Usually when cultural appropriation is discussed, Native American headdresses or wearing bindis as “accessories” by people outside of those cultural groups come to mind; however, there is a much more pervasive form of cultural appropriation which permeates college campuses that we accept on a daily basis: “Greek” life.
Cultural appropriation, in the simplest sense, refers to taking certain aspects of another culture for one’s own benefit. The term “panhellenic” has come to be associated with sororities and fraternities, though considering the actual implications of this term, this is extremely problematic. “Panhellenic” comes from the Greek word “Panhellenes,” which means “all the Hellenes” or “pertaining to or involving all the Greeks.” Now, because lexicographers include newer meanings of words, “Panhellenic” has come to also mean “concerning, or representing all college fraternities and sororities.” It is not the lexicographers’ job to impose judgment on how appropropriate this actually is. They merely record these meanings based on common usage; nevertheless, this new meaning in the dictionary whereby non-Greek people refer to themselves as “Greek” or a part of “Greek life” is the matter of contention.
It’s important to first address why sororities and fraternities have these Greek associations. Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary as a secret society after the founder was rejected from a Latin-named society. After dropping the secrecy, they revealed what the Greek letters stood for: “Philosophia Bios Kubernethes,” which translates to “Philosophy is the guide to life,” following the Western idealization of Greek as an intellectual language.
These organizations started as honor societies — in fact, Phi Beta Kappa is still one — and now we have our modern notions of sororities and fraternities, which include honor societies. So you ask, what is the big deal? Well, considering how authentically Greek people did not found sororities or fraternities or find any resemblance to such organizations while non-Greek people answer to this “Greek” identity is perplexing. Ultimately, this is nothing but the flagrant appropriation of a culture.
Cultural appropriation is more than white people wearing Native American warbonnets at Coachella. This is a form of cultural appropriation that people from all races of non-Greeks practice, especially considering how there are a myriad of ethnic sororities and fraternities.
Interestingly enough, despite all the “Greek” associations, the terms “sorority” and “fraternity” are Latin in origin. This proves these organizations can alter the aspects in which they are dishonoring Greek people by avoiding any terminology that exploits the culture.
With this in mind, it’s hard to ignore the immense irony of these organizations’ involvement in philanthropy, which comes from the Greek “love of humanity,” and yet, this form of cultural appropriation still occurs on campuses across the country even though disrespecting a culture does not illustrate a “love of humanity” as the term suggests. It’s doubtful that the people in these organizations are trying to be actively disrespectful to Greek culture, but these negative associations exist all the same. Using terms and phrases such as “panhellenic” or “go Greek” are pernicious and imprudent no matter the intentions behind them.
Some groups do not use Greek letters at all, which is a step in the right direction. Many people join these organizations to make friends, make connections or partake in philanthropy — these are all great, and can still be accomplished without the using of Greek letters.
The best philanthropy sororities and fraternities can employ is to refrain from appropriating Greek culture. There are countless sororities and fraternities who do not participate in culturally insensitive practices, but are lumped together with those who have nonetheless (such as “Compton Cookout” at UC San Diego by members of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity or “Asia Prime” at Duke University by members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity). By virtue of these sororities and fraternities identifying as “Greek,” they are in a sense representing Greek people, so throwing racist parties is then deplorable on a whole other level and a disservice to such a rich culture.
When a race or ethnicity is disrespected, especially collectively in this case, there needs to be a dialogue because that is the only way we can effectively prevent cultural appropriation and racism. The change can start at UCR. Which better university than UCR, which boasts its diversity and acceptance? It’s time to take the word “Greek” back, and if you’re not Greek, then stop calling yourself one.