Interestingly, there are other white men who had similar eye-opening experiences as the BuzzFeed Try Guys, but then actually ended up becoming members of a black fraternity.
My friend and fraternity brother, C. Rob Shorette II, is one such guy. He is white. He is also in a fraternity founded by and for black men. Rob might be a statistical exception to the rule, but there are others like him and their connection runs deeper than the color of their skin. The stories of men like Rob are examples of how black fraternities have been pillars of the black community while simultaneously transcending race to unite what might seem like an unlikely group of men through a shared commitment to social justice.
I recently collaborated with Rob on a project that explored the reasons white men choose to pursue membership in a black fraternity and what their experiences have been like as duly initiated brothers.Photo: Courtesy of Rob Shorette
Before we get in too deep, for those of you who are reading this and might not be familiar with Black fraternities, it's worth mentioning briefly when and how these organizations came to be. In the early 1900s, five fraternities were founded on college campuses in New York, Indiana, Maryland and the District of Columbia, all for the purpose of supporting the social and academic success of black male college students. At a time in our country's history when support systems for black men at most college campuses were nearly impossible to come by (especially at predominantly white institutions), these fraternities served as models of fellowship, academic excellence, safety and service to their communities.
Only a few weeks ago, Rob noticed a comment from a friend on Facebook responding to a picture of him with his fraternity brothers that said, "A white Alpha?"
This is not an uncommon reaction, and after the initial shock wears off, the unavoidable questions that usually come next for men like Rob go something like this:
"You are white. Why would you join a black fraternity?" Or, "What is it like...you know...being the only white guy?"
The late Dr. Bernard Levin, the first white man to be initiated into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., was asked these questions, too. Levin said that he was drawn to Alpha in the 1940s because it engaged in constructive community activity, and was explicit in his belief that predominantly white fraternities at that time “had nothing to offer except social affairs."
My research findings, as well as informal interactions with our peers, suggest that not much has changed: The reasons white men like Rob join Black fraternities now are the same as some of the first white men to ever join.
The white men I studied told me that they were uninterested in the activities of many predominantly white fraternities, which they viewed as primarily concerned about "drinking and partying." Instead, these white men wanted to be with other men who they believed to be like-minded and shared a commitment to racial and social justice. And the process of learning about the rich histories of these organizations — rooted in addressing the educational and political injustices faced by African Americans — led them to believe that a black fraternity best aligned with their own values despite not being black themselves.
For many of these white men, diversity and inclusion are guiding principles, so, in their eyes, black fraternities get it right. Unlike predominantly white fraternities, the history of racial discrimination and exclusion is not there. In fact, the white men I studied told me the exact opposite: Their brothers embraced them and uplifted them in ways they hadn't experienced from other white people.
The BuzzFeed Try Guys pointed out in their video that their experience stepping with the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha was surely not going to cure racism. Likewise, neither will the white men who joined black fraternities alone solve our country's deep-seated problems with racial inequality. Because when it comes down to it, black fraternities do not exist for the purposes of racial reconciliation — they still serve the very important purpose of supporting the social and economic well-being of black communities. And certainly, there are those who have their concerns with white men threatening one of the few remaining spaces founded by and for people of color.
However, there is something to be said about the fact that these men had every opportunity to participate in predominantly white, traditionally racist spaces in which many white people find comfort, but didn't. Instead, these white men wanted to join up with black men they viewed as trailblazers and leaders in the causes of humanity, freedom and dignity of the individual. If nothing else, the experiences of these white men demonstrate how influential historically black organizations are, both to the black communities they were created to serve and in lighting the way to more positive interracial and intercultural understandings.
The lead author, Kourtney Gray, Ph.D., is the Director of the LEAD Living Learning Center at Baylor University. His co-author, C. Rob Shorette II, Ph.D., is the Senior Research & Policy Analyst at The Campaign for College Opportunity. Follow Kourtney on Twitter @deluxelife and Rob @C_RobShorette.