When I was accepted into Syracuse University in 2014, I was elated. With blue and orange came my ticket out of the Confederate hell that was life in Charleston, South Carolina. At the time, my parents’ biggest concern was the Princeton Review’s label of SU as “The No.1 Party School.”
Little did I know my time at SU would be book-ended by another big news story: SU’s chapter of the Theta Tau fraternity getting suspended and later expelled over racist, ableist and homophobic remarks.
On a hot and sticky day in August, my family drove up to “the Hill” to move me in. I was an awkward and socially anxious black girl who loved Marvel and metal music too much. But I found my friends soon enough. Through my freshman year roommate, I met a cache of edgy, NYC-slicker, photography major friends — all of which were queer and Latinx.
Their presence and lack of apology was refreshing: I had been the only black girl in my private Catholic school’s graduating class of 170-some kids. And never mind dust-coated tales of Fort Sumter and John C. Calhoun, the legacy of American politics was alive and breathing in homeroom. Boys boasted Confederate bumper stickers in their lockers where pin-ups of Megan Fox should have been. Ingenious peers slipped defiant Confederate belt buckles into the loops of our strict uniforms.
Next to the artsy, diverse crew found through my roommate, I began making friends by working on a black campus publication, Renegade Magazine. I hit up LGBT events, organized by SU’s historic Pride Union. As a freshman, the fact SU boasted loads of groups, like Asian Students in America and Disability Student Union, made the school seem pretty progressive. And don’t get me wrong, relative to a lot of American schools, it is.
But since day one, I was also tipped off to the fact that SU has work to do. Right before I stepped foot on campus, the school abruptly closed its Advocacy Center over the summer. The shuttering of this office, which provided counseling and resources to sexual assault survivors, was done without consulting students, faculty or staff.
A few months later, in November 2014, a group of students called THE General Body staged an 18-day sit-in. The students were advocating for fossil fuel divestment, for more mental health resources and against the defunding of SU’s chapter of the POSSE Foundation. But instead of seeing these students as champions of social justice issues, SU’s administration saw them as problem. School officials met with students briefly. But ultimately, they tried to usher protesters out with a campus-wide email and by intimidation tactics, such as hand-delivering copies of the conduct code with students’ names on them.
All the glitter of multicultural organizations and gloss of the Chancellor’s Workgroup on Diversity + Inclusion started to dim for me. Signing up for classes on transnational feminism, and race and literary texts in 20th century America also didn’t help.
But it was seeing SU’s hierarchy of privilege in action that really shattered the school’s pristine image for me. It’s the mirth in kids mock international students with shitty, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Chinese accents in class down-times. It’s the ease with which anonymous racists on Yik Yak billed Latinx students (and their allies) “monkeys” during my sophomore year.
It’s the way that — instead of reflecting on this country’s legacy of violence against black and brown bodies — white students stopped, pointed and laughed at the students staging a die-in on SU’s promenade during my junior year.
It’s moments like a frat boy casually calling his friend a “faggot” as he sat across from me and my “Make America Gay Again” stickered laptop this past weekend.
So, no, I wasn’t too astonished when I combed through my school inbox last Wednesday morning and perused the chancellor’s email. Neither were my peers. What was more curiosity-inducing was that I was hearing from our chancellor first. And, of course, there was the looming question: When we could see the video?
Soon enough, details started pouring in. In the video, the Theta Tau brothers had said, “I solemnly swear to always have hatred in my heart for n*ggers, sp*cs and most importantly the f*ckin’ k*kes.” That Theta Tau brothers had quipped, “He’s drooling out of his mouth because he’s r*tarded in a wheelchair.” That they had mentioned, “… Get together and (talk) about their significant others while drinking different wines and talking in gay girly accents.”
While my empathy for other human beings isn’t predicated on personal connections, it’s important to note that I am a bisexual black woman, who strives to be an ally to students with disabilities as well as my Jewish siblings. There is no version of this story where the words that came out of those Theta Tau brothers’ mouths don’t turn my stomach.
And sure, I’ve read the comments and have been told to my face the devil’s argument that it was all in good fun.
In the days following, “the Theta Tau thing” has been the elephant in the room. When I run into someone I haven’t seen in a long time, they’ll regard me with tense eyes and furrowed brow to ask, “How are you doing?” — but with a heavier weight than finals, what thot attire to wear to to a block party or the post-grad job search. And I’ll tell them where I am, but not without asking about them, too. It’s like uncorking a bottle of shaken-up champagne, the emotions will just froth out of them.
Of course, the story served as a great practical application in my communications law class, but I didn’t really get to discuss it until I went to my poetry workshop. We get so vulnerable in those three hours a week anyway, so there was the foundation of it being a “safe space.” People spoke their piece about SU’s culture of hegemony, and about the ins and outs of Greek life. One of my peers had been quiet for the whole discussion until she busted out with the, “I don’t think those kids really meant what they said.”
Yes, I read what SU’s chapter of Theta Tau said about the sketch being satire, but for satire, those videos were real … unfunny.
And you know, I bet not all Theta Tau members are horrible people — not even in SU’s chapter. I’m sure those men are pleasant enough. But watching those videos will just make you wonder: What kind of person feels comfortable reveling in their privilege and throwing those kinds of racial slurs? Maybe those brothers didn’t mean it, but what kind of person casually makes anti-Semitic references to showers and jokes about sexual assault?
I didn’t have any particular, concrete feelings about Theta Tau before these videos came to light. I did, on the other hand, have my mind made up about SU’s culture in regard to identity and privilege.
I also know that that even if SU’s administration has a precedent of PR spin and putting band-aids on systemic issues, SU’s student community is resilient — its activist gene even more so.
In less than two hours, a group of student leaders mobilized over 500 students to convene at Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University @syracuseu on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. By midnight, the student-led forum had listened to five hours of testimony and actively recorded action items recommended by the student body present. Founder and Curator of @brownmujeresmedia, WhenSheWrote, was invited to moderate (co-facilitate) the evening’s gathering. The events unfolding at Syracuse University have been covered by countless news outlets—including the @nytimes, @washingtonpost, @cnn, @bbcnews, @newyorkpost, @ajplus, @the.root, @nbcnews, @vice, @fusiontv, @jezebel, @teenvogue and @dailyorange. . #RecognizeUS #RecognizeUsSU #WheresKent? #ISolemnlySwear #Commit2Commit #RecognizeUsMovement #WheresTheVideoSU #Syracuse | Video source: Snapchat
The easy route is to be pessimistic. But, personally, it’s hard to be when looking at Instagram posts and live stories of classmates mobilizing. Flicking through photo galleries, I see friends storming the promenade. There are familiar faces rallying at the chancellor’s house and Hendricks Chapel in Youtube videos.
This crowd is massive. Changing "Hey hey! Ho ho! Theta Tau has got to go." pic.twitter.com/zUHF9zW23f— Kennedy Rose (@KennedyWrites) April 18, 2018
In a perversely “intersectional,” elitist fashion, Theta Tau targeted so many of the groups that pump the life-blood into campus, and we’re just not having it. Students from a wide array of backgrounds, especially in SU’s Greek life, are now coming together to demand justice and for our school to recognize them. Student Association President James Franco and Vice President Angie Pati have called for a Greek life audit.
Now, the consensus seems, we’re waiting for expulsions and those Theta Tau brothers’ day in court.If no justice further than a chapter expulsion or filed complaints will be served, I hope the hurt and outrage will be more than a conversation starter or a passing PR nightmare. Moving forward, this wave of activism should be a reminder that the students targeted in Theta Tau’s video won’t disrespected and walked on. We’re going to hold all facets of campus life accountable when it comes to making SU a more inclusive space.