More than a century ago, Black activist and scholar W.E.B. DuBois championed the development of a "Talented Tenth": the highly-educated and motivated 10 percent of Black Americans who could effectively lead the race. Around that time, the first Greek-letter organizations for Black college students emerged.
With public mottos and slogans like “By Culture and By Merit,” “Intelligence is the Torch of Wisdom,” “A Community-Conscious, Action-Oriented Organization” and “Greater Service, Greater Progress,” Black sororities' creation stories are steeped in the DuBoisian era's lofty ideals about Black achievement and racial uplift. Today, five historically-Black fraternities and four sororities are members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, commonly known as the “Divine Nine.” Some critics believe that despite their solid foundations, modern-day Black sororities and fraternities are better defined by playful inter-Greek rivalries and step show routines than by service and achievement. So I have been especially proud of the way members of several Divine Nine organizations have joined forces to shut down Sorority Sisters, VH1’s odious so-called “reality” show about members of Black sororities. Far from an authentic look at the experiences of Black Greeks, the show is little more than a typical tumble into reality TV “rachetry.”
However, the social media campaign to target the show’s advertisers has been with derision by some critics, who have both tacitly and openly accused them of criticizing Sorority Sisters while ignoring the harms of other reality shows that denigrate Black women.
I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, and while I do not speak for my organization (only our national president can do that), my 25 years of experience as a dues-paying, program-executing, socially-conscious member make me more than qualified to explain why those who have mocked the Sorority Sisters boycott are so wrong.
First of all, any suggestion that Black Greek-letter organizations have callously ignored how reality shows defame Black women is wrong. In fact, Delta Sigma Theta has hosted several panel discussions, forums and other programs to debate and construct strategies to bolster the image of Black women in the age of exploitative reality television. I have proudly watched as collegiate members of my sorority—who are in the shows' target audience—have taken to the microphone at various events to say in no uncertain terms that the crude women of reality TV do not reflect or speak for them.
Even if we haven't organized boycotts against the shows at the national level, there is no doubt that through our programming, we have executed meaningful and sustained efforts to decrease consumer demand for them. My organization has several initiatives in place to boost Black girls' self-esteem and exposure to educated, successful women so they don't see themselves in the kind of crass characters who populate reality television. By our very existence, Divine Nine sororities show Black girls that there is a better way than the dreadful stereotypes cable television offers. A subtext of the backlash is the idea that Black sororities' anti-Sorority Sisters campaign is motivated by self interest. Well, duh! This is largely—but not solely—about brand protection, and anyone who holds membership in or claims fidelity to something that matters to them will understand why brand protection is important.
Yes, it's personal. If I'm walking down a street and witness a Black woman being degraded by someone, I will surely feel pain. I will likely try to help her, and I may even put myself at risk. But if the woman being mistreated is my mother or sister, my level of engagement will substantially escalate. That's a natural instinct and there's nothing inherently wrong with it.
Ironically, as the first episode of Sorority Sisters aired, I was on a conference call with members of my sorority strategizing about how we will respond to some of the most important social issues of the day. Later that week, I represented Delta at a ground-breaking roundtable discussion with leaders of Detroit's Black and Arab American communities about the importance of working collectively to fight against racism and oppression in the wake of Ferguson and the profiling Arabs and Arab Americans continue to face in post-9/11 America. It was the kind of intellectually robust and action-inspiring event that is typical of authentic sorority life—nothing like what’s taking place on that show.
Divine Nine organizations are actively engaged in multi-dimensional efforts to boost educational outcomes; address social ills and heal communities in every segment of the Black community. I'll bet you my cable TV subscription that Sorority Sisters will never show the unfortunate women who allowed themselves to be exploited by the show's producers highlight their sororities’ meaningful community service initiatives in any meaningful way. This show is slanderous not only because of the vulgar behavior of its cast, but because it completely misses the point of Greek life. May the boycott continue and the good name of our organizations not be sullied any further.
Kim Trent is a Detroit-based writer, activist and social commentator.