Washington and Lee and the Culture of Complacency

Around this time two years ago, I officially joined a sorority as a sophomore. I was thrilled – for the new connections, for the social events, to be able to be a part of something bigger than myself, a group that specifically claimed it was accepting and diverse. I was honestly overjoyed, and it would be doing this story a disservice to ignore that, to push my feelings towards anger and bitterness and pretend I was never happy. I am not writing this to invalidate the friends I made, the ones that defended me and tried to make a change, but rather to praise them for their strength and compassion. Up until I started dating a woman my junior year, I really felt like I belonged. But suddenly, the positivity ground to a halt.

When my relationship with my girlfriend became visible on campus, a dynamic shift was almost immediate. Small comments snuck their way into casual conversation:

“Ugh, too many of our sisters are bringing other girls to formal. They should bring frat guys.”

“Do you think we should stop them (from kissing other girls in public)? It’s a bad look for the sorority, and we don’t want to get that kind of girl in our pledge class.”

“We want our sorority to be better, we want to be upper tier and we need the best (cutest, prettiest, heterosexual to net us frat mixers) girls to do that.”

The comments were spoken about other people, but they stuck with me. People that I once thought were my friends stopped saying hello to me when I held my girlfriend’s hand, when I proudly displayed my love and hoped others would be happy for me.

We were met with dirty looks for kissing at Fancy Dress. My girlfriend was ignored at the sorority formal by people she knew. We found ourselves suddenly met with a brick wall of intolerance and injustice stemming from those I had truly considered to be my sisters.

And yet, this article isn’t about what people did to me, but rather what others actively chose not to do. Everyone knew about the homophobic comments one sorority member made in reference to a beloved friend of mine, and yet no one reported it until a year later. (I will be eternally grateful for the woman who chose to speak up). Those who were not minorities, who were not scared of discrimination and backlash if they spoke up, knew what was going on but still sat there and said nothing, did nothing.

I disaffiliated and left that negativity behind me. But even those who know what happened continue to willingly remain in the dark about the intolerance that lurks directly beneath the surface of their organization. When I ask people to reflect, to look at the system and the actions of those they choose to associate with in hopes of making things better for those that come after me, I’m met with a chorus of “I didn’t do anything wrong! I haven’t been discriminated against! Look at these other minorities we have!”

Rather than paying attention, rather than speaking up or doing something and actually making a difference, people choose to ignore any problems, to pretend that everything is fine. For that reason, everyone in the organization was complicit in my discrimination and in my heartbreak.

This culture of complacency pervades every aspect of Washington and Lee. Even when people are distinctly aware that something is wrong, that an injustice has occurred, few people do anything. Whether they feel that what they do won’t matter, or that they don’t know what to do, or they don’t even care, no one expects anything to happen.

When Ku Klux Klan fliers were spread on our own campus, when the pride flags were trashed and students of color were made to feel as if they might come to physical harm simply by existing on this campus, few people spoke up. Few non-minorities attended the gathering in Commons to support our community. At many other universities, there would have been protests and marches. But here? There was almost nothing done.

I am appalled by this mentality, this willing ignorance of the violence that is occurring around us, this violence that we are allowing within our own community. I am not saying this to invalidate or undermine the strength and kindness of those who have been trying to make changes and truly support our community, but rather to call everyone else to do better. If you say you’re an ally, act like it. Speak out when you see injustice, attend events that minority students create, place yourself between your friends (or even strangers) and those who try to discriminate against them and tell them that their behavior is unacceptable. Use your place of power to help others. Do better, Washington and Lee. I know you can.


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