The (Black) Elephant in the Room - Evan Shields

Each day, I walk down a well-paved driveway to my fraternity’s mansion, which is enclosed by acres of manicured lawn. I step into the three-story house (excluding the basement), and I am immediately in a pseudo-museum. There’s stained glass, war memorials celebrating brothers, and plaques honoring donors in the living room, dining room, and library, all surrounded by intricately engraved wood and stone that is prevalent throughout the house. I sit down in the library to do my homework, observing the water buffalo and antelope heads mounted on the wall across from me.

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This is my history now. But at the same time, it isn’t.

I am one of three partially black members of my fraternity living in a house dedicated to the accomplishments of white men. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate their contributions to the brotherhood. But at the same time, there’s always a little voice in the back of my head telling me that they wouldn’t have accepted me. That if I were alive in their time, they would acknowledge me as less than a white person. That if they saw me living in their house now, they would turn in their graves. Even now, although I love my brothers and my brothers love me, I will always be an “other,” standing out in the house purely because of the color of my skin.

My grandfather was in Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity founded at Cornell, at San Francisco State. I know Alphas here, but their small brotherhood and lack of a house made rushing there less appealing than rushing a traditionally white fraternity. Perhaps it was the mansions, or the parties, or the massive brotherhoods, but I knew almost immediately when I got here that I would end up in a predominantly white fraternity. I made the conscious decision to become the “other,” knowing that I would hear white kids singing along and saying “nigga” at my own parties. I knew that people would make minor jokes about my blackness. Lines like “oh, of course you’re a good basketball player” or “calm down, you’re not in Oakland anymore” (I’m from an upper-class neighborhood in Oakland) have been used when talking to me.  I knew that my political beliefs would differ from a lot of my brothers and that I would hear negative remarks about organizations I supported such as Black Lives Matter. Nonetheless, I thought that the community, brotherhood, and social life would be worth being that “other.”

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The alleged Psi Upsilon assault has made me reevaluate this thought. I read about the assault while sitting on a leather chair at Tru Dat, a small barbershop in the Ithaca Commons. I immediately thought, “there’s no way this could be true” and “there must be something else to this.” The barber swiveled my friend around in his chair during his haircut, and we made eye contact. I described the incident word-for-word as it was sent in Vice President Lombardi’s email, and I watched a look of disgust slowly begin to dominate his face. We both realized that this was a racially-motivated hate crime, and a kid who looked like the two of us had been berated and hospitalized because he was black.

One of the other part-black brothers in my house phrased it perfectly when he said, “the only difference between us and that kid who got sent to the hospital is that he happened to be the one in Collegetown at that time.” The victim was also an African-American male in the Greek system, and although he was not a member of Psi Upsilon, he was assaulted by members of a Greek community that was supposed to have his back. His blackness was used as a motive for violence, notifying every other black fraternity member on this campus that our skin color alone is enough to provoke hatred from fellow Greeks.

This current situation has made me feel like I’m not a member of the Greek community, but rather, a burden. It’s as if I change the dynamic of Greek life; everyone gets along perfectly until I’m around, then they begin to feel the need to accommodate me, to put on a different personality that matches better with mine. And when I’m gone, they can go back to their normal personalities, and not have to worry about awkwardly having one black kid in the room. I feel like I was permitted to be a part of this nearly all-white system is because the fraternities on our campus are legally obligated to allow minorities in their groups. I don’t feel welcome, yet at the same time, I am still an active part of a community with clear systemic problems. And all I wish I could do right now is change the fraternities and sororities here so that they would actually be accepting of diversity.

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But how do you do that to a system whose principles rely on exclusion? Rush is a time to have members of an organization evaluate men and women that they’ve barely met or seen, and if a potential member doesn’t fit into their criteria, they are out of consideration in a heartbeat. Traditionally, the criteria have been preppy, wealthy white men and women. People like to believe that the Greek system has changed to become more accepting, but if you look at the Greek community at our school, most brothers still fit that criteria.

President Martha Pollack sent out an email condemning hatred while “directing the heads of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils to develop a substantive and meaningful diversity training and education program for all their members, to be implemented before the spring recruitment.” I understand exactly where she is coming from. As President, it is her job to make sure incidents like this never tarnish Cornell’s image or impact its students in a negative way again. Still, it is wishful thinking to believe that a group of a few hundred college-aged students who have spent the majority of their lives in white communities will suddenly gain a new respect for minorities after an online course. We learned the other day that this “diversity and education program” is an online course, similar to one all members of the Greek community had to take called GreekLifeEdu. GreekLifeEdu addressed important topics such as consent and responsibility when using alcohol and drugs. Nonetheless, many fraternity brothers and sorority sisters viewed this program simply as an annoyance, skipping through the majority of the presentation without reading a single word and barely passing the final test at the end that determined whether or not a member completed the course.

What bothers me more than the lack of caring about diversity from the members of Greek life is the way the administration is trying to handle diversity. If Cornell had actually listened to the complaints of the students after we took GreekLifeEdu, they would know that particular style of presentation provokes no real change. I cannot name a single person I know who believed they benefitted from the online program, yet the school decided to make the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council develop a program that approaches diversity in almost the exact same way that Delta Series approached other Greek-related issues. All that shows me is that Cornell doesn’t truly care about diversity in its fraternities and sororities. They just want to pass hasty legislation that improves the image of the school without ensuring actual change within the Greek community. Because as long as it looks like Cornell wants to improve diversity in Greek life, who cares whether or not they’re actually improving diversity in Greek life?

Thankfully, for the first time in a long time, we got a taste of justice. Although Psi Upsilon maintained that the assault was not connected to them because the brother who was arrested, John Greenwood, was an unofficial member of the fraternity, their Board of Governors announced that they would “close their chapter at Cornell indefinitely” and use their house for “student organizations at Cornell that are dedicated to promoting a diverse and inclusive student community.” I do believe that Psi U implemented these changes in order to save their reputation, but at least some part of the Greek community at this school took legitimate action to try to aid organizations that promote diversity at Cornell. Moreover, the silent Black Students Union rally at the Student Assembly brought students of all colors and backgrounds together to show solidarity against racism and to support its victims. These developments have given me a new glimmer of hope that Cornell can one day become a place truly accepting of all students, no matter how far in the future that day may be.

In the end, the blame for this incident rightfully fell on Psi U, but to focus only on Psi U and not on the institutional issues within the Greek community is problematic. All I can pray for during this time is that my brothers will stand beside me, understanding and helping me through the struggles of being African-American in a mostly white Greek world. And although I may have sounded grim for the majority of this piece, I sincerely believe that my brothers will try their best, through thick and thin, to make me feel like a true member of Cornell’s Greek life.

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Evan Shields

Cornell University ‘20