Power and Prejudice and W&L

This is not a tirade or a rant against W&L, Greek life, or any of the numerous, complex and intricate details about social life on campus. It would be so easy to write a rant, given that there are many things on campus that make me upset. But honestly, I don’t want to rant, and I don’t enjoy being frustrated or upset with a school that I chose to attend willingly. In fact, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t enjoy my time on campus. I have made memories, met amazing people and grown both emotionally and intellectually. After being here for a semester and a half, I feel like I have deeper insights on the culture of W&L and the social climate on campus. Most of it is based around status and looking “cool” or being “popular.” But that’s not particular to W&L. It’s natural for connections and hierarchies to form between people.

What is so peculiar about W&L, which is more dramatized by the fact our school is so small, is our social and power dynamics are based around wealth, gender, partying, substance use, Greek affiliation, family background and appearance. Not all of those things are things within our control, yet being on campus and not having an adequate or acceptable form of any of the above makes a person feel inadequate. It is a suffocating and alienating experience, to feel like you need to live up to all these social standards or risk being considered an outsider.

Consider the clothes that people wear on campus. Clothes are an indicator of trendiness, style, and personality. You may know nothing about a person, but from how they dress and who they wear, you naturally make assumptions about them: “This person wears XYZ, so they must be _______.” Clothes are a vital indicator of status and wealth at W&L. There’s a standard and expectation to wear one’s wealth rather than it being bragging rights (“if you’ve got it, flaunt it”).

There is certainly some truth to the joke that W&L stands for “white & loaded.” I have never seen so many in-your-face displays of wealth until I came here. Full disclosure: I come from a middle-class suburban area in Arizona. I was used to seeing Teslas on roads that were constantly being paved and re-paved for no good reason (we love tax money being spent well). I lived in a gated community that was five minutes away from a developing and booming business zone.

Then, I came to W&L. I felt like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, in his little cottage on West Egg, going out for a walk and looking across the bay at the enormously wealthy and stately old money East Egg. That’s not to say being incredibly affluent is a bad thing. In fact, their wealth works for them. Affluence is a vital factor that contributes to popularity. But it also contributes to affluenza. People raised in privilege only know what they grew up with as a given reality, rather than something seen only in movies or TV shows. People do not intentionally promote the perpetuation of wealth as a status marker, but rather, it is systematic.

In addition to wealth, race plays into power dynamics. Combined with the fact that 85.5 percent of the students on campus are white, and positions of social power are occupied by those are white, it is hard not to feel like being a person of color is a mark against you.

During the week of formal rush, when the doors of the sorority houses opened during the open house round, it was a strange and alien feeling to see the groups of girls who were welcoming me. The majority were white, blonde, pretty. Intimidatingly so. I saw very few people who looked like me.

This was especially true in certain sororities versus others, namely the “popular” and “high tier” ones. I couldn’t help thinking when bids came out that if I had only looked a certain way and dressed a certain way that things would have ended up very differently. It is certainly true that many factors go into formal rush week for girls, but when you are in a minority, especially at a school like W&L, there is always this uncomfortable sense that your race or ethnicity made you stand out in a bad way.

Other students here openly admit that they came from predominantly white areas and had never seen so much diversity until W&L. There’s no shame in that statement, and rather, it’s reality that such communities exist. But it does mean that diversity is not a normalized experience for them, and if they have had systematic or implicit biases, they’ve never been made aware that they have them.

Usually, this comes off in the form of microaggressions or ignorance, like asking to touch someone’s hair because it is “different” or fetishizing individuals by calling them “exotic.” It also can manifest as a general discomfort of being around people of color, and implicitly treating them as something “other.” Many people are not aware of their prejudice if or when they perform microaggressions, because they have never been confronted with the idea that they might be perpetuating and contributing to the problem.

Let’s not forget that status on campus is deeply mired and intertwined with Greek affiliation. The fact that we specifically label non-Greeks as “independents” points to how Greek our school is. At many other colleges that have Greek life, even large state ones, being Greek is the applied, stigmatized labels, whereas at W&L, being independent is the stigmatized label.

Being indie here is associated with being “weird” or “not cool,” even though both are simply untrue connotations. There is a growing number of independents on campus, and many of the individuals who I know that are independent are normal - in the best way possible. They are not any different because they are not Greek. They also know how to let loose and have a good time.

How many people on this campus would have joined Greek life if they went anywhere else? It’s a common sentiment that many students would not have gone Greek if they had gone anywhere else. We would’ve all been “independents.” But what then? Would we have been somehow inferior to our Greek counterparts?

I am not judging anyone who knew they were going Greek, whether that was here or anywhere else. I respect that choice, and all it means is we are different people. More importantly, that is all that should mean. It should not mean anyone is somehow innately inferior. That mindset, one that is perpetuated widely at W&L, is toxic, and frankly, makes me feel like we never left middle school.

Even within the Greek system itself, there exists a tiered system, and within each tier, there are different connotations and social identities that arise. Too often, we buy into these stereotypes and we forget to see people as individuals. We forget that people are not defined by their sororities or their fraternities.

We forget that even when we are within the Greek system. We throw ourselves into the larger identity, wanting to conform within the system. Maybe that means ignoring our anxieties about substance use or sexual activities. Maybe that means ignoring our discomfort about how we are treated or treat others. Maybe that means ignoring the things we care about, like our mental and physical health, our friends, our passions and interests. All that just to fit in.

This constant obsession with status and popularity also plays into the hookup culture on campus. Who people hook up with becomes a reflection of them. If you hook up with someone who is “higher tier,” by association, you must be “cool” or “hot.” For some individuals, this then feeds into a toxic obsession with associating and hooking up with the “right” people for increased status, similarly to how wearing expensive clothing is a status marker. At this school, an individual may become more desirable simply because they are of a certain Greek affiliation.

It’s a completely dehumanizing concept. It reduces us to mere labels and caricatures of ourselves and makes tools out of all of us. We shouldn’t have to work within a system that encourages us to use people and drop those are aren’t useful.

It is innately human to want to present the best versions of ourselves, such as when we meet people for the first time or go into a job or executive interview; however, when we build ourselves based on social labels and external definitions of “cool” or “popular” to shape our self-image, that becomes dangerous. College is a great opportunity to improve yourself or become someone new, but in trying to find ourselves and define ourselves, we should be careful not to lose ourselves to conformity and campus culture.

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