Reflections on the Intersections of Social Class and Fraternity/Sorority Life
Kimberlee Monteaux, University of Vermont
Mark1 was, just like the rest of them. That is, a fraternity president dressed in the current fashion - the $70.00 pastel polo with the embroidered logo and the slacks that cost equally the same, and the boat shoes that every person seemed to own within our community, including myself.
He was always well liked. He was always listened to, always asked for his opinion at our council meetings. Great, crooked smile. He always carried this shabby green backpack with his initials in yellow. One day it was missing a buckle.
“Mark, looks like its time to get a new backpack?”
This opened up a flood of emotions, not about the backpack. About everything but the backpack; what he needed for class, how he couldn’t afford his dues, how his family didn’t know if he could stay at UVM next semester. How he was playing along.
Yes, playing along. The clothing, the trips, and the social gatherings. When I look back at this experience from 2007 I recall the empty feeling I had following Mark’s departure from my office. I did not know what to do to offer support. In fact, he had just cracked open memories I worked so hard to forget.
This experience led me to four years of exploring and questioning the intersection of social class and fraternity/sorority life. I have been fortunate enough to have presented/facilitated dialog at both the Northeast Greek Leadership Association (NGLA) Annual Conference and the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) Annual Conference and was able to hear stories about social class from collegiate students, higher education professionals, headquarters’ staff, and inter/national volunteers.
During the sessions, our conversations and reflections started with two questions adapted from the book Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (2007) where participants reflected in imagery and shared experiences. What is the first memory you have of someone you thought was of a more privileged “higher” class then you? And, what was the first memory you have of someone that you thought was of a less privileged "lower" class then you?
Student participants jumped right in with illustrations of Hummers, brand labels, and spring break trips. With markers in hand, fraternity/sorority professionals and headquarter staff members reflected on their own experiences, drew images and openly shared with one another about being first generation college students, personal struggles with social class on the campuses on which they work, and their thoughts on the impact of social class within the fraternal movement.
At NASPA, my co-facilitator and I asked similar questions asking for responses out loud. Immediately, we both felt the courage and power in the room when our colleagues responded to the questions regarding their first memory of someone they perceived as higher class. Their personal stories gave us goose bumps.
“When our electricity was turned off and my father worked for the electric company.”
“When my father burned up all our bills in front of me.”
It is these stories, and many more, that provide me the strength to continue a journey in looking at why social class is often forgotten in diversity discussions. Since 2007 I have learned that Mark’s playing along is actually what Yoshino (2006) defines as covering, or more specifically “hiding of crucial aspect’s of one’s self.” In his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Yoshino addresses ways assimilation occurs and the idea of covering. He believes that all individuals have covered at one point or another as a way to fit into the mainstream.
I perceive acts of covering and assimilating at the university where I work on a nearly daily basis and want to obtain others’ perspectives and interpretation of class covering. It is with this in mind I recently presented at a private, highly selective school in New England on “Social Class, Covering, and Fraternity Life”. This presentation experience was different than previous ones as student participants entered into conversation about class indicators quite easily, questioning the purpose of going into debt for the newest Northface jacket. Class indicators can include brand names to vacations and assist in determining an individual’s class.
Adams, Lee, and Griffin (2007) address ways to talk about class indicators and assumptions of class categories (i.e. owning, middle, working, poor). Following this last experience I believe that this is an easy way to start conversations about social class in an interactive way providing a safe environment for all participants to challenge themselves by choice. By first discussing class indicators then gradually moving into personal stories, trust can be gained, and the idea that others in the room are coming from similar experiences can be shared.
In Social Class on Campus: Theories and Manifestations, Barratt (2011) examines social class and provides numerous entering points on what social class is, class myths, and manifestations of social class, as well as ways to start understanding the intersections of class and other identities (i.e. race, gender, etc.). Social Class on Campus is an easy-to-read book that can be flipped through and read section by section. Barratt also talks about class and passing, identical to Mark’s “playing along,” which is his term for covering and the fear of class discovery.
Entering college as a first generation college student, I too struggled with my identity and worked diligently to mask my differences. I joined my sorority within the first month of college and never shared with my chapter sisters my multiracial or class identity. Mark’s story is, in many ways, my story; the difference being Mark eventually shared with his brothers his story and inspired others along the way.
Conversations about social class are complex and often taboo. However, it is our responsibility as fraternity/sorority life professionals to be courageous and start these important conversations and take time to reflect and understand how our own stories contributing to being an advocate for all of the Mark’s who have yet to find their voice.
1Name has been changed to protect identity.
Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Barratt, W. (2011). Social class on campus: Theories and manifestations. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Yoshino, K. (2006) Covering: The hidden assault on our civil rights. New York, NY: Random House