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Column: Students in Greek Life aren’t too young to learn about race

A woman crosses Columbia St in front of Fraternity Court on March 28, 2021.

Earlier this month, several University officials received letters from Republican lawmakers outraged at a diversity program that fraternity and sorority members attended in October. 

Rep. Jon Hardister, the N.C. House majority whip who tweeted a copy of the letter addressed to Chancellor Guskiewicz, described the contents of the program as “divisive and offensive” and wrote that it was more “indoctrination” than education. Hardister disapproved of what he calls “propaganda” making college students feel guilty for being white.

This vexation around the programming for students in Greek life duplicates the national conversation on Critical Race Theory, anti-intellectualism in higher education and — above all else – white fragility. 

The presentation, given by an activist from Social Responsibility Speaks, had gone viral at the time for its component on ableism. An image of the presentation that focused on right-hand privilege was ridiculed as satire. The mocking of this critique of ableism can also be found in the lawmaker’s letter, which trivialized the subject — as it does with white supremacy. 

Opposition to education given through this kind of programming and minimizing of issues concerned with white supremacy, racism and ableism are aligned with the national conversation on teaching Critical Race Theory in schools. 

Parents, school boards and government officials around the country are immersed in deep debate around how students should be taught about our country’s history. Critical Race Theory has a specific context that emphasizes discrimination in the legal system, but has been taken up to mean broad discussions of systemic oppression.

Critics of the inclusion of Critical Race Theory in schools maintain that by acknowledging our differences, we intensify division and mistrust of each other. This denunciation follows former President Donald Trump who issued an executive order banning diversity training for federal workers while he was in office. The order was reversed by President Biden in March of this year. 

Since then, Republican legislators across 28 states have taken steps to restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in classrooms. 

A little closer to home, North Carolina Republicans passed a bill in September designed to place similar limitations on educators. The bill, entitled “Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination/Schools,” outlines several rules that prohibit certain concepts. 

These include:

  • the promotion of the superiority of a certain race over others
  • the belief that individuals are inherently racist based on their skin color
  • the idea of racial privilege or that the United States was created by a particular race and sex or that individuals of a particular race or sex should feel guilty for their identity 

Critique of the bill highlights the potential censorship, and the overstepping of legislators trying to fix a problem in state curriculum that was never an issue before it became a hot topic in politics. 

The transformation of race education into a topic of the fierce political contest is reminiscent of a broader theme of anti-intellectualism in American political culture. There is an innate distrust of not just this one theory, but of anything that can be labeled as remotely liberal and is a product of higher education.

Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, institutionalized racism and white supremacy are real-life phenomena, backed by the lived experiences of non-white people. The tireless work of scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and Derrick Bell simply dissect truths that are already there. 

Despite all evidence and a long history of racism in the U.S. and American South, conservative politicians have turned education into a battleground to invalidate it.

The debate around Critical Race Theory in schools also raises the question about what age students should be when they learn about race. CBS News, attempting to promote a new documentary on the subject, tweeted a question asking, “How young is too young to teach kids about race?” 

The tweet had over 9,000 quote tweets with various users, including Nikole Hannah-Jones and Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., who both point out the hypocrisy of the notion that children should be protected from this sort of education. 

Asking how young students need to be to learn about race obviously does not refer to Black students that are made conscious of race at a young age, both inside and outside the classroom. 

In her tweet, Bernice talks about losing her father at a young age. She did not need to learn about racism in school because her life was altered when Dr. King was assassinated for trying to improve the civil rights of African Americans. Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was gunned down for playing with a toy gun in public. Michael Brown was 18 years old when he was killed by Darren Wilson on the streets of Ferguson. Gianna Floyd was only 7 years old when she took to the stand in the murder case of her father George Floyd. 

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These individuals were not even college-aged when they were confronted with harsh lessons on racism that in some cases, ended their life.

UNC students should not be unwilling to engage in difficult discussions about race. Our DEI training and conversations should center the experiences of Black students, but Greek-life students and GOP leaders in the state have become tied up in a political culture war about these topics instead.

Fears around diversity training/programming and lessons on racism and systems of oppression in schools are actually about teaching white students about the privilege of whiteness. 

As social justice movements become more mainstream and our country takes small steps to address centuries of wrongdoing, anxieties from those who have power become more apparent. The desire of white lawmakers to ignore our country’s ugly history of racism and sexism accents the very privilege they wish to disregard. Additionally, their confusion of white people and whiteness demonstrates that they could benefit from a lesson supported by Critical Race Theory. 

Students in fraternities and sororities are not too young to learn about race. They shouldn’t need mandatory training to become invested in how race, gender, class, sexuality and ability play into benefiting and harming different groups. 

It’s a privilege to even have the opportunity to have these issues explained rather than learning as you go as someone who lives with the consequences of not being an able-bodied, cishet, rich white man in this country.

This privilege is perhaps felt most by white members of Greek life at a predominantly white institution. Fraternities and sororities at UNC are overwhelmingly white, with a long history of racial segregation as institutions. Additionally, within the realms of a PWI, it can be easy to insulate oneself within your own whiteness, and to never critically challenge your ideas of race amidst the homogeneity of your social circles. 

Thus, it is doubly important for introspective and thoughtful conversations about racial equity to happen among students in Greek life.

If these students are too young to learn about the real world and the role that discrimination plays in it, what does that say for minority students who can’t feign the comfort of ignorance? The outcry on the teaching of this topic underscores fear around race and the refusal to reckon with one’s own whiteness — proving how crucial and necessary it is in the first place. 

@_zarialyssa | @caitlyn_yaede |

Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.