes a front-page article, reprinted in both the St. Petersburg and Tampa papers, which let the rest of the world, including my parents, know that national office of Delta Zeta sorority told 23 of the 35 members of the DePauw chapter, just before finals, that they were being placed on "alumna" status and would need to find somewhere else to live. It's a mere coincidence, the national office would have us believe, that those 23 included the minority students and everyone who was overweight.

Dad wanted to make sure I knew about the article. I told him I had read it last night on the Times website. He gave me a synopsis anyway, as is his custom, evidently to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

Later in the day I played a concert in Lafayette, Indiana. "Well, that's some pretty bad publicity for DePauw," was how one of the other musicians greeted me. On first read, I didn't think the university community or administration came off badly. It was clear it was an action by the national office; six of the twelve women who were allowed to stay in the sorority quit in protest. DePauw's president, Bob Bottoms, made his displeasure clear in the interview he gave to the Times reporter, and it was clear that the faculty and students had rallied in support of the ejected women.

It doesn't speak all that well for the overall climate on campus, though, that Delta Zeta had developed an unflattering reputation among many fraternity men, as the article elaborates. There was a hell of an uproar over this, though, and I know plenty of guys in fraternities who are appalled.

But why has the chapter been allowed to remain open on campus at all in light of this? I've been asked that several times today, and the more I think about it, the less I have an answer. It seems self-evident that this incident includes both racism and what is often called body fascism. On its website, however, Delta Zeta says it finds such suggestions "offensive." Who could be a more deserving recipient of the Captain Renault Award for Feigned Shock and Outrage ("I'm shocked, simply shocked, to find there is gambling going on here!")? How could anyone see a sorority order all the minority sisters in a chapter to move out and conclude that race was a factor?

Well, maybe that's the answer. The Delta Zeta national office has adopted a blame-the-victim strategy so far. All these women (including the chapter president) who didn't fit the thin, good-looking white-girl stereotype and were kicked out, midyear? They weren't "committed" enough to remain. It's their fault.

No one in even a quasi-right mind would admit they were doing something like this based on weight or race. Untenured faculty members avoid alienating their colleagues who make tenure decisions, not because they think someone is going to say, "I don't like him, don't give him tenure," but because they know that someone who has it in for you will devote himself to finding faults on which to build a legitimate-sounding case against you.

So it's very difficult to prove racism, or any other bias, even when it seems self-evident. Perhaps the Delta Zeta nationals are only monumentally insensitive and so extraordinarily myopic that they couldn't foresee how their actions would be perceived. That's the most benign way I can interpret it.

President Bottoms's email account (as well as those of the Delta Zeta national officers) will surely be inundated tomorrow. DePauw's website acknowledges the Times article and presents the university's response in a favorable light, and includes this .pdf of a "letter of reprimand" sent by Dr. Bottoms to the Delta Zeta national president. The letter's complaints focus on timing and insensitivity regarding communication. It also "recognize[s] the right of a national Greek organization to restructure," which of course they have. But there's no mention of the truly offensive message the national office has sent through its actions much louder than any words could have. I have never known any group of people more dedicated to racial equality, or more obsessed with bringing diversity to a small historically white school such as ours than Dr. Bottoms and his administrative colleagues. So I just don't get it. I can only assume that he believed it would be counterproductive to articulate the perceptions on campus (and now around the world).

When my mother was a sophomore or junior at Wayne State University in Detroit, she was the president of the campus chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota, a music sorority. They pledged an African-American student, and all hell broke loose. She received numerous calls, including one from the national president, to inform her in no uncertain terms that SAI did not pledge "black girls." My mother is nothing if not stubborn and she stuck to her guns. The young woman was a wonderful musician and excellent student; there was no legitimate reason to deny her membership and every reason to accept her. Call the Dean of Students, Mom said, if you don't want her. And he'll tell you Wayne has a strict policy of nondiscrimination and that the chapter will be decertified if we exclude her.

So SAI gained its first African-American student. And that was probably close to 30 years before the DePauw chapter of Delta Zeta did the same. When I searched "Delta Zeta DePauw" on the Times site, the only other story was about a 1982 incident in which the all-white chapter declined to offer a pledge bid to an African American student whom many of the sisters liked. Delta Zeta had become quite diverse here, until the national officers stepped in. And maybe it is a coincidence that the three non-caucasians were among the many asked to leave; perhaps they just weren't conventionally pretty enough.

After the cleansing (ethnic or otherwise), only six remained after some invited to stay quit. And only three first-year students have become active pledges, according to the Times article. Dr. Bottoms's letter notes that the national office is considering closing the DePauw chapter at least temporarily, and that the university does not promise that they'd be allowed to reopen in the future.

It's not kicking them off campus, but it is a start. I'm sad about the bad publicity for this great university and for all the pain so many have experienced over this. And I'd prouder than ever of my mother, for taking a firm stand over 50 years ago.

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