Going Greek, the Asian-Interest Way
I’m rushing the two Asian-interest sororities at my school, and this article reaffirmed my decision. It’s a great read!
Although legal discrimination against Asian Americans in mainstream Greek fraternities and sororities is a thing of the past, many still turn to the Asian-interest Greek system to find community.
By Christine Fukushima, Contributor
Published August 5, 2011
Contrary to depictions of college Greek life popularized by movies like “Animal House” and “Legally Blonde,” for Kelsey Tanigawa, being a sorority girl has provided many more benefits than invitations to toga parties and exchanges with frat bros.
When San Diego State University’s school newspaper, the Daily Aztec, published an article describing Asian Pacific American girls as racist in their unwillingness to associate with anyone besides other APAs, she turned to her sisters in Asian-interest sorority Sigma Phi Omega.
As fellow APA women, she knew that with them she would find an outlet where her anger would be understood completely.
“We were pissed!” She added, “It was a reminder of how closed-minded people are and how racism is still really present. It’s still happening … it was nice to have people to talk to about it.”
Although Tanigawa, 22, had no intention of joining a sorority when she arrived at SDSU, her friend convinced her to tag along to the “boba night” event hosted by Sigma Phi Omega.
At first, she felt “a little weird” being around all APAs, but gradually she realized that she liked her future sisters both for their personalities and for what they taught her about herself.
“Before I was pretty whitewashed and I never really appreciated the culture,” said Tanigawa. As a fourth generation JA she felt disconnected from her heritage, but watching her first, second and third generation sisters of various Asian ethnicities speak their languages and celebrate their holidays reminded her to appreciate her own culture, she says.
Like their counterparts in mainstream Greek “IFC” fraternities and “Panhellenic” sororities, Asian-interest Greeks host parties, work on philanthropy projects and are easily identifiable on campus by their Greek letter jackets.
But beyond traditional Greek activities, like Tanigawa, many also cited a desire to learn more about their culture and connect with others of similar backgrounds — something that they feel wouldn’t be possible in mainstream sororities and fraternities.
Her Sigma Phi Omega sorority sister Nicole Gomez, 20, agrees.
SDSU’s 15 percent APA population made it difficult for her to find friends similar to the ones she had while attending Troy High School, where the majority of her friends were APA.
Although she too was initially uninterested in the Greek life, “Sigmas caught [her] attention because it was Asian-based.”
“Just seeing that we’re from the same ethnic background made it more comfortable because we have the same values [and] morals and we can relate to each other,” Gomez said. As APAs, their shared foods, inside jokes and parental expectations brought them together.
Going beyond the ‘Asian’ in ‘Asian-interest’
The first Asian-interest fraternity, Rho Psi, was established at Cornell University in 1916. Until the 1960s, traditional Greek fraternities were legally able to discriminate against minorities. Anti-Asian sentiments on the West Coast fueled the founding of more Asian-interest Greek organizations in California in particular, but in ensuing years they spread across the country.
Most of these organizations are not included in their respective universities’ mainstream Greek system. Instead, they belong to separate governing councils with other multicultural sororities and fraternities, like SDSU’s United Sorority and Fraternity Council.
This separation has led some in mainstream fraternities and sororities to “look down on” Asian-interest Greek organizations and dismiss them as racist themselves for their mostly APA membership, says Tanigawa.
But this is not the case at all schools, says State University of New York, Buffalo Lambda Phi Epsilon brother Vinh Lu, 19.
“Even though we’re an Asian-interest fraternity we’re not exclusive with just Asians. We’ve crossed brothers who were African American, Caucasian, Hindu, all types of different brothers,” he says. Out of his pledge class of 13, only three brothers were APA.
The ethnic make-up of his chapter proves that Asian-interest fraternities and sororities don’t deserve to be called discriminatory, at least at Buffalo, he says.
Craig Ishigo, founder of Lambda Phi Epsilon, would be glad to learn about the Buffalo chapter’s diversity.
“I didn’t really feel like I fit into the Caucasian fraternities and I saw a lot of guys who [also] wanted to commit to the Asian culture but there was no option,” said Ishigo, who founded the fraternity in 1981.
But unlike other Asian-interest fraternities and sororities at the time, he wanted to establish an organization that would be open to men of all cultures while remaining a space for leadership development for APAs.
Since its creation, Lambda Phi Epsilon has become the largest Asian-interest fraternity in part due to its large alumni network, a benefit that it shares with mainstream Greek organizations.
Lu believes that it is this network that makes non-APAs interested in the fraternity; alumni will hire “whoever they feel will fit” and just this past summer, a Lambda Phi Epsilon alumni hired eight graduating brothers to work at his bank.
Another reason to go Asian-interest Greek
But after-college connections and finding friends with a common background aren’t the only reasons APAs join Asian-interest fraternities and sororities.
Decades after the end of legalized racial exclusion, some APAs still cite discrimination by mainstream Greeks at their schools as a reason for pledging Asian-interest Greek.
As an APA member of a Panhellenic sorority at Loyola Marymount University, “Lisa”, who didn’t want her real name used, understands why her fellow APAs might feel that way.
When asked if there is discrimination against APAs in the Panhellenic system at LMU, she says “definitely.” Among her 200 sorority sisters, she is one of five APAs. The small number, even relative to the school’s 9 percent Asian population, is common for “top sororities” like hers, she says.
“The more top sororities have less minorities and more white people whereas the bottom sororities [are] a lot more diverse,” she said.
“There’s discrimination of course because that’s how society is but a lot of it [also] has to do with being intimidated because you would be the only Asian American in your sorority.”
According to research conducted in 2004 to 2005 by Mississippi State University sociology professor Matthew Hughey, mainstream Greek organizations (termed “white Greek-letter organizations,” or WGLOs in the study) “engage in a racially segregated selection process that helps to recreate hypersegregation. It was rare that nonwhite prospective members approached or were recruited by, any of the WGLOs.”
When APAs were accepted into WGLOs, Hughey found that they were “praised for their supposed positive traits” that boosted the organizations’ collective GPA and provided, as one Asian participant in the study put it, “the illusion of inclusion.”
“Lisa” thinks that growing up in Palos Verdes, where her friends were mostly Caucasians and “whitewashed” APAs, factored into why she was picked because it enabled her to “connect better” with her Caucasian sorority sisters. Joining LMU’s sole Asian-interest sorority never crossed her mind.
“The consensus is if you’re in a Greek sorority, you’re whitewashed, and if you’re in an Asian sorority or fraternity you’re more culturally bounded. You hang out more with Asian people,” she said.
Tanigawa says that discrimination was a factor in her decision to join an Asian-interest sorority.
She sees only a few APAs in mainstream Greek organizations at SDSU and her friends in mainstream fraternities tell her that their brothers aren’t open to having exchanges (parties with one sorority and one fraternity) with Asian-interest sororities.
More importantly, however, Tanigawa is glad that she joined Sigma Phi Omega because of what her sisters have taught her about herself.
“It made me realize that I really do want to marry someone that’s Japanese because I really want to pass the culture down to my children,” she said.
Lemmeee introduce you to my Big and GBig, Cindy Khuu *Sultry* and Christine Su *Shyla*! Two people that really made an impact on me during my first year of college. I’m happier and more determined because of all the advice I’ve received from them. I really look up to these two amazing women. My GBig, a charter, pursing a career as a pharmacist and my Big graduating with a job lined up with a management position with Macy’s. They’ve got it all, beauty and brains. <3 <3 <3
And my B3, Sarah Artha *Exotic*, is quite an inspiring person too. So caring and passionate. Another person I admire. I really can’t wait for the day I meet her! Hope it’s soon!