What Happens When Sorority Racism Goes Unrecognized and Unchecked

Host Chris Rock speaks at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/
Host Chris Rock speaks at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Chris Rock, in his opening monologue at the 2016 Oscars, made a funny and very important distinction about the type of racism that goes on in Hollywood. He said, in part:

Is Hollywood racist? ... Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No ... It's a different type of racist ... Hollywood is sorority racist. It's like, "We like you Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa." That's how Hollywood is.

And that's how it is at many of the places where we work, too. Many organizations are sorority (or fraternity, if you prefer) racist. Sorority racism is a form of casual racism, the kind Donald Trump seemed to be espousing for a while before he went full-bore into burning-cross racism by pretending he didn't know who David Duke was and therefore initially refusing to disavow him. But back to sorority racism -- what does that mean?

Sorority racism is when the majority group uses its privilege and power to other (yes, that's a verb) those who are not members of the privileged and powerful group. Often, this othering is not done maliciously, or even consciously, and therefore the perpetrators can mistakenly claim their innocence. Tim Wise calls it Minnesota Nice, where white folks have created a social expectation that they will be "nice" to black folks, and therefore believe, mistakenly (again), that they have eliminated all elements of racism and injustice.

This sorority racism goes hand in hand with what I (and others) like to call default conservatism. Default conservatism does not involve intellectually astute, politically engaged, strongly-held conservative beliefs and ideals, but rather a preference for the status quo because it's "normal," and why are you disturbing my peaceful existence and making me think about all this stuff?

In other words, what these concepts -- sorority racism, Minnesota nice, default conservatism -- have in common is a denial that systemic racism exists, an inability or unwillingness to engage in discussions on racial issues, and ultimately -- often -- a defensive and aggressive pushback when challenged to view issues of race from a more dynamic perspective.

Beverly Tatum, in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, tells a story of the innocence of white privilege. A former professor at Holyoke, Dr. Tatum taught a class entitled "The Psychology of Racism." On the first day of class she asked her students to talk about themselves in terms of their own racial and ethnic backgrounds. A young white woman was struggling to answer, and finally said, "I'm just normal." When asked what she meant, the young woman said:

"You know, I lived in an all-white neighborhood. I grew up with people a lot like myself, and I was just like everybody else -- I was just the norm."

In many ways, this is completely harmless. This young woman was not burning-cross racist, or fetch-me-some-lemonade racist. Maybe she's not even sorority racist. What she was, though, was unaware of the spectrum of "norms," and she hadn't thought about the idea that her "norm" may not have been the norm for everyone else. She would never have admitted this, but by saying that she was "normal," it implied, subconsciously perhaps, that those who were not from her background were abnormal. Perhaps this perspective comes from the limited experience of youth.

When this "normal" perspective continues to go unchecked and unchallenged, however, it solidifies the sorority racism that Chris Rock spoke about. People grow up with no clue about their position of privilege and power in the system and are ill equipped to properly address issues of racial injustice when they are presented with them later in life.

Then the systems of inequity get perpetuated because the individuals and groups and companies that are perpetuating the inequity continue to stay in power. Othering ad infinitum. Often, there is a lack of cultural fluency to engage in meaningful dialogue, and a lack of humility to accept that they are the benefactors of an unjust system. This leads to defensiveness, anger, dismissiveness, and the common excuse that all this talk is just political correctness.

So what can be done to help our society move away from the Minnesota Nice, sorority racism that is so dominant and influential? There are no quick fixes, but we can start by validating everyone's individual experience as true and authentic, even if -- especially if -- we don't understand it or can't recognize it. We can consciously make decisions individually and collectively to challenge the status quo. We can open our eyes to the inequality, and we can speak up on behalf of the disadvantaged, and we can speak truth to power. We can become familiar with the idea of othering and recognize when it's taking place.

We can work for companies that value inclusion, or better yet, we can start our own companies. It'll take time, but we can slowly phase out the sorority racism by being willing to ask the important questions, by being present in the dialogues that follow, and by speaking up for the crazy ideal that everyone should be given the same opportunities -- not just once, but always.