By Alison Smith

What's in Our Hearts: Duke, Greeks, and Passive Racism

This week, news broke about a fraternity at Duke University who hosted a racist theme party. When I read the article from Duke and the subsequent blogs and comments, many emotions ran through me: shame, anger, frustration, and sadness—in part because I am a sorority woman and on staff with Greek InterVarsity. My calling is to serve Greek students and help them encounter Christ within the Greek system.

This is often confusing for people. Why would someone be passionate about reaching people often marked by negative stereotypes like racism and elitism? they wonder. But we Greeks actually hate the stereotypes about us and constantly talk about how we are philanthropic and gifted leaders who aren’t all obsessed with drinking and partying.

In my ministry role, I find myself continually acting as a bridge-builder between Greeks and non-Greeks, communicating why they’re a group worth loving and reaching. But events like the party at Duke make me feel like my efforts to defend and advocate for the Greek system are all in vain. In fact, my knee-jerk response when I heard about the incident was to distance myself, to say, “That’s not my Greek system.” I was ashamed of my culture, ashamed that an event like this happened—but also ashamed because it continues to happen.

How the Past Hangs On

The Greek system, like many of our current structures including a large number of public and private universities, has a complicated past with race. Many of the ethnic-specific fraternities and sororities on campus today were founded because the traditional ones in the early 1900s would not admit non-white students. Although racial and religious restrictions to membership have long since been abolished, the Greek systems on our campuses obviously still struggle with racism.

As do many people and groups, I’d say. We still see racism in every facet of life. Many people who read the article about Duke probably thought, How disgusting. I would never participate in something like that. But deep in our hearts we’ve replaced this overt type of racism with a more insidious type: passivity.

What I See in Me

God has been bringing to mind an image of the moving sidewalks at the airport. Active racists are those who get on the walkway and continue to walk while also being moved by the walkway. Passive racists just stand on the walkway, not moving of their own volition—but sadly they’re still moving in the same direction as those who are actively racist.

It’s easy to look at the situation at Duke and others like it and blame the Greek system, the administration, or the individual members who permitted this to happen. But for me, the harder task is to examine myself. When I take a hard look inside, I see that I just want to put my blinders on and forget that something like this happened, just let it blow over. That’s just me being selfish and racist in my own way, though. Our inaction doesn’t cause anything to change. It just makes things worse.

I am writing this on the cusp of Greek Conference 2013. My role for the last three years has been director of the Influence concentration. In one of the breakouts for Influence, we challenge students to call out the practices in our Greek systems that do not honor God and others. Each year, racism is brought up but often takes a backseat to issues involving hazing and female objectification.

It would be easy for me to not mention the Duke incident at Greek Conference. It’s less messy that way. But as I’ve learned in the past, being intentional challenges passivity. So I’m committing right now, as I write this, to bring it up with students in our concentration and challenge them to engage dishonoring and racist attitudes within their Greek chapters.

If we serve a God who is truly about justice and reconciliation, then we as his people need to be about it too. So what does that look like practically?

From Passive to Proactive

It starts with repenting of our own passivity and apathy toward racism. And it starts with learning from someone who is a different ethnicity than us.

As Greeks, we want to fix problems when we see them, but we rarely pause to examine how we might be part of the problem and often fail to see the brokenness that resides in our own hearts.

This has been true of my own journey with ethnicity. God has blessed me with non-White friends and mentors who have cared for me and served me. They helped me understand that if I wanted to see reconciliation in my own Greek system on my campus, I needed to become a learner.

This started by attending events for the ethnic-specific and cultural-interest Greek systems and actually listening. On my campus, for example, the historically Black Greek system held a Q&A session about their organizations. I went and learned a lot. Out of experiences like that, I started to become friends with peers in the historically Black fraternities and sororities. These friends challenged my own assumptions about people of color, which began a healing work in my own heart.

White people have been given so much grace. It’s time for us to step up and stop passively watching racism happen on our campuses. Reconciliation is hard, but it is something God calls us to, and is actually an intimate part of the gospel.

The (Amazing) Mystery of Unity

In Ephesians 1:8-10, Paul writes, “With all wisdom and understanding, [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

The great mystery and great news of the gospel is that God will bring unity! Christ makes this possible, and his death and resurrection are able to reconcile and heal the most broken relationships.

Are we going to partner with God to bring reconciliation? Are we going to confront a friend who is making racist jokes or comments? Are we willing to walk across campus and know and love someone who is different than us?

What are your first steps to move from passivity to reconciliation? Leave us a comment below.

Alison Smith is on staff with Greek InterVarsity at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a member of Pi Beta Phi for women. She loves reading, singing, rocking out in her car to cheesy pop music and NPR and going on adventures with her husband.


Watch these videos to see how InterVarsity students and staff have engaged racial issues on campus through the years:

At Northwestern

At Williams College

At Urbana 67 (one of the most racially tense times in the U.S. in the past century)


This is a fantastic article Alison! Thank you for sharing your thoughts- for addressing the current issue at hand- the Duke incident in particular- but also calling out the passive racism that permeates both our culture (broadly and in InterVarsity). I am so appreciative for thoughtful posts that both acknowledge personal brokenness and general worldly (including American brokenness), but also prompt me to question how I think about things and am a party to such judgement and prejudice towards others- both in the Greek system- but also to "those other racists". Luckily, by the grace of God, I have been able to acknowledge and admit my sin in thinking I am not like them- and hopefully I will continue to realize I am passive, apathetic, judgmental, and very much a coward when it comes to dealing with reconciliation- both across ethnic differences, but also cultural differences (specifically Greek vs. non-Greek). I will continue pondering the things you have addressed! Thanks again for sharing/posting your thoughts :)

Thank you for writing such a powerful article. The concept of PASSIVITY is critical to driving change in our world. Be it a racist party at one of our elite universities or passively supporting murder and torture through illegal wars, or allowing banking CEOs and Fed Chairman (Greenspan and Bernanke) destroy our economy and way of life. It's critical to not be passively on the moving sidewalk on all of these issues. As for Duke, I applaud that Asian Student Alliance under Ting-ting and I find fault with Dr. Larry Moneta who is the VP of Student Affairs. He is the very definition of passivity. He allegedly stated that the University did nothing overtly wrong. Are you kidding me? There is no code of conduct for a fraternity or students at Duke? There were no preconditions for their return to campus after being kicked off for alcohol violations for 10 years? Give me a break. I was in the greek system at Carnegie Mellon and I attended Duke University as a graduate student. I am also Asian and very offended by the events at Duke. Please let Larry know that we are very ashamed with his passivity. There was another racist party just last year and unless Larry does something about it .... there will be another racist party next year or the year after. Shame on Larry for passively allowing this to happen at my University! Dr. Larry Moneta, Vice President for Student Affairs 102 Flowers Building 404 Chapel Drive Box 90959 Durham, NC 27708 Office Phone: 919-684-3737 Fax: 919-681-7873 George Hung MS MBA Duke Class of 1996

Alison, thank you for this post which I just got to seeing. I was there at the World Influence concentration at GC Indy. I'm a Chinese American in an all-white sorority and attended both ethnic specific breakout sessions at GC Indy (so I'm not exactly sure if I had a chance to meet you!). If I did, I'm sorry for not remembering but I didn't get a chance to say this to all the staff involved in both those sessions: I wanted to say, as difficult as it has been the past 3 years for me, it has been extremely rewarding at the same time. I am so so so thankful to see how God is working in Greek IV in this area of our ministry! God has definitely been answering prayers. PTL.

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