Thursday, March 4, 2010

Zeta Tau Alpha sorority: Well-meaning integrationists or cultural tourists?

Some black Greeks are het up of late, because the unthinkable happened this past February (Black History Month!): Zeta Tau Alpha, a majority white sorority, stole the 2010 Sprite Step Off crown from a host of historically black sororities.

Wha...what? The Devil must be lacing up ice skates today.

Actually, to say Zeta Tau Alpha "stole" the step show crown is to play in to the controversy. In truth, the young women EARNED the crown. They brought it...hard:

Now, I'll leave it to you to Google the performances by the Deltas and AKAs and Zetas and judge their merits. But in the opinion of this [incredibly lapsed] black Greek, none held a candle to the winning routine and some were just...well, you watch and decide. Even if you don't think Zeta Tau Alpha stole the show, surely it is clear that they gave a respectable showing. So, why the outrage?

It's about race.

Lawrence Ross at The Root explains:
Immediately after word got out that Zeta Tau Alpha had won, Twitter and Facebook blew up with accusations that Sprite was biased in favor of the white sorority. Others claimed that it was a stunt for MTV2, which broadcasted the contest.

Some postings even said white organizations shouldn’t be allowed to participate in stepping competitions in the first place, since stepping is a black Greek cultural tradition. Others accused Zeta Tau Alpha of being the equivalent of modern-day minstrels, debasing the art form by their very presence.

Then on Feb. 25, Sprite announced on Facebook that they had discovered "a scoring discrepancy" that they could not resolve. They decided to make ZTA and AKA co-winners of the competition, giving each organization $100,000 in prize money. Read more...
Some copy editor at The Root summed the controversy up with the headline: "Can we at least keep stepping to ourselves?"

In a word...No.

But that's a hard answer, isn't it? After all, stepping has not just black American roots, but African roots. And we know how culture rooted in Africa is disdained by the majority. When white fraternities and sororities would not deign to include black college students, we created our own organizations. When our organizations were not welcomed into Pan-Hellenic groups, we formed our own to govern our sororities and fraternities, and we created and honored our own traditions, including the tradition of the step show.

Even when I was in college in the late 80s/early 90s, on a majority white campus in the middle of Iowa, black Greek organizations were viewed as little more than exotic curiosities by most white students. Though, by this time, all fraternities and sororities were (supposedly) open to all, there were few white students rushing to become AKAs or Deltas or Qs or Kappas.

Now, here comes this group of white women imitating a bit of black culture...and doing it well...many might say, better than their black competitors...and on MTV for all the world to see. And you know, now that MTV has brought stepping to the mainstream, this probably won't be the last time. All these feelings arise, don't they?

There is a feeling of gratitude that a few members of the majority culture seem to notice and enjoy a bit of blackness. But then there is the worry that the enjoyment is superficial--exoticizing. Do these women from Arkansas really care about black culture? Do they know the history of what they are doing? What are their feelings about black people when we aren't, y'know, dancing? Are they just doing a cultural drive by, like teenage, white boys who embrace their superficial idea of blackness in the form of gangsta rap and urban slang, and then retreat back into white culture as they grow up and embrace their power and privilege?
A commenter on The Atlantic Web site compared the Zeta win with Elvis' emergence as a black-sounding, hip-swiveling pop star. "The King" appropriated what black performers had been doing for decades in obscurity, because their sound and movements were gross, nasty and below consideration...until they were cleaned up by the white face of a handsome, Southern mama's boy.

Black folks have good reason not to trust white folks appropriating our culture. But we're going to have to get over it. This dabbling in each other's culture is what integration is all about. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains:
Now, as a friend of mine would say, this is the kind of post that explains everything but, ultimately, excuses nothing. Some years ago black people made the choice to integrate. Martin Luther King Jr. was the clearest symbol of the black desire to be part of this country. That's fine. But I'm skeptical of the notion that you get to integrate on your terms. You can't, on the one hand, complain about the public schools in your neighborhood, and then be pissed when white people move in because the schools have improved.

My son is part of a football organization here in Harlem. There are several age-groups on the team. In the first year we were so-so, and we had, maybe, one white kid in an organization of about 150 kids. But word got out that we were a respectable bunch, and the next year there were maybe ten white kids. That year one of our age-groups won the local championship and got a trip to Florida. Word got out, and this year, while the team is still predominantly black/Puerto-Rican/Dominican, there were so many white kids that I could no longer count them. No matter your race, when you make something good, people come. That's capitalism.

I don't know much about other immigrant groups, but I'd bet money that the movement of the Italians, the Irish etc. was fraught with the same sort of cultural compromise, if to a lesser degree. It'd be interesting to see to what extent, say a century ago, the country discriminated against the white ethnics, even as it appropriated their culture. Intuition tells me that this is what happens as you try to make your way in. Read more..
I should point out, though appropriation of minority culture has different implications than assimilation into majority culture, black folks aren't the only ones who want to hold on to what we think of as ours. Consider the sturm und drang over people of color in sports--the begrudging way athletes like Venus, Serena and Tiger were greeted in their respective and historically white sports, the lamentations over perceived over-representation of Latinos in baseball. This wariness is the price we pay for living together. Nobody said this would be easy.


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