by Mary Lind and Nicole Wagner

Photo from URI Greek Life’s website.

The University of Rhode Island’s chapter of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority was suspended after a video of three now-graduated members lip-synching to racial slurs surfaced, but some community members believe this video is just one example of a larger problem regarding diversity in Greek Life.

The sisters in the video were suspended on June 6. The Alpha Delta Pi National Organization is conducting an investigation regarding a viral video in which three sorority alumnae lip-synced the n-word multiple times to “Freaky Friday” by Lil Dicky and Chris Brown.  These sisters have since seen their Alpha Delta Pi memberships suspended alongside a current undergraduate member at the University. The video, which was made in 2018, surfaced in early June 2020, but the national organization has also asked the chapter to respond to a Halloween photo of two white sisters dressed as Black rappers Quavo and Travis Scott posted on Instagram in 2019.  

The investigation, according to The Alpha Delta Pi National Organization, includes asking the chapter executive board for details and evidence of the event as well as a plan to rectify the situation and interviews with University administrators. 

The suspended sisters could see membership cancellation during the investigation and process of membership review, according to Beth Wright, the senior director of marketing & communications for the national organization.

“Alpha Delta Pi recognizes the responsibility we have to hold our members accountable to understanding the harm caused from their actions,” Wright said, “and to educate members to prevent actions not aligned with our values from happening again.”

The URI chapter declined to comment when contacted by the Cigar for this story.

Jay, who asked to only be identified by her first name, was a sister in the URI chapter from her junior year until she graduated in 2018. Having just transferred from Rhode Island College, Jay hoped to find new friends and a sense of community by rushing a sorority; she was interested in becoming involved in charity work and eventing planning, but had also hoped that she could help unify the student body through Greek Life .

“Even though URI seemed to really promote diversity, it still felt like the campus was somewhat segregated and I couldn’t fit in,” Jay said, “I’m a half-Black, half-white woman. I didn’t feel comfortable on either side of that spectrum at URI because it wasn’t integrated.” 

Jay hoped to create a diversity chair in the sorority to combat these issues. However, her efforts to establish a diversity chair were never realized. 

“Nobody got back to me or even cared to elaborate on even thinking about starting a new chair to add to the sorority to possibly open things up,” Jay said. “They said no, you know, they ignored me. They sideswiped me every time they got [when I tried] to get together and change things.”

During house meetings, she said that she often experienced harassment because of her race.

“[During meetings they would say things like] we’re all a bunch of white bitches,” she said, “and then somebody would just yell out, ‘not Jay though!’ and everybody would just talk, [and start] cracking up laughing.”

When Jay first joined, she was driving older sisters home from a party one night — something she said the new pledges are frequently tasked with — and the song “Caroline” by rapper Aminé came on. According to Jay, the sisters, who were all white, sang along to the racial slurs.

“I literally pulled over and was like, ‘you can get out of my car,’” Jay said.

The next day, she was called to a meeting, where Jay said she was asked why she told them to get out of her car. 

“It was just frustrating,” Jay said, “it felt like nobody was there to hear me.”

Jay lived in the house because she couldn’t commute and it was more cost efficient than living in a dorm. 

“I was backed into a corner of, you know, I [had] to stay around these people who are bullying me or making racist comments,” Jay said. “And I [wanted] to get a degree. I felt like I wasn’t a part of the sorority because they made me feel that way [with] what they said and what they did with their actions.”

The issue of underrepresentation of women of color in sororities was identified as an issue last fall by Panhellenic Council leaders at the University, according to Assistant Dean of Students Steve Simo. 

“An effort was made to expand the opportunities in Spring 2020 with the purpose of recruiting a more diverse membership,” said Simo. “A new partnership with Panhel and PINK was formed and a new program was to be held after spring break.”

These efforts were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simo also acknowledged the hurt that the video has brought to the URI community. 

“[The video] certainly provokes a negative visceral reaction for all of us, [and] the content is being taken very seriously and ensuing investigations have been initiated,” said Simo.“We realize it is painful and it has no place in the community.”

Simo said that, in addition to the national organization, staff from the Greek Life Office, the Office of Community Standards and the Dean of Students Office are working together to address chapter members, and if it is determined that policies were violated by the organization, members will be held accountable.

A Greek Life task force of inclusion and understanding representing diversity across campus has been created so this type of incident never occurs in the future, according to Simo. 

President of the Panhellenic Council at URI Amy Thomas said this task force consisted of leaders from the Black Student Union, Powerful, Independent, Notoriously Knowledgeable (PINK) Women; Brothers On a New Direction (BOND) and Greek Life, in addition to professional staff from the Dean of Students Office and Office of Community Equity and Diversity. The group will work to bring diversity initiatives to campus for both Greek Life and the community overall. This task force was not created as an investigative body, according to Thomas.

“The new task force will create [a] curriculum to bring a more rich understanding of inclusion, pop culture and context to all general members at the chapter level” in addition to other resources, said Simo.

Greek Life students have attended the Diversifying Individuals Via Education (D.I.V.E.) conference for many years, according to Simo. Simo also said that the Greek Life Peer Leaders course (a section of CSV 302) covers the historical context of Greek Life’s formation, which includes the many biases that affected it along with the challenge to address them. 

“It is time for the Greek community to commit to listening, learning, including, teaching, healing and leading,” Simo said, “We will continue to educate our community about the importance of fighting against hate, oppression and discrimination.”

Senior University leadership, which includes President David Dooley, Vice President for Student Affairs Kathy Collins, Chief Diversity Officer Mary Grace Almandrez and others, either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment. However, on June 6, Collins replied to students who shared the video on her public Twitter account. 

“This is horrible and I understand that the language is painful,” Collins said, “The people in the video do not reflect the values of URI and I condemn this language and these acts in the strongest possible way.” 

For Kayla Andrade, a member of Greek Life at the University, the response that the Panhellenic Council and the URI administrators gave felt like, in her words, “an empty promise.”

“[The task force] probably won’t do anything and it will probably just create another level of bureaucracy for that sensitive information to go through before it reaches the top,” Andrade said.

The lack of effort from the University and their leniency in handling the response to this video, Andrade said, has led students to feel pessimistic about its ability to handle such issues, should they be presented in the future. 

“You witnessed this behavior, you heard these words, but nothing was done about it,” Andrade said. “How can we now, going forward, trust that in future incidences they will handle those things when clearly they showed that they [won’t]?” Andrade said.

Jay was also skeptical that any of the efforts from the sorority or Greek Life will lead to any change. 

“If things are to follow suit with what I’ve seen in the past, nothing’s [going to] be done about it, unless they’re really ready to change and start educating people or start getting a diversity chair in there,” said Jay. “It’s not going to change anytime soon unless they really put their foot down.”

Bolu Taiwo, Student Senate Cultural Affairs Committee chair, said that there is more to be done in regards to how the issue was being handled as well.

“I think the people who did the hurting really should reach out to the people who they hurt, and get [those hurt] to be a part of that task force, which I think is a really important step to that,” said Taiwo. 

Lulu Alryati, who served last year as the chair of the Student Senate Cultural Affairs Committee, said she met with Simo to discuss the lack of diversity within sororities. 

“Even the person that is in such a high position didn’t seem to understand why people [of color] weren’t joining Greek Life, and his reasoning for that was a financial burden and a GPA requirement,” Alryati said. “But he pretty much implied that people of color, one, can’t afford it and, two, aren’t smart enough.”

Simo said that what he told Alryati was in reference to the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), the organization of historically Black fraternities and sororities, not being established on campus. He also said that people of color have faced “obstacles” that prevented them from joining Greek Life.

“For many groups, a membership fee of approximately $1,000 during the first year along with a 3.0 or higher is a requirement,” he said. “PINK women was originally an interest group of Sigma Lambda Gamma. The cost and GPA was an obstacle for some women in the interest group. The group ultimately decided to form the local [organization] known as PINK.”

Simo also said during his discussion with Alryati that there was a multicultural recruitment officer position that was created to alleviate this issue, according to Alryati, but when she asked for that officer’s contact information, Simo said that the position was vacant. 

This, along with Simo’s other reasons, stood out to Alryati as “ignorant and pretty much discriminated against people of color.”

“I thought it was kind of ironic that the person who is in charge of recruiting Greek Life members and making Greek Life a community to encompass everyone, he himself wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of getting more diversity,” Alryati said. 

Alexa Ortega, a senior health studies major at URI, mentioned that PINK and BOND, organizations comparative to sororities and fraternities with their recruitment standards and membership retention, are not recognized by the University as legitimate organizations. 

“It’s not like we don’t have the capacity to come together and network and have these fruitful groups that most students do, it’s just that URI genuinely thinks that we can’t commit to it, which is the common trope in my opinion,” Ortega said. “It’s not like we haven’t taken the initiative to try to fix the problem; it is a problem and we do feel it every day. But it’s almost like money talks in a way, so they’re not going to tell us they’re going to shut down a sorority because it’s not diverse when we’re not even paying to be in it in the first place.”

Ortega said that she was put off by the lack of diversity in Greek Life when she first encountered them on First Night.

“I felt like an outsider,” said Ortega. “I felt like a chocolate chip in a big bland cookie. It made me genuinely feel uncomfortable.”

Having people of color in leadership positions instead of “tokens,” Ortega said, could help diversify recruitment in Greek Life.

“I never rushed because I was never interested in being a part of an organization that never involved me,” Ortega said. “I feel like that is a common sentiment of students of color, which is why they gravitate more towards the multicultural organizations.” 

This is an issue that Ortega said she addressed in the past with those in leadership positions at the University such as Collins, Assistant Director of Student Involvement Maureen McDermott and Cheryl Campbell of Student Senate Accounts.

“It’s not a feeling that only I feel, it’s something that is common but is always [pushed] under the rug as an ‘us’ problem, not a problem for the University kind of thing,” said Ortega. 

To alleviate the lack of diversity within Greek Life at the University, Ortega mentioned the efforts of students of color to bring historically Black sororities and fraternities, Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha, on campus. Simo said that bringing NPHC, the governing body of historically Black sororities and fraternities, to campus has been considered by the University. 

“The Greek life office has an open expansion policy,” said Simo. “If students want to bring NPHC groups to campus, they are fully supported by the office. The National organizations have to plan to expand to campus. That tends to slow the process.”

According to Ortega, these groups had shown interest in expanding their branches from Johnson & Wales University to URI two years ago.

“We did all of this work, we recruited all of these people, and Atrium One [of the Memorial Union] was so filled that people had to stand, it was ridiculous, people were creeping in the doors coming in late,” Ortega said. 

Yet, these groups were not brought to URI.

“I honestly feel like the University thinks that we can’t afford to have a historically Black sorority or fraternity on campus without the trope of financial hardships or scholarship offerings,” Ortega said.

This was the first time Ortega said, in her time at the University, that there was an initiative taken to fix the lack of diversity within sororities and that it was disappointing because these efforts did not come to fruition.

This sentiment is shared by other students at the University.

“Nobody listens to us when we try to tell people this campus is not really diverse and these sororities and fraternities are allowed to be racist and be, you know, joking and partying and not really doing anything for the community,” Jay said.

When Jay first saw the video, she thought that it was a “perfect example” of what she had been trying to say all along.

“Nobody believed me before,” said Jay. “Nobody said anything before. So it feels better now that people are finally speaking up and, you know, being angry about it and demanding that the sorority and the University does something about it.”

In a comment on an Instagram post by URI Greek Life in response to the racist video put out by graduated members of Alpha Delta Pi at URI, Ortega mentioned the diversity and multicultural funds that are given to sororities and fraternities.

“Every Greek Life organization receives some sort of funding from the Community, Equity and Diversity Center in order to push diversity, in order to push education and I guess just make sure that they’re upstanding human beings and they’re not selfish and they care somewhat about the world, not necessarily about race, but you know, any intersectional difference,” said Ortega.

Ortega said that this felt like a “slap in the face,” and that the least Greek Life organizations could do would be to collaborate with multicultural organizations or promote these organizations’ events. 

After seeing a lack of people in Greek Life speaking out about the surfaced racist media, Andrade said that she felt that they should be speaking out in support of students who are a part of the URI community, regardless of whether or not they are involved in Greek Life.

“I think it really affects Greek Life as a whole because students who are not a part of Greek Life are not sure exactly what chapter or what organization that you’re representing,” said Andrade. “They see Greek Life as an entire community, one homogenous group. And even though that can be damaging, because every single organization has a different vision for what they see for their chapter, it happened. And you’re guilty by association.”

Ortega also said that sorority members often do not speak up in cases where racist behaviors are exhibited, and they often carry microaggressive behaviors within themselves. Examples of these behaviors Ortega said she and friends have experienced include sisters crossing to the opposite side of the street and moving their bags across the table when seeing students of color, among others.

“When it’s time to stand up for our problems or our issues or any of the conversations that we have on campus, they complain about it,” said Ortega. “They think it’s something that makes them uncomfortable, which I get, being confronted on your white privilege is 1000 percent uncomfortable. But then again, you’ve got to ask yourself, what’s more uncomfortable? Being a white student where there’s white privilege in your institution, or being a student of color at a predominantly white institution in which white privilege still persists?”

In the other chapters of Greek Life on campus, according to Andrade, members are reprimanded immediately after they exhibit behavior that reflects poorly on the organization, such as posting photos where they’re drinking alcohol. She wishes that the same standard would be used when members of Greek organizations engage in racist behaviors.

“That’s how it should be for every chapter,” said Andrade. “We have to hold ourselves to a high standard and make sure that our members have a deterrent to look through and they say ‘oh, that kind of behavior leads to A, B and C so I’m not going to participate in that.’”

Alryati said that she has seen a lack of reprimand when it comes to racially insensitive media posted by sorority sisters, pointing to the incident of racist Halloween costumes at the start of the academic year as well as the more recently resurfaced video from the suspended Alpha Delta Pi members.

“I just don’t understand [why] no disciplinary action was taken against these girls two years ago,” Alryati said. “Why does the video have to resurface, and go viral, for them to realize this is wrong? Why wasn’t it wrong before? Because last I checked, two years ago you still weren’t supposed to say the n-word.” 

Taiwo said that Student Senate is taking this matter seriously and wants to make sure that similar actions don’t happen again or get ignored. 

“I feel like everyone on campus needs to work harder because it’s straining for students of color to constantly be the ones educating people on what’s not right when you know it’s not right,” said Taiwo. 

Student Senate President Austyn Ramsay said that this racist behavior will not be normalized and has no place on URI’s campus.

“I think by holding the people who commit those acts accountable is extremely important and then, again, always speaking out and using our voices and speaking out when injustices happen,” said Ramsay.

Ramsay pointed to the petition created by Student Senate, the Multicultural Unity and Student Involvement Council (MUSIC), the Interfraternity Council (IFC), the Panhellenic Council (Panhel), the American Civil Liberties Union URI (ACLU), the Club Sports and Intramural Council (CSIC) and the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) for students to sign to speak out against racism and support legislation for mandatory diversity training for student organizations recognized by Senate. 

Students had many opinions on what could be done to help fix the lack of diversity and racist issues that have presented themselves from Greek Life. Ramsay, Taiwo, Alryati and others supported the formation of a class to inform people about diversity and microaggressions. In addition, Alryati said that there needs to be more conversation and experience outside the classroom to educate those in the URI community. 

There was also a lot of support for Greek Life to attend and participate in effective conversation at the D.I.V.E. conference which features prominent Black voices such as Leslie Odom Jr. and Comet.

Ortega suggested a mandatory attendance of an event about racial and ethnic identity such as the D.I.V.E. conference as a stepping stone to improve relations at URI through open dialogue about racial issues.

“I don’t think that Greek Life as a whole is a racist or prejudiced unit, I would never say that,” said Ortega. “I feel like people are only limited to their experiences.”

Exposure to these issues is important for educating people on racial and ethnic issues and is imperative to overcoming the cognitive dissonance surrounding it, according to Ortega. 

Kiara Duarte, a sophomore business accounting major, said that she would like to see a proper apology from Alpha Delta Pi about the matter beyond their Instagram post after the video surfaced.

“They actually apologize[d] only in one sentence,” said Duarte. “Everything else had nothing to do with the apology or saying that they’re sorry. So, that was kind of like a slap in the face for people of color in my opinion.”

Ramsay believes this starts with leadership and efforts to create an inclusive and culturally sensitive campus.

“That starts with trainings,” Ramsay said, “and that starts with diversity training and cultural sensitivity trainings speaking on white privilege, speaking on how to hear Black voices on campus and amplify them and make people from the Black and minority community feel involved and included; and not just involved and included, but also appreciated and safe and accepted.”

According to Jay, Greek Life and University leadership need to have open communication about these issues in order for there to be any change. This starts, she said, with education, a diversity chair position within Greek Life organizations and more inclusive events on campus to help URI feel more welcoming for students of color.

“If you’re a transfer student or a student of color or Black or whatever, then you just stay in your diverse group of friends but you’re not expected to rush,” said Jay, “because everybody knows that you’re going to have the experience that I had, and I wish I could go back and say to myself, ‘don’t waste your time on this.’”

She said that can’t be fixed only through Greek Life, though, and that just being aware of the situation isn’t enough. 

“It’s really the responsibility of the University as a whole,” Jay said.

Since the video has been out, Jay has received messages from two of the girls in it.

“They were just varying degrees of denial and claims of like, ‘oh, I’ve been watching the news lately,’ like as if that’s enough to educate somebody on everything that’s been happening in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement and what Black women are dealing with day in and day out,” Jay said. “We still haven’t gotten justice for Breonna Taylor. Every single day, we don’t rest. Everyday another person is dying.”

When the perpetrators of these instances minimize their effects, Jay said, it is harmful to the greater issue of racism by letting people get away with these actions.

“You can’t be allowed to just get away with these things anymore without people realizing who you really are,” she said. “If you want to be racist, then be racist in front of everybody.”