68. SAE

By now, you’ve seen the video of SAE’s Oklahoma Kappa chapter singing racist chants on a party bus. I have some thoughts about it.

The news hit my newsfeed just before midnight last night. BroBible’s Brandon Wenerd was talking about how, if the video was a true representation of events, it was DEFCON 5 for SAE. That dropped my stomach into a cavern of fear and resignation before I even knew what was going on or what had happened.

What is it this time?

The video was tough to watch more than once. The zeal is what turns my stomach, the happiness in his face as he repeats something he’s said God knows how many times in darkened basements and brotherhood events.

It reminded me of old footage of Hitler Youth summer camps, where fresh-faced enthusiasm is envenomed by hatred and institutionalized racism. There’s no excuses to be entertained and no sympathy to be dredged up for those even tangentially involved. It’s disgusting.

I was a sophomore when I was appointed president of Oregon Beta. Our chapter was on the brink of losing its charter as a result of hazing charges that, compared with this video and other incidences across the country, seem comically trivial. We painted the chests of pledges purple and yellow. It was a celebration of the completion of a successful rush. It was a silly activity everyone — especially the pledges — looked forward to, but we deserved the sanctions we got.

And those were the circumstances under which I took over. Backs against the wall. No room to fail.

I actually don’t remember much from my sophomore year because my brain was constantly maxed out. I was taking the first serious journalism classes of my life and had just started working at The Emerald. My life was the busiest it had ever been, and on the weekends, the pressures of managing 80 dudes determined to drench their insides with alcohol were almost overwhelming. When I was supposed to unwind and recharge, I was instead on red alert.

As president, you’re on call 24/7. Somebody pulls the fire alarm, you talk to the firefighters. Somebody tosses a chair out the window — “I lost in FIFA, dude” — you help clean house inside and out. A girl drinks too much, then comes over to your house? You’re the one responsible. Some weekends, Chris and I would just pray to get to Sunday night without any problems. We rarely made it without putting out at least a small fire, even if it was just a disagreement between brothers over the last piece of Jack’s pie. That’s just how it was.

It was a master class in conflict resolution, diplomacy, communications, public relations, politics and damage control.

And I loved it. It made me the person I am today, for better or worse. It gave me confidence and real-world knowledge. It stoked my ambition and forced me to deal with my lifelong aversion to conflict. It made me a leader, an effective communicator and a better son, friend and boyfriend. It grew me up.

So I can’t sit here today and say I’m not proud to be a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. That would be disingenuous.

Were there components of my rush, my pledgeship, my house and my brothers that embarrass me? Yes. There are moments I regret, and actions I wish I could take back. Who doesn’t have those?

Nothing, thank God, was ever in the same zipcode or even hemisphere as the video. That makes our most blazing crises look like matchsticks.

But how can I convey to anyone who hasn’t lived through this experience that I am not, in some small way, a product of the same organization and societal structure that produced the ugliness in that video? How can I prove we’re not all like that?

I just can’t.

This will — and should — spark another wave of conversations regarding the usefulness of Greek Life in America.

Haven’t we moved past this? critics will say. They will point to sickening campus sexual assault stats and the raft of accidental deaths due to hazing and underage drinking, each of them problems Greek Life hasn’t ever, and will never, solve or eliminate. Now they have this twisted, abhorrent display of racism as another rotten bulletpoint in the argument for Greek Life’s obsolescence. Tear it all down, they will say.

And the most frustrating part is that the logical, rational part of me absolutely agrees. How can it not? How can anyone in 2015 that has a shred of humanity watch that video and not come away certain that being in a fraternity is what allowed that kid to feel safe in giving voice to his racism?

The worst of Greek Life is filled with the kind of people that use organizations as a blanket of entitlement to further their own agenda. I don’t know if some fraternities are worse than others; if some regions are worse than others; if some campuses are worse than others. In the end, I suppose, none of that matters. Hate is hate.

But I never found anything remotely as sinister or bigoted in my four years in SAE. That’s not why I joined or what I encountered. It never played a role in my status as an active member. It simply wasn’t there.

Instead, I experienced personal and collective trials and triumphs with a group of guys that are now my permanent friends. I’ve seen them grow into men with careers and fiancees and fulfilling jobs across the country. One of my brothers is black. More than one is gay. We’re rich and poor, smart and dumb, but we’re all brothers.

And the cliches are true too. They’ll be at my wedding. I’ll be at theirs. There’s a mutual respect and a certain understanding that goes beyond words and taps into a tribalism essential to human nature. I love those guys. Always will.

Today, March 9, is Founders Day, a day to celebrate the precepts upon which SAE was established. The irony is palpable. The days ahead will not be bright for anyone in Greek Life. A wound has been opened that may never heal. And still, at the bottom of all my convictions and testimonials, there’s one question I can’t shake.

When will we be better than this?

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