CSWAC Blog

Doing Multiculturalism – An Example

What does multiculturalism look like in practice? Much has been written about multiculturalism as an ideology. But how do people and organizations actually make it happen? Real world examples occur, but detailed reports of what takes place are rare. One researcher began to fill this void by studying a multicultural sorority chapter (MCS) on the campus of a predominantly white (85%), midwestern university.

Greek letter organizations (GLOs) play a prominent role in the social life of students on many campuses nationwide. Historically white-centered GLOs have a troubled past of racist and exclusionary practices, leading to identity-based GLOs forming for black, Latinx, and Jewish students respectively. The trend has continued with Asian, Native American, and gay GLOs. A small number of multicultural Greek letter organizations also exist nationally.

The local chapter under study, MCS, was founded by five black and two biracial women in the mid-2000s. At the time of the study, they were joined by white (8), black (5), Asian (3), Latina (1) and biracial (2) members.

Campus authorities initially resisted the formation of MCS, believing that existing organizations could serve the founding members’ needs instead. The members were clear in their purpose and persisted. Eventually campus administration welcomed the presence of MCS, and even praised them.

Aside from its multicultural focus, MCS was in many ways typical of GLOs, and the sorority functioned within the GLO framework on campus. The national organization had “colors, a motto, rituals, and a national philanthropy…” To join MCS, “initiates had to know information about the national organization, the [MCS] chapter, and its members, and to explain their personal commitment to MCS’s multicultural goals.” Prospective members were encouraged to “deepen their understanding of their own culture(s) and then share those stories with MCS.”

Despite several years of diversity initiatives, the campus remained overwhelmingly white. Students of all races self-segregated. The prevailing campus climate was one of colorblindness. As in other settings where a colorblind racial ideology prevails, white students, in particular, were often reluctant to discuss race. In interviews with the researcher, they actively avoided naming the racial background of their friends even when asked. When reflecting on the racial homogeneity of their friends, students would claim it was happenstance. When discussing “diversity,” they failed to name race among differences. Students displayed discomfort when the researcher raised race as a topic.

Members of MCS actively pushed back against the prevailing colorblind ideology on campus. The researcher found:

Sorority members practiced multiculturalism in three main ways: (1) recognizing and valuing difference, (2) teaching and learning through formal programs and informal interactions, and (3) linking diverse individuals and organizations through friendships and organizational alliances.

RECOGNIZING AND VALUING DIFFERENCES

In contrast to a colorblind approach, MCS members openly discussed and embraced racial differences, even making a point of public display by appearing together as a racially diverse group.

When I asked Angela, a black member, why she worked to found the sorority, she said it was “awesome” that “I can have black sisters, I can have white sisters, I could have Jewish [sisters]—I can have every kind of sister I want to have.

Members’ understanding of difference extended both beyond and within race. They adopted many ways of doing gender among themselves, with differences in hair style, use of makeup, speaking style (soft and flowery vs. blunt and loud), and lifestyle (hippie, high fashion, athlete). Members embraced differences in sexuality and religion as well.

This wider orientation to social difference was reflected in how members understood racial identity.

They … noted variations within racial groups, including [for example] among their black members with regard to where they grew up (e.g., urban/rural/suburban, Southern/Northern), hairstyles, skin tones, weight, body size, and experiences with racial discrimination.

LEARNING AND TEACHING ABOUT DIFFERENCES

MCS members bemoaned the lack of organized opportunities on campus to discuss race and cultural difference, and they actively sought to support and create formal and informal discussion events. The members felt strongly that “unlearning” (of stereotypes and biases) was as important as new learning.

Although many GLOs organized educational activities, the focus was usually on their own members. Or sometimes in the case of identity-based GLOs, on the wider group from which they drew membership. MCS organized events that drew from across the GLO community, the entire campus, and the surrounding community. Examples included a potluck dinner for all multicultural GLOs, a campus wide discussion on race that raised the topic of colorism, a community wide multicultural talent show that drew several hundred attenders, and a mentoring program for high school students.

Thus, while other GLOs provided some educational opportunities, the researcher found:

MCS did this activity in four ways not documented in previous studies [of GLOs]: (1) it occurred not only through formal educational programs but also in social events and informal interactions; (2) it was a two-way exchange, centering on learning and teaching; (3) it extended beyond group boundaries to teaching and learning about nonmembers and people from multiple ethnic groups; and (4) cultural teaching and learning was a principal, not peripheral, group activity.

BRIDGING INTERACTIONS AND ALLIANCES ACROSS RACIAL/CULTURAL LINES

The researcher conducted a larger study of students on campus and found white students averaged 17% different-race friends in their social networks. Black students averaged 24% and Latinx students averaged 40%. Members of predominantly white sororities averaged 8%. In MCS, the number of different-race friendships in each member’s personal network ranged from a low of 44% to a high of 77%. Members were often involved in interracial romantic relationships, including all three members who were engaged or married.

Same-race relationships were the norm on campus. MCS members actively pushed back against the prevailing practice, encouraging other students to reach out beyond their own cliques. One MSC member noted this challenge was not well received, “because everybody feels like they’re already doing this.”

Clearly “everybody” was not interacting across racial/cultural lines. MCS members often went out together, and “by publicly interacting with their ‘sisters,’ [they] broke norms of homophily.” One time a white sister was heckled by a group of white male students for walking with her three black sisters. Other times they would be asked why they were together. Onlookers would ask if they were “in a group.” Whether hostile or simply curious, these approaches by strangers called the group to publicly account for their “difference.”

MCS, as an organization, reached out, aligned, and collaborated with other marginalized organizations, including GLOs, the GLBT community, the Latino Cultural Center, the Black Cultural Center, the Black Student Alliance, the Asian Cultural Center, the International Cultural Center, the Indian Student Alliance, and Hillel.

MCS did not aspire to replace other race/culture-based groups. Rather, they saw their multicultural approach as supplemental to these organizations. They encouraged people to embrace their own culture and felt both single race/culture groups and multicultural groups were needed.

STRUCTURE AND PRACTICE

Although MCS challenged prevailing racial norms on campus, there were limits to what they did. The researcher characterizes their approach as “nice,” meaning they used nonconfrontational techniques such as dialogue rather than protest and direct action. Their choice of change strategy was partly dictated by their choice to operate within the GLO framework.

Given their “nice” approach, MCS still criticized the prevailing racial structure. They organized discussions on race, and explored topics such as colorism (as, for example, when women of color use skin-lightening cosmetics). They organized a forum for the GLO community using discussion, debate and skits to highlight “experiences of racial oppression among Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and blacks.” They worked with the Asian Cultural Center to counteract a campus trend in which prejudicial stereotypes of Asian Americans were appearing on an online social-networking site. And they directly acknowledged the impact of racism in their own lives and the lives of their sisters. So, unlike a colorblind framework, which has been characterized as evading recognition of both color and power differences, MCS members publicly acknowledged and discussed both.

Despite their focus on social and cultural differences, the researcher points out MCS failed to recognize and work across lines of social class.

[T]he women never adopted class identities or discussed the lack of class variation in MCS. Multicultural sorority members were all middle class and, unlike many MU students of color, none had a “working class” or “poor” background, perhaps because of the substantial financial costs of joining MCS and paying yearly dues.

MCS embraced different ways of expressing gender among their members, but also failed to challenge gender inequality in the wider community. Considering their placement in the GLO community, there was ample opportunity.

[T]he national organization’s rules mandated gender exclusion. The organization does not allow men to become members. In addition, MCS members did not recognize or educate about gender inequality as frequently as other differences and never discussed rape culture and misogyny within the Greek system. Research shows that male privilege is less pervasive when institutional arrangements are such that fraternity men perceive greater accountability.

By adopting a “nice” approach to challenging racial norms on campus, MCS was able to function in the GLO community and build bridges across many different sectors, including the campus administration. But there were limits.

Therefore, while enacting multiculturalism enabled MCS members to subvert some inequality-legitimating ideologies (e.g., colorblindness), the group simultaneously reproduced others. Enacting multiculturalism, like other social acts, may thus be fraught with contradiction.

We (CSWAC) fully agree. As readers we draw another point from the study as well, and that is the key role of intentionality. Multicultural (and we would say “multiracial”) organizations, events, and challenges to prevailing colorblind norms do not arise simply of their own spontaneous accord. There must be intentional, concerted action and an expenditure of time and resources above and beyond that needed simply to operate uncritically in the prevailing cultural surround.

At every step MSC operated with intention. They persisted in forming their chapter despite opposition from the campus administration. They purposefully decided to enter the GLO community, and they crafted a strategy of supplementing, and not replacing, other race and culture-based organizations. They made a public display of their multiracial nature, fully understanding the impact. They strove not just to include difference in their group, but to openly recognize and appreciate it. Individual members expressed a clear intention to develop multiracial friendship networks, and then did the work needed to accomplish it. By placing a premium on building multiracial community, MCS members were able to create and sustain an organization that challenged the prevailing racial norms simply by existing, while at the same time reaping the joys and enrichment multiracial community can bring.


McCabe, J. (2011). Doing Multiculturalism: An Interactionist Analysis of the Practices of a Multicultural Sorority. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40(5), 521–549.