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A Thin White Line: The White Infiltration of the Divine Nine

The Divine 9 or National Pan Hellenic Council (NPHC) is comprised of nine historically Black fraternities and sororities. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Incorporated. For over 100 years these organizations have served the Black community and been instrumental in civic and social change. 

However, as time progresses the organizations are starting to look different and include more non-black members sparking a debate among generations of greeks. 

On May 25th, @ribkarma posted a video on Tik Tok expressing her distaste for white individuals who are in historically black organizations. She did so by using Megan Swirczek, a white member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, as an example. 

This caused the debate on whether or not non-Black people should be a part of the Divine 9 to resurface on the internet sparking new perspectives and responses. 

FAU has eight of the nine NPHC organizations who each bring Black excellence, community service, and culture to the campus. So what do FAU Greeks and other “old head” members in the SOFLO area think? 

I interviewed ten members of the NPHC, six of which pledged at FAU. Of the ten, half were for having white members in the D9 and the other half were against. Notably four out of the five males interviewed were on the for side and four out of the five females interviewed were against. 

The members who were for having non black members say that as long as the person did their research on the organization, shows respect for the history, and is involved for the right reasons they see no problem in diversifying the council. 

“I’ve had a chance to meet people that are white and a part of predominantly black organizations. They definitely show a sense of pride and they show a sense of reverence and they understand the origin of this and the origin and what the roots are and they have a sense of respect for that,” said Sebastien Nicolas, a member of the Upsilon Theta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated.

Donyell Davis Jr., a member of the Alpha Beta Iota chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated echoed this belief and said that anyone who aligns themselves with the principles of their organization and are willing to give back “shouldn’t be barred from joining because of their race or ethnicity.” 

Others admit that it is shocking to see non-black members in this organization but that it is a side effect to a changing world. “It’s all good because you just get used to it, they’re your brothers, they share the same values as you so it’s good but it was just shocking in the beginning,” said Dwayne Kohn. Kohn pledged the Theta Eta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated in 1987 and in his 34 years of being a member has seen the organization become more diversified. 

Alicia Powell, a member of the Xi Omicron chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated located at Elon University quoted one of her founders when asked what her stance was on the issue. The quote reads, “There is a Zeta in every girl regardless of race, creed or color, who has high standards and principles, a good scholarly average, and an active interest in all things that she undertakes to accomplish”. However, Powell feels that being Black is a very sacred part of being a part of D9 because of the reason behind their founding. 

On the other hand, people who are against it cite a few reasons as to why they feel the NPHC should be exclusive to Black people. 

One point of view is that opening these organizations up contradicts the very reason they were founded. Most of the organizations were formed between the years 1906-1922. During this period federal segregation was established, the NAACP was formed, and various race riots were taking place across the country. This presented a need for Black safe spaces and organizations that Black people could be a part of since they were excluded everywhere else. 

“I just feel like Black people are always the ones that have to be inclusive all around but it’s very frustrating to see because our orgs were made, this whole council was made, because Black people were not allowed in the white sororities and fraternities,” said Quiara Green a Fall 2020 initiate of the Pi Eta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated located at Florida Atlantic University. 

Individuals who were for having non-black individuals in the NPHC said by closing the organization’s off by race we are continuing the practice of segregation and discrimination. Since these organizations were built to combat that, it is hypocritical for us to now do the same thing in a sense of “reverse discrimination”. 

“Why would you want to discriminate and segregate yourself knowing that our ancestors and our grandparents experienced that. Why should we further the problem by practicing the same behavior?,” said Nickolson Beaubrun, a Spring 2019 initiate of the Sigma Delta Delta chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated located at Florida Atlantic University.

On the flipside, Dr. Ron Osborne argues that these organizations discriminate anyway. 

In order to be a part of the D9 you have to meet a certain criteria: GPA, involvement, and service are the basic ones but you also have to fit the image that the organization wants. “We discriminate on who comes into the organization anyway even if they’re Black… not everyone can get into those organizations just willy nilly,” said Osborne. “It seems illogical to me that you would turn away Black people from an organization that’s for Black people but then you would let someone who’s not Black in the organization. Something about that doesn’t sit well with me.” 

Another theme that was presented in this debate is change vs. preservation. Many of the interviewees who were for opening up the organization to non-black members said that these organizations change with time and evolve. What was working for the organization when it was founded might not apply now. 

“I would say that as far as the NPHC goes I see it as evolving from a safe space to an area of inclusion. I feel like the world itself is diversified and in order to tackle the problems we need to be able to have a diversified perspective,” said Nicolas. However he continued by saying that the basis of the organizations should remain the same, “I’m open to the idea of us having a space where we can really have different perspectives and different points of views while still maintaining the principles that we were based on.”

Davis says that these spaces of Blackness are needed but that even before we had “allies with us who weren’t Black” who helped make progress and use their privilege to benefit the Black community.

While allies have been helpful throughout Black history, Osborne points out the danger it could pose to the organizations if too many non-black people are in power within the D9. 

“What would happen if you allowed 7 white people in a D9 chapter and then they changed their own personal bylaws and they have the voting power and change the bylaws of their own chapter. They could do things that are not advantageous to Black people,” said Osborne. 

Other interviewees echoed these thoughts and said that by straying too far from the history and original makeup of these organizations they will fundamentally change. 

This entire conversation was brought up because of the aforementioned tik tok video from user @ribkarma. A few days after that viral video. Megan Swirczek, the white member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated responded: 

Swirczek’s response further escalated the debate and brought up two main arguments 1. White Privilege and 2. Gatekeeping. 

All of the Greeks interviewed who had watched the video agreed that it came across as privileged and tone-deaf to the issue at hand. 

“She has a right to defend herself but there’s a certain way to go about it,” said Davis. He said she could have focused more on her allyship and the positives of her being in the organization rather than come at the problem the way she did. 

Torri Sealey, a Spring 2021 initiate of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated said that the video shows the danger of white privilege in what is supposed to be a safe space that uplifts the community, “If she had just talked about her allyship and acknowledged her privilege that would have been fine but she turned it around and made it seem like @ribkarma  wasn’t good enough or smart enough to be where she was. That’s what happens when you start letting non-Black people into these spaces, they think they can tell other Black people how things should be,” said Sealey. 

On that same thread, Greene said Swirczek “should have been reminded that this is a Black space that she was welcomed into” because her response was very privileged and entitled.

Non-black members of Divine Nine organizations are constantly faced with the question of why they joined. Greeks who are both for and against the issue admit that they ask non-black members that they come in contact with their reason for joining.  They are also faced with the recurring question of what they are really here for. 

Jacqueline LaBayne, an FAU alum, pledged the Sigma Iota chapter of  Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated in Spring 2017. As a white member of the organization, Labayne says she’s hasn’t faced discrimination but some members have had their hesitations which she says “they have every right to”. 

“Being a white woman in a historically Black organization raises valid questions, questions that I myself have had to ask myself and find the answers for. My purpose for joining was never to take up space, but through my experiences and personal growth I have realized that intent doesn’t always equate to impact,” said LaBayne.

She continued by noting that every time she wears letters, she is asked, at least once, why she joined. 

“It’s something I have gotten used to because it comes with the territory. Being a white member in the Divine 9 people are going to have questions, and with the history of why they were created in the first place, it is absolutely warranted. What is not okay is for white members to get defensive or apprehensive when their morals are questioned because if you look at history and the continuous systemic racism present in this country, of course Black people are going to question you and why you are in those spaces made specifically for Black people,” said LaBayne. 

Regardless of why white individuals want to join historically Black organizations, many of the interviewees felt as if they could get a lot of the same experiences and opportunities  such as participation in social activism, community service, sisterhood or brotherhood without having to be apart of a Black organization. There are over 100 “white” sororities and fraternities most of which practice community service, activism, and sisterhood or brotherhood. The one thing that sets the D9 up are the reasons behind their founding and the people who came together to found them. 

“I understand that people want to be pro-black and support black communities but you can do that from the outside. You can go to a protest, you can be an activist, you can donate, you can implement activism in the white sororities. You don’t have to be a part of what’s ours.

Other interviewees agree. 

“There are just some things that have to be culturally owned. There are certain things about the culture, there are certain things about the D9, there are certain things about each one of those organizations that caucasians will never understand and could never relate too. The community service piece? We all can relate to that but the culture, the struggles, how and why these organizations came about? They can absolutely not relate to that,” said Sabrina Pickney who pledged the Beta Theta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. in Spring 1991

After interviewing 10 Black D9 members and one non-Black member it is clear that this debate has no clear right or wrong answer but is rather based on your own beliefs and historical weight one holds for their organization.

This debate is an intricate one because it forces you to lay out your personal beliefs versus your organizational beliefs. Greeks who are against white individuals in D9 are torn between being sisterly and brotherly or holding true to their personal values. In a sense there are shackles within the organizations which forces members to accept the growing change within the NPHC. Most of the D9 has been around for over 100 years and they look very different than they did when originally formed and may look even more different in a 100 more years. But we must ask ourselves how much change we are willing to accept, if any at all. 

Be sure to drop your thoughts on this debate below and continue the conversation.