White Sorority Wins Major Step Competition: PostRacial or Just Wrong?

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

So we’ve been getting lots of emails about this, both from readers and friends – in late February Zeta Tau Alpha , a predominantly white sorority, beat out three black sororities at the Sprite Step-Off, nabbing the $100,000 prize and honours as the best step team in the country.

This caused an immediate backlash. In the video below, as soon as the second place winner is revealed you can hear the crowd booing while other audience members begin walking out:

Five days later, in an (alleged) panic Sprite announced that there was a scoring discrepancy, allowing them to announce a tie and give another $100,000 to the second place winners, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

For readers who don’t know about stepping and black sororities and fraternities, Lawrence Ross explains on CNN what it means to have a white sorority beat black greek associations at a massive, televised step comp:

To understand why this is a big deal, you have to understand that African-American fraternities and sororities are as close to the Animal House stereotype attached to white fraternities as Pat Boone is to hip-hop. Black fraternities and sororities, known as the Divine Nine, form the fiber of African-American leadership in this country and continue to produce the leaders of tomorrow.

…The roster of Divine Nine members is a Who’s Who in African America: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Michael Jordan, Maya Angelou, Dorothy Height and over a million others count themselves as members. The civil rights movement is populated with Divine Nine members who developed leadership skills on college campuses… Pride in one’s organization is paramount to Divine Nine members, and one way to express that is through stepping.

Divine Nine fraternities and sororities take great pride in being original and innovative in their dances: highly coordinated, with elaborate costumes, and sometimes performed before thousands. It’s a point of pride to perform, but to win for the glory of your fraternity or sorority is the ultimate.

So when Zeta Tau Alpha members won the Sprite Step Off, it was not just that they’d beaten African-American sororities, it was seen as the first assault on yet another African-American cultural tradition that, if not guarded, would be appropriated from blacks like jazz and hip-hop.

For Sprite, Zeta Tau Alpha was enough of a racial minefield to justify spending an extra $100,000 to quiet folks down. Ok, so that’s just speculation.

But there’s been a backlash to the backlash. Several prominent black journalists (including Lawrence Ross) have chastised the black greek community for complaining about the white win.  Jason Whitlock writes that the case of Zeta Tau Alpha shows that “the moral of the story will be that black people have no issue with being just as discriminatory as the white power structure they rail against.”  This thread on Bossip is full of commenters saying that it is racist for Bossip to have a problem with Zeta Tau Alpha’s win.

Do I think Zeta Tau Alpha deserved to win? I don’t know a lot about stepping, but I’m going to trust the judges and I assume they were amazing.   But do I think they should have won?

Well, no.

Writing for the Root, Lawrence Ross says:

The problem with the arguments presented by the critics is that they tend to gloss over the question of whether the Zeta Tau Alpha steppers were actually better than their competition. Instead, most of the criticism has been reactionary and sought to deny Zeta Tau Alpha the opportunity to compete based solely on their skin color.

By doing that, black Greeks do a disservice to our historic legacy. African-American fraternities and sororities were born in circumstances that sought to combat judgments based on race. And to do the same as those who would deny us opportunity, based on the notion that we’re somehow protecting our black cultural integrity, is morally bankrupt.

The problem with this argument is that it lacks context.  Not historical context on stepping – Ross wrote the book on that, literally – but racial and political context.  As Ross states, black fraternities and sororities came up as spaces for black students to be together, necessary in a racist climate.  Well, it’s not as if that racist climate has disappeared.  I am not sure if there are black frats and sororities at UCSD – if there aren’t, they sure could use some.

When Whitlock argues that black folks who would deny a white step team step awards is bigoted, and akin to white folks who support segregation, he’s suggesting that systemic racism no longer exists.  In my book, the only way you can be racist is if you have the institutional power to be racist.   The fact that black folks have more presence within the world of stepping than white folks, does not delete the barrier that racism creates for black folks in many other arenas.  And you don’t have institutional power in bits and pieces – even if stepping is dominated by black folks, it exists within a racist context.  This means that even within the step world, black folks don’t have institutional power.  Stepping doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

When white folks don’t want black folks to participate in something, that’s racist. When black folks don’t want white folks to participate in something, it is not racist.  That’s right! And no, this is not because I have a delusional double standard.  In order for this to be a double standard, white and black folks would have to have to same level of power universally.  But instead power relations in our society continue to extend far far more opportunities to white folks than to black folks, or any other folks of colour.

I would have no problem with a white team winning at a historically black competition, if black students (and other students of colour) were excelling at every mainstream (read:white) college turn.  Instead, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has multiple statistics showing that black students have lower rates of graduation, citing racism, lack of space for supportive black campus communities, and strained family finances as reasons for this discrepancy.  And if/when black students do graduate, it’s not like skin colour disappears.  This New York Times article from the end of last year states that:

the unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.

Racism hampers all students of colour.  Similar stats exist for black and non-black Latin@ students, and let’s not forget the recent admissions data we’ve seen about Asian American students.

Stepping and black fraternities and sororities exist to give black students a reprieve from these barriers, and a space to be together and celebrate who they are.  As a non-black person of colour, I wish I had that – if anyone is setting up dance competitions for mixed race SoutheastAsian/Irish/Canadian women, let me know.

When top honours in such a space go to a white team, it is not an aberration or a historic event – it is a repeat of what happens all day every day, outside of that very small space.  While I am absolutely sure that Zeta Tau Alpha are a great stepping team, they are still part of the dominant culture and reap its benefits, while black students bear its brunt.  Being told that you are inferior to white folks all the time takes its toll – as the struggles of black students to achieve academic success demonstrates.  Being told that you are inferior to white folks, within the place that you built to get away from such constant rejection? That cuts deep.

An academic I know bristles whenever teaching positions in minority literature go to white academics.  Can white academics teach minority lit? I’m sure they can.  But can they get jobs in every other lit position? Yes. Is it harder for academics of colour to get, say, Victorian Lit positions? Yes it is.  So until that difference is rectified, the few positions of honour that can go to people of colour, should go to people of colour.

I went to the sold-out semifinals of the Sprite Step-Off at Texas Southern University in Houston, where Zeta Tau Alpha went on to qualify for the finals* in Atlanta. It was a great night.  The crowd was deliriously happy.  And most of the night was spent executing Texas hip hop dance crazes, like the Mr Hit Dat, the Flex and the Halle Berry.  These dances may be redonculous, but they are also cultural rituals that above all express proud membership and belonging.  In other words, it was clear to me that part of the joy of that night derived from the chance for these black college students to be together, and celebrate each other and the culture they and their elders had built together.  There are so few spaces for young people of colour to do that.

When the entire college experience is a space for all kinds of youth to celebrate their personness, then it will be racist to complain when a white team like Zeta Tau Alpha wins a step competition.  But black president or no, that day is a long way away.  I look forward to it – even though it means I will be out of a job.

*Alas I actually missed their performance – I left in the middle of Lupe Fiasco’s number.  I just don’t care for him. I did however, get to see Latoya Luckett, which was just delightful.