A Note from the Underground: The Alpha Phi controversy and institutional racism

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me...[I]t is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me. ”

The unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man makes this statement from his place in the underground as he waits for the right time to make himself visible to the society that marginalized and distorted his identity. Although Ellison’s novel is over fifty years old, the ideas that his protagonist grapples with—his belief that his voice cannot be heard accurately and clearly in his society because of institutional forces that are dependent on his erasure—are still remarkably relevant in 2015.

By now, many of us have seen the Alpha Phi recruitment video, which features a group of smiling young women in a series of casual group settings that are designed to encourage young women to take interest in their sorority. They’ve been criticized for their appearances, their bodies, their clothing choices, and their hair color. I am not interested in talking about that. Women are allowed to dress, behave, and look however they wish—their aesthetic choices should have no impact on their individual value or whether or not they deserve to be respected or exploited. Women do not exist at the largesse of the male gaze.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about institutional racism and structural violence.

When we choose to dwell on our collective understanding of racism in American society, we immediately conjure up images of burning crosses, white hoods, and other horrific atrocities that our US history classes take care to assure us are simply figments of a long-dead collective imagination. However, we often forget that once it became unacceptable to be a known member of the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-black terrorist organizations (although that is debatable), many of the organization’s members returned to their day jobs as politicians, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Racism and violence against black people and other people of color never really went away. They simply adapted to their changing environments.

Structural violence, a term coined by Johan Galtung, is defined as an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs.” Institutional racism, a term that was developed by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, refers to any race-based system of inequality. This term can be used to understand practices such as police brutality against African Americans, the history of redlining that barred African Americans from obtaining home loans after World War II, and the poor quality of visual representations of African Americans in the American public.

There are no black women in Alpha Phi’s recruitment video. However, Alpha Phi is not alone in this crime. To myopically focus on the failure of Alpha Phi to include women of color in their video also bars us from having the significantly more important discussion about who exactly is behind the camera and why we as a student body condone the continuation of a structure that allows us to think that any presentation of a racially homogeneous group or society would even be a good idea in the first place. Penalizing an individual or a single group effectively derails this discussion. It allows us to neatly sidestep our collective guilt about doing very little to improve the lives of people of color on this campus and, on a larger scale, nationwide.

It would be unfair and remiss of me to say that there are not people on this campus who either actively fight for the rights of others, or are at least receptive to the idea of racial and social equality. They are here, in small pockets and in fits and bursts, waiting to make themselves visible. But they are afraid, and rightfully so. They are afraid of the backlash, the ostracization, and the social and physical acts of violence that are often associated with speaking out against injustice. This university has a long history of student activists who gave of themselves both personally and professionally in order to achieve change. We as students are our own greatest resource in advocating for the changes in policy that many of us want to see. We’ve done it before. Let’s do it again.

Amanda Bennett is a senior majoring in English and African American Studies. She is a past president of the UA chapter of the National Council of Negro Women.

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