May 13, 2008

Indian Fraternities and Sororities

This past academic year, I spent more time at a large public undergraduate college, where there is a pretty significant Asian American community. I got to interact with some of the college-aged South Asians - though they were primarily Indian American, of course. Although the school has multiple South Asian organizations, based on religion, ethno-national identity, and even cultural groups (singing troupe, dancing group) a lot of the folks were part of the ever-growing South Asian (really, Indian) "greek" life that seems to have blown up over the last 5 years.

I know that the first Indian fraternity started in 1994. It was called Iota Nu Delta (IND) and started at SUNY Binghamton. Their website is quite a trip. I particularly enjoy this call-out quote on the sidebar: “February 7th, 1994 would be the birth of an organization where eight great men laid the foundation for the entire South Asian Greek cpmmunity (sic)...”

Okay - where to start with these groups? I guess the first thing is that the groups were marginal at best when I was an undergrad, and even in the years following. We laughed at their initial steps, not realizing that they would grow and multiply. I think there are about 10 Indian/South Asian fraternities and sororities now, and the students I spoke with were very energized about their organizations - far more, in fact, than they were about being part of any traditional college organization organized around ethnic or ethno-national origin. Far more, in fact, than they were about attending workshops or taking classes that explored South Asian American history, organizing, and struggles in the U.S.

So what is it with these organizations? Speaking as an outsider, I guess I thought they were fairly harmless when I was first exposed to them. Just replications of the mainstream white "greek" groups, not really following in the footsteps of the Alphas or the other strong Black and Latino/a fraternities and sororities that really focused on service and building a different kind of community. Those groups really focused on academic excellence, built around a fundamental understanding that shit is fucked up and that the man is trying to push us down, so this is another site for political and personal growth, solidarity, and identity. Again, as an outsider, that's just what I saw, in comparison to the watered down animal house hijinks of the white frats and the vacuous self-absorption of the white sororities. I remember the Black and Latino/a organizations worked hand in hand with the political organizations - there were differences, but they were connected as well.

But it doesn't seem to be the case with the new Indian greek life. The organizations seem separate, the students seem like they are in their own worlds, and just when I thought the Long Island cluelessness that had seeped into the consciousness of so many suburban desi kids was the outer limit of their uselessness, these folks often push the envelope further. And I haven't seen an outpouring of critical thinking or even serious community service come out of these groups - it's just more of the same from the mainstream frats. With more of these organizations coming up, I wouldn't be surprised if they just get stuck in their own turf competitions, and fully check out of any other campus engagement.

I know, I'm old and I'm out of it. But these groups are no longer on the fringe where they exist, and honestly, political campus organizations have not caught up and created something that matches the powerful effect of the pledging process: particularly how the rites of passage make folks feel connected (artificial community development). Once they get the incoming students to pledge/join up, they don't need to explore different identities and ideas - they can stay in the comfort zone of these uber-cliques.

I'm genuinely fearful for the future: I wonder if even the Indian Student Associations of the American college scene (never mind the pan-South Asian groups) have the same pull they once did. Not to mention that these groups actually re-emphasize the "Indianness" of the whole thing - as campus South Asian spaces become more heterogeneous, the frats and sororities may reflect the circling of the wagons for the privileged middle class Indian kids from suburbia, whose picture of what brown people in college should be is being rattled by urban, working class, non-Indian, non-Hindu, non-conformists. Rather than find common ground, the mainstream folks have moved into different configurations and "safe spaces" where they can continue to push the falsely monolithic "Indianness" of their parents that's not as threatening.

And what will that mean for social justice organizations in the future? Does it limit their pool for recruiting and/or building consciousness, or were these folks the already/traditionally uninterested, so there isn't much loss related to this development? Are there other effects when the active South Asian population is so fragmented on campuses - so that you have the "cultural" groups that attract foreign students and folks who grew up around all or no South Asians, the growing greek groups, the religious groups (I have to post on this separately, because this is also a newer development that is interesting/troubling), and the (quasi-)political groups (do they even exist anymore?). How can these folks advocate together around common concerns for South Asian American communities (on campus and off)?

On a different angle, if pan-South Asian work looks like it's failing, will that move more of the progressive South Asians on campus to the pan-Asian and pan-POC spaces out of frustration and their own search for community? Maybe that's a good thing... I have no idea if this is also happening in non-South Asian, APA spaces in colleges: and I really don't think this is likely on the West coast, where the history of student activism is so rooted. But I could be wrong, of course...


Anonymous said...

hey, interesting post. I don't go to a big university, but I was heavily recruited by someone from a nearby one for some awful SA sorority (charity-oriented - part of the pitch was that we'd be sending personal care baskets to poor women in India with pamphlets on how to stay clean. Yikes!)

and yes to all that about LI desis, lol...from an LI desi ;).

Rage said...

Oops - sorry for the inadvertent diss. But thanks for the validation, and for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

hehe, no prob. There's a reason I'm a freak here :P.