Dear white, former high school classmates: did/do black lives matter?

Do black lives matter?

Recently I shared my blog post “When the USC Sigma Chi’s called me nigger” with my former high school classmates via our Facebook group. The story was quite timely, I felt, given the country’s current conversation surrounding race, as prompted by the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

For me, like many in Indianapolis North Central’s Class of 1980, life after high school meant college, and as we made that transition exactly forty summers ago, I received a very important lesson about how many of my white peers viewed me, and by extension, all African Americans: days after arriving at the University of Southern California, someone from the Sigma Chi house hurled the racial epithet towards me (and a handful of black students) and it crushed my heart.

After sharing my 2010 blog post with my Class of ’80 classmates in 2020, I received many comments expressing sorrow and empathy for what I experienced as a freshman entering college.

However, as many white Americans confront the disproportionate amount of police brutality against blacks – and by extension, the disproportionate amount of hatred, racism, and systematic oppression of blacks – I felt the need to respond to those generally supportive comments with more than “thank you,” so here goes.

Dear former classmates, 

I appreciate your heartfelt words of support and compassion.

I also know that many of you were in fraternities and sororities that were all-white, just like the USC Sigma Chi’s. No blacks. No Latinos. No Asians. No Native Americans. Just white folk. 

Additionally, in high school, some of you were in those somewhat infamous “girls social clubs,” which emulated sororities and bore names like Dolls, Queen of Hearts, and Gals. And which also happened to be all white at our fairly integrated school. (Which, by the way, used to have “all-white boys” social clubs, until their rivalries began disrupting boys athletics.)

Point: if you did nothing to integrate the groups to which you belonged, you were part of the problem.

You made not have called me nigger, but your actions did.

(One of you mentioned trying to effect change within your fraternity before leaving it. Thank you for making that effort. Sincerely.)

To those that went along with the de facto segregation of your Greek Systems: you were like the cops who stood by and did nothing while their fellow cop put a knee to George Floyd’s neck and snuffed out his life and aspirations.

By joining an organization that was all white, you became part of a system that pre-excluded me and all other blacks. Translation, you were complicit in telling the USC Sigma Chi’s: it’s perfectly all right to call black people “niggers” (and instead of being reprimanded, your comment will be received as an uproarious joke).

“I, too, perpetuated your systematically racist girls clubs in high school…”

Yes, you were part of the problem, not only for me but for every black student who had dreams of being part of your system, which is to say, part of your lives, which is to say, part of your American dream.

You were complicit in sending me and all black people (and indeed, all people) a message opposite “black lives matter,” a message that said black students are not worthy of your time, your friendship, and especially, your brotherly and sisterly energy and love.

In essence – whether or not you realized it then, whether or not you acknowledge it now – just by being part of an all-white organization, you are calling me and all black people “niggers.”

Case in point: none of the “niggers” I was with that night at USC were shocked that we were being called “niggers.” We already understood we weren’t welcomed to rush your houses, to walk down your Greek row, to believe that you saw us as equal. As I stated in my story, I already knew fraternities and sororities had a policy of “no blacks” after receiving a USC Greek System booklet over the summer.

The crushing disappointment I felt that night came from knowing how much open hostility still existed … in California, and by extension, Indiana, and every fraternity and sorority my (white) former Panther classmates were now joining, perpetuating systematic racism, just as they had in high school with all-white clubs, like Dolls, Queen of Hearts, Gals, etc.

(Note: I, too, perpetuated your systematically racist girls clubs in high school by not shining a critical spotlight on this issue while editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, something I cop to in my post “On colorblind white people.”)

Fortunately for me, my vision on matters of race keeps evolving and improving with age.

So while I appreciate your support and empathy for the anguish I experienced shortly after we graduated high school forty summers ago, I can’t help but wonder how many of you have not summoned one ounce of energy to change your world, so that all-white boys and girls clubs no longer exist in high school, so that no white fraternity or sorority member – anywhere, at any time, including this very moment – ever feels it necessary to degrade another student by calling him or her nigger (preferably because the organization is so integrated, they’re enlightened, not because calling someone a nigger out loud is politically incorrect).

Your actions speak a lot louder than your words.

If you truly want to make a difference beyond the comments of support, if black lives matter to you, take your metaphorical knee off the necks of black people.

Do you still belong to your fraternity, sorority, or social club? Are they still ridiculously-disproportionately all white? Do you belong to any organization that is all white? What do you think that tells everyone who isn’t white? What do you think that tells everyone who’s white? What does that say about you, if you’re not fighting to end that injustice?

Now that you may have a little better understanding of how much staying in your all-white bubble oppresses me and people like me – indeed snuffs out the life and aspirations of people like me – what else can you be, besides a person who doesn’t make a difference?

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