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Searching for accountability for racism within Greek life at Boise State

Graphic by The Arbiter

Kayla Clark followed her older brother’s footsteps to Boise State four years ago. She thought that if he, a Black and biracial man with darker skin than her, had made it here, so could she. She also followed his advice to go Greek. So as soon as sorority recruitment began during her first semester, she rushed. 

Clark remembers her second day of recruitment vividly. At a fashion show, a tradition in the Epsilon Psi chapter of Alpha Xi Delta, she joined a group of women, many of whom were women of color like Clark, who were dancing and laughing together. She decided then that Alpha Xi Delta was the sorority for her, and went on to hold different positions in the sorority for the next three years.

Now, as a senior, reflecting on nearly four years of dedication to an organization has become painful.

“It has been just heartbreaking,” Clark said. 

[Photo of Kayla Clark.]
Photo by Mackenzie Hudson | The Arbiter

After four years in Alpha Xi Delta, Clark chose to go alum — essentially staying an active member but uninvolved in daily sorority operations, much like a college graduate might — in August. Throughout the summer, as rallies for Black Lives Matter spanned the globe, the silence of too many of Clark’s sisters and flagrant lack of accountability for racism within the chapter pushed her out of the organization.

Clark considered dropping entirely, but decided to go alum as a way of honoring the good memories she has had in the chapter and with alumni members. Most importantly, she did it as a way to continue holding the chapter accountable, to make the chapter better for other women of color who might join in future years.

“As an alum, my voice [within the sorority] still kind of matters,” Clark said. “And even though they have actively been trying to silence me, they can’t completely silence me.”

Clark, who is Black and biracial, knew when she moved to Idaho that Black Idahoans were few, but hopefully not too far between. In Alpha Xi Delta, she felt supported in her first years at Boise State, but declining diversity and a lack of accountability within the sorority has soured her experience over time. Then, on May 25, 2020 as Clark’s junior year was drawing to a close, George Floyd was murdered.

In the weeks after George Floyd’s death, Clark posted on social media daily and asked her sisters to get involved via their sorority’s private page. She sent educational resources, links to bail funds and more, but no one from the eight-member executive team responded to her. 

When Cambree Kanala, a junior criminal justice major who managed the sorority’s social media during the summer and fall of 2020, created a bail-out fundraiser to raise money within the sorority, she received backlash from women in the sorority who thought it was too political. Then Kanala was told by the executive team not to post anything related to Black Lives Matter.

For days, Clark received no explanation for the silence of the Alpha Xi Delta executive members. As protests and vigils spread around the world and the women she called sisters remained silent, Clark felt betrayed. 

Only when she finally shared her frustrations publicly did she hear from executive members that they were busy putting together a post for social media. One post was eventually made to Instagram on June 6 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. But not all of the messages Clark received were positive.

One member referred to herself using a racial slur, which made Clark concerned about whether she should keep her position. Another executive member, who is white, said that she understood Clark’s concerns because she had Black cousins. Another continuously claimed that the executive team was preparing conversations and posts for social media, although Clark later found out that the executive team didn’t meet at all throughout the summer. 

For Clark, it was too little, too late.

“There’s been a lack of transparency and accountability for the past two years for sure, and I picked up on that, but I never thought it would get this bad,” Clark said. “I never felt unsafe until this summer when I did ask for support, and I received these really aggressive and uncomfortable text messages and I was like, ‘okay, this isn’t safe for me anymore.’”

Clark also said that she spoke over the phone with the sorority’s advisor, who is also a Boise State employee, about what was happening in early June.

“She said: ‘If there’s a racist girl in this chapter, let me know and I will kick that b- out.’ That’s exactly what she said. And then two months later, she was like, ‘if the chapter is racist at its core, there’s only so much we can do,” Clark said.

Being dismissed by the women in her sorority and ultimately deciding to go alum has pulled back the curtain on Clark’s larger experience as a Bronco, and led her to second-guess her decision to come here.

“To come back and have this support system that I’ve built up for three years… to just be faced with silence, or hurtful words or hurtful actions, it’s just made me question my last three years here,” Clark said.

Racism in Boise, Idaho and Greek Life

Idaho is geographically isolated, and a mostly conservative state. But the lack of urban spaces and racial diversity doesn’t mean that it is also isolated from anti-racist movements. 

This summer, as demonstrations for the Movement for Black Lives swept across the globe and Clark grew weary of her sister’s silence, Black and Indigenous activists organized a June 3 vigil in Boise in memoriam of Black lives lost to police violence. Multiple Black Lives Matter rallies have been held throughout 2020 in Idaho.

As one of the state’s largest institutions, Boise State isn’t exempt from this quagmire, either; in fact, the university recently drew attention when Big City Coffee left campus after administrators refused to infringe on student’s rights to speak against the local cafe for the owner’s pro-police stances.

Greek life organizations at universities have been caught in the cross-hairs as well, both for responses to this summer’s events and as they reckon with their histories of white supremacy.

Hundreds of Black students have left their Greek life organizations across the nation due to frustration with a lack of accountability and solidarity across the nation during the fall semester. 

COVID-19 has dominated this year’s college newspaper’s headlines, but in early August, Vanderbilt University made national headlines as a hotspot for Greek life desertion. Social media accounts that record people’s experiences and demands have amassed thousands of followers. NBC News reported that from June to August, over 200 students left fraternities and sororities at Vanderbilt, citing racism and other forms of discrimination, and calling for the abolition of Greek life institutions.

As of yet, no public, widespread calls for the banning of Greek life have reached Boise State.

A central reason that many of these students say they left their sororities and fraternities is white supremacy. Kanala, who ran for the electronic communications chair for Alpha Xi Delta by advocating to diversify the sorority’s social media representation, said that much like other areas of American life, fraternities and sororities are struggling to come to terms with their foundations in white supremacy. 

Kanala gave the example of sorority’s bylaws requiring women to straighten or curl their hair during recruitment as one of many common microaggressions that Black women face in white-founded sororities that don’t consider Black hair when upholding those rules. But according to both Clark and Kanala, that is just one symptom of a much larger history.

“Microaggressions and that kind of thing still exist very much in our bylaws, because they were created by white women, and they were upheld by white women and they are still being upheld by white women,” Kanala said. “And I think that’s a chain that needs to be broken because it’s 2020. It’s time to uproot the white supremacy that all Greek life was built on.”

Terrell Couch, the fraternity and sorority life coordinator at Boise State, is well aware of the necessary conversations and changes facing Greek life and is grateful for Clark telling her story and advocating on behalf of future Broncos.

“I’ve been very appreciative of Kayla because she’s been able to communicate around her enjoyment of the experience [with Greek life], but at the same time places where that experience can get better,” Couch said.

Couch has spent years working in Greek life organizations, and has had his own journey with understanding the history of Greek life. At a retreat his sophomore year in college, as part of a small group conversation someone asked how each member would expect their fraternity’s founders might react to their present-day role in the organization, and whether those founders would want to keep the younger men as brothers.

“It got to me and I took a pause and said, ‘No, they wouldn’t,'” Couch said. “I was upfront that I’m a member of Phi Gamma Delta. It was started in 1848 when I was not considered a human — I was still considered property, and if my founders were alive I genuinely think they would have a hard realization that there is an African American male who would later become president of the organization.”

To Couch, those kinds of conversations are crucial, but he believes that Greek life organizations and universities in general have the ability to model necessary changes based on their values and by looking to recruit people who “serve the greater good and serve humanity.”

“Because our organizations are able to root [their] core into that, the ability for white supremacy to live is diminished in my personal opinion, because by no means do any of those values only apply to [one] race,” Couch said.

Alpha Xi Delta

After George Floyd’s death, both the Boise State Interfraternity Council (IFC) and the Boise State Panhellenic Council (PHC) released statements expressing commitments to equity, and the IFC is working to create a vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion on their executive board. Couch said that student leaders — including Clark and Kanala — give him hope that students within Greek life at Boise State are considering their effect on the community. 

Kendall Johnston, who was president of Boise State’s Alpha Xi Delta chapter, Epsilon Psi, during the fall 2020 semester, wrote in an email that on a national level, the organization has removed preferential treatment for women who have had previous family members in the sorority — often called legacies — during recruitment. Additionally, the national organization has required basic diversity, equity and inclusion training for volunteers and the Epsilon Psi chapter has formed a diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

“In addition to this committee, our chapter held a program over Zoom that was presented by the University’s DEI office to discuss the definitions of diversity and inclusion, as well as implicit biases,” Johnston wrote. 

In this program with the university’s diversity and inclusion department staff (now known as Student Equity), Kanala said that the attention of many women was quite strained throughout the training, which was held over Zoom. In a Snapchat group chat, women sent messages about the training that Kanala described as “demeaning” and “inappropriate,” such as saying that it was boring and asking when it would be over.

Sophomore Spanish and secondary education major Emily Hawley, who at the time was the chapter’s Greek Week chair and a member of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, said that she was inspired to run for the committee after seeing that so many women in her sorority were uncomfortable with anti-racist efforts or even the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” As a member of that committee, Hawley received aggressive texts from women who felt that the sorority is pushing a liberal agenda, which one called “liberal propaganda.”

“Honestly, if I was a girl of color, I probably would have dropped,” Hawley said. “The only reason that I have stuck it out is because I’m in a position of privilege where I’m white… I’m upper-middle class, I’m straight — I wasn’t affected as directly as some of the girls of color.”

From Hawley’s perspective, there’s only a small group — she guessed 10 out of the roughly 170 women in the chapter — who have been openly harassing members who support anti-racism. 

But Clark said that whether it was a minority of women or not, the vast majority were silent.

“This summer, it didn’t feel like it was a minority, but it’s also because so many women are silent, and so it makes it feel like it’s a majority,” Clark said.

As the chapter’s president and leader of the executive committee at the time, Johnston expressed that having women of different backgrounds can present challenges, but hoped the organization’s efforts for education would be helpful in the long run.

“Having a large chapter with women from different life experiences, backgrounds, races, religions, regions and much more is a wonderful asset, but it can also lead to differing views and opinions about many issues,” Johnston wrote. “Our chapter is learning, like many people, how to have discussions with sisters that may be uncomfortable in order to learn and see one another’s viewpoints. We know that canceling others is not how we learn and grow.”

Going Alum

In a Sept. 18 Instagram post, Clark made public her decision to go alum and listed her reasons: microaggressions, tokenism and silencing within the sorority and a lack of accountability for racist behavior, and a lack of solidarity with Black sisters and anti-racist efforts in general.

“The purpose of this post is to incite accountability, share my truth and show others who are suffering that they are not alone,” Clark wrote. “I have no intention to bring a bad reputation to this chapter. However, I have noticed these past several months, that the way to get this leadership to take action is to express these concerns publicly.”

The week prior, Clark had announced her decision by posting it to the chapter’s private Facebook page. Within minutes and without warning, the status was deleted and she was removed from the group. The chapter’s next meeting was canceled two days later, and another was scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 27 to address Clark’s concerns. 

Now officially an alum, organization protocol mandated that Clark couldn’t speak without being called upon. For an hour and a half, according to Clark, she listened, her microphone muted and chat function turned off, as predominantly white women spoke about the frustration of being labeled “racist” and their concerns regarding the sorority’s reputation.

With the meeting drawing to a close and seeing no option for her to follow meeting protocol, Clark unmuted herself and asked to speak. A representative from the national Alpha Xi Delta organization cut her off.

“The way she said it was just: ‘you don’t have a voice here, you can’t speak,’” Clark said. Her friends still within the chapter were shocked and protested until Clark was granted permission to speak. For many women, that was the first time they had seen Clark being silenced or dismissed. Even so, Clark wasn’t sure her message got through.

“They still haven’t taken a measurable action or had a measurable impact,” Clark said.

Clark said that the chapter meeting was the first time many women in the sorority seemed to realize the severity of what Clark was dealing with.

“[When] they finally witnessed me actively being silenced, then they were frustrated,” Clark said. “And the thing is: if you don’t say anything, you’re complicit, and so I feel like a lot of sisters didn’t know that this was even happening. But they saw my posts, so I don’t know how much you can plead ignorance on that.”

Seeking Accountability

According to Couch’s perspective, accountability generally falls within two categories: peer-to-peer accountability that is often internal and conversational, and a more structured and formal approach where students can report community violations to judicial boards.

For months, Clark has pursued both kinds of accountability in different ways, and little has changed.

“It just feels like the institution has failed us in so many ways. It feels like you just keep going up and they have nothing put in place to help us or protect us,” Clark said. “For me, if you’re not willing to learn and then also if you just continue to cause harm, then there needs to be some accountability had, and the school has nothing in place to put forth accountability.”

Boise State’s Student Code of Conduct includes a nondiscrimination clause with protection against racism, but as there are no repercussions when this clause is broken, Clark has had to personally examine the code to find a way to hold Alpha Xi Delta accountable, to no avail. Over and over, staff members have told her that they cannot help her.

Clark pointed out that there are severe punishments within the sorority for underage drinking, but when she experienced racist harassment, she was the member who had to leave the sorority. According to Clark, that is where the university should have a responsibility to step in.

“Everyone [at the university] keeps emphasizing diversity, and no one’s going to want to come here and make this school more diverse if they’re not included and actually valued for what they bring to the table,” Clark said. 

Clark has since emailed President Tromp, met with multiple staff members at the Dean of Students office and proposed changes for similar situations in the future, but so far nothing has changed. One administrator questioned whether Clark’s peers cared about these issues, a possible explanation for the lack of accountability.

“He said: ‘18-20 year olds are going to care about what they care about… do you know any 18-20 year olds with knowledge about Diversity and Inclusion?’ To ask me, a Black woman, this question is insensible. This is my life, of course I have to have knowledge about this. To have a senior administrator of this institution ask me this question is appalling,” Clark said.

But Clark isn’t the only Bronco to leave their organization this year: she is friends with someone who, as the sole Black member of a Greek organization at Boise State, also became frustrated with their organization doing “too little, too late” and ultimately left the organization. This individual declined to be interviewed for this article.

Even though she’s already left the chapter, Clark is still frustrated with what she sees as performative conversations about education within the organization.

“They don’t even acknowledge what harm they’re doing and they just keep saying ‘we want to move forward, we want to educate,’ and that’s great,” Clark said. “Education is amazing, but if you don’t acknowledge what you’ve done in the past to create that harm and why you need to educate yourself, you’re not doing anything. I just can’t get that through to them.” 

Clark has received many negative messages from individuals in her sorority, but one of her biggest frustrations has been the lack of response from women.

“This chapter demonstrates that you care more about denying the reputation of being racist, rather than checking the impact of your practices and statements on others and eliminating racist behavior,” Clark wrote in her Instagram post. 

From within Alpha Xi Delta, both Kanala and Hawley, along with other women, are hoping to create change. Kanala is advocating for accountability from executive members by trying to  incorporate a no-tolerance policy for racism, and education for all members. 

As a biracial woman from Las Vegas, Kanala said that coming to Boise State was a big cultural shock for her and that, much like Clark, seeing women of color in Alpha Xi Delta drew her to the sorority when she rushed, but that’s changed over time.

“It’s not the same energy, and it’s a lot less cohesive than it used to be. Especially right now, there’s an enormous divide,” Kanala said.

As a member of the sorority herself, Kanala said that she is frustrated, particularly with inaction among leadership.

“Kayla spoke her truth on Instagram and everyone got to see that, and the fact that people are still questioning whether these things are actually going on is just kind of embarrassing and being known as the racist sorority — why would you want that stigma?” Kanala said. “Quite frankly, right now it’s kind of embarrassing to be a part of this chapter due to everything going on.”

In her original post to Instagram announcing why she left Alpha Xi Delta, Clark wrote: “I haven’t given up hope for this organization, but there is a lot of work to be done.” As the months have passed and the organization has yet to act on many of Clark’s requests and the university does little to help her, her optimism has disappeared. In January, five months after she went alum, Clark said that she favors abolishing Greek life because of the systemic racism that forced her out.

“I have given up all hope for Greek life as of now, and just see that it allows mainly white students to dodge accountability and still act like their actions do not have any repercussions,” Clark said.

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