The 8:46 Project

After a Summer of Activism, KU Students Are Still Waiting For Change

Last year, students at the University of Kansas began a campaign to fight racial discrimination within the University's Greek life.
January 20, 2021, 6:00pm
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COLLAGE BY VICE STAFF; IMAGES VIA SHUTTERSTOCK
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The people fighting to end systemic inequality have been talking to VICE for years. Now we're catching up with them to find out what's changed.

Amid the 2020 protests for racial justice, students at the University of Kansas (KU) mobilized to make Greek life more equitable for marginalized students.

In July, current and former KU sorority members launched the Instagram page “Strip Your Letters,” encouraging peers to stop repping their respective Greek chapters on social media until KU’s Panhellenic Association, which governs the university’s sororities, addressed a list of demands issued publicly by the account.

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The demands included a request to create a system for students to anonymously report instances of sexual abuse and racism, as well as explicitly prohibiting racial microaggressions within frats and sororities. The page also highlights specific instances of discrimination that students have reported while going through the KU Greek system, some sororities in which have a “heat-to-hair” policy requiring women with curly locks to straighten their hair, as well as a policy that requires fair-skinned members to spray tan.

In August, VICE first spoke to six members of Strip Your Letters. With the spring semester approaching, we caught up with two of those members, Dani Rodgers and Hannah Feldman, to discuss the progress the group has made over the fall and how it has become a blueprint for other university students to pressure their own Greek organizations into doing better.

VICE: This past fall semester was the first time Strip Your Letters was active during a school year. How did it go?
Dani Rodgers:
I officially turned in my resignation from my sorority on the last day of September after a mishandling of an issue of racism. The chapter chose to prioritize the feelings of three white women who used slurs and derogatory language against Asian people regarding COVID.

Hannah Feldman: We were [anonymously] sent a recording of this conversation that happened. It's [still up] on our page. So it's not like, "we heard she said this." There is a video recording, which is why it's even more frustrating.

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It got to the point where we had two hundred comments in three hours and we honestly just stopped going through them. But that was our big situation this semester.

What has Strip Your Letters worked on in the past few months?
DR:
We held a couple of seminars [about how to start a Strip Your Letters page at your own university] with people from all over. It was incredible. There was like probably 30 or 40 different schools on those two different calls we did, where we just basically told them, “If you're not ready to come to terms with how you benefit and add to white supremacy, you're not ready to start this page.”  

We've been trying to set up more meetings with the sorority and fraternity life office, the DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] provost, and a few other offices on campus to talk about what they would need to see from Greek life for it to be equitable.

In terms of equity, how has the Greek community at KU changed over the past semester?
DR:
People can't claim that they don't know anymore, and so maybe that makes it worse that we're seeing some of the stagnance in the way that change is happening.

To me, it's worse if you know about the problem and you don't do anything to fix it.

HF: Because things aren't happening in person, it's kind of hard to tell in some aspects. But we know that bylaw changes haven't happened. So in some aspects, no, nothing has changed.

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How would you describe the motivation to fight for justice at KU some seven months after the initial George Floyd protests?
DR:
I saw a quote the other day that said, “White people are willing to recognize racism one degree less than the racism that they uphold themselves,” or something like that, saying how they're willing to fight on these things, but not these things.

And I think that really relates to KU Greek life, at least from what I've seen, where people are really quick to recognize that police brutality is a problem, but my chapter requiring heat-to-hair, that's “not a problem.” That's just a “preference,” you know, when that disproportionately affects women of color with natural hair.

Everybody's been sharing things to their stories, everybody's been signing the petitions and donating where they're supposed to, because that's like what looks good. But when push came to shove, no one was willing to put their deeds where their words were.

What was the response like after the VICE piece came out?
DR:
People from all over the country were saying, “No, we see this here, too. How can we help?” And there was a lot of interest in either starting their own “Strip Your Letters” at their universities or at least starting conversations.

Strip Your Letters U of Tulsa was started this fall, and after their first couple posts, their Panhellenic reached out to them and was like, “This is serious, we want to talk to you about this,” and made some actual bylaw changes. And so, I think that if the message is landing on the right ears, the change is going to happen.

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Some people maybe didn't have the teams or the outreach to start their own account. But they might be like, “OK, so you guys reached out to your provost, you guys reached out to your head of [sorority and fraternity life]. Like, I can do that even if I don't have a whole team of people.”

HF: We also had some panhellenic associations themselves follow us and reach out to us as a council to say, “We are in charge of governing these chapters. How can we use your resources? How can we start doing DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work? How can we bring about this change?”

It's just really encouraging to see not only that we're helping improve other campuses, but that we're also validating people's experiences and being able to be a vehicle for people to share their stories.

With the vaccine coming and campuses going back to “normal,” what are you hoping to accomplish in the upcoming spring semester and beyond?
DR:
I think big things would be talking about fall recruitment and how we can make that more equitable for people of color within the chapters, especially [those] that are subject to the heat-to-hair or spray tan requirements that shouldn't be necessary for anyone.

[And] making it equitable for differently abled or disabled [potentially new members]. Or even when it comes to things like medication, women who have to have refrigerated medication can miss a round [of recruitment] because of that. But their chance of sisterhood shouldn't be jeopardized or taken away because they need medicine, that's BS.

Also just making sure people still have these conversations because it was nice to see people having them when justice was “trendy,” but when it's not, things still need to be fixed.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. The University of Kansas Panhellenic Association did not reply to requests for comment.