It is no secret that the chapters which make up the National Panhellenic Conference have a history of racism and exclusion. When white women started attending colleges and universities, we saw white men in fraternities enjoying camaraderie and connection, and we asked to join. We were told that we could not join because we were women. Instead of sitting there and taking the exclusion, we created Women’s Fraternities/Sororities to foster belonging and safe spaces for other women on our campuses.
For years after our chapters were founded, Panhellenic and Interfraternity chapters grew and grew, yet refused to allow Black, Indigenous People, LatinX, and Asian, or any non-white person. To build community, what are now known as National Pan-Hellenic and Multicultural Greek umbrella organizations were founded. It took some chapters a full century to allow non-white members to join their chapters, and even the ones who allowed BIPOC to join, we were far from being inclusive and welcoming.
Now, many Panhellenic chapters here at the University of Iowa have members of color, but still, fail them in many ways. One of the main ways in which Panhellenic Recruitment specifically fails BIPOC is through the use of Letters of Recommendation and Legacy Status.
Letters of Recommendation are written by previous members on behalf of Potential New Members to give them an advantage in the recruitment process. While the University of Iowa does not require Letters of Recommendation, when read by chapter members, they are tools that give leverage to one student over the other.
Legacy status is when a Potential New Member has a sister/mother/grandmother who is an alumna of the organization, and this grants the Potential New Member advantages over non-legacies in some way, shape, or form. Most chapters are required to invite legacies to specific rounds of recruitment, regardless of the Potential New Member’s fit in the organization.
Many people do not understand why using Letters of Recommendation and honoring Legacy Status are problematic. Legacy status continues to prioritize those who have always had a place in Panhellenic organizations, namely, white women. Potential New Members who are not white women, and therefore haven’t had the same historical access to our organizations do not have sisters/mothers/grandmothers or even family friends who were part of Panhellenic organizations generations ago, therefore they cannot enjoy the privileges others have. Our chapters excluded these groups from joining, and then turn around and ask, “who do you know in the community?” That doesn’t add up.
I know this can be hard to understand, so let me give you an example. Take Sally, whose mother immigrated to the United States after college, and therefore never joined a Panhellenic chapter. Sally has zero chance of being a legacy and therefore is already at a disadvantage when compared to her fellow Potential New Members when it comes to getting an invitation to the second round of recruitment because chapters are REQUIRED to invite legacies, but not Sally, even if Sally was a better fit. On top of this, Sally’s mother does not have any friends who were in Panhellenic chapters, and therefore Sally does not know any alumni who could write a Letter of Recommendation on her behalf. Sally is starting recruitment at an incredible disadvantage when compared with her white peers.
This system is full of racism and exclusion, and it is incredibly important that we not only name it but aim to work against it. I would ask any chapter still honoring legacy status and Letters of Recommendation to re-evaluate their policies and procedures.
It would be naïve to think that eliminating legacies and letters of recommendation is enough to solve the long history and systems we built based on racism and exclusion is enough, but I believe it is a tangible start.