Last Lecture Details The Roots Of Fraternities

On a campus plagued with discriminatory scandals throughout its history, it should not have been a surprise to learn that its championed institutions of social life originate from a legacy of intentional exclusion.

On the evening of Sept. 25 in Pugh Auditorium, Professor Mir Yarfitz of the history department presented to an audience of about 200 people, both Greek-affiliated and not. Yarfitz, a faculty mentor to the Theta Chi fraternity and specialist in the study of masculinity, was invited to speak to the community as a part of the Student Union’s Last Lecture Series.

The Last Lecture series gives a platform for professors to present a talk as if it were the last lecture they would ever give. Yarfitz wasted no time in saying that while his speech would not be an attack, it would call in to question the foundation of Wake Forest’s largest social attraction: the Greek system.

Yarfitz argued that, throughout its history, Greek life at American institutions has functioned as a social club whose members are bound together through intense loyalty to each other and strong opposition to all those outside of the group. In an increasingly diversified country, the exclusion of “the others” has led to recent uproar against the system’s discriminatory past and indoctrination of hegemonic masculinity, calling into question whether or not it still has a place in higher education.

Yarfitz began by explaining that fraternities originated in all-male schools in the early 1800s. In such a setting, those who embodied the most masculine traits were rewarded with membership.

“In the early years, qualities such as solitude, sexual desire, athleticism and being a provider became prioritized, leading to the cultivation of a hegemonic masculinity,” Yarfitz said.

The introduction of women to the same institutions entrenched these qualities, noted Yarfitz. With women present, men could no longer be comfortable forming such a close-knit group.

“Homosexuality entered the discourse for the first time,” Yarfitz said. “Men had to make clear that they weren’t attracted to each other. This ‘gay panic’ led to the need to have sex with women and assert their dominance to confirm their sexuality.”

Murmurs rippled throughout the audience, eyes narrowed and eyebrows raised in the lingering seconds after this comment.

“I would have never thought that the hyper-masculinity stemmed from a fear of being seen as gay,” said sophomore Danielle Bryan. “I thought it was just to show off for girls, but now that he explained it like that, it makes so much sense.”

Fraternity members became, according to Yarfitz, rule-abiding men by day, and womanizers by night.

The worst was yet to come; once the higher education institutions became accessible to more people, masculinity wasn’t the only important factor in the hierarchical membership structure.

“When immigrants came to the institutions, the line had to be drawn,” Yarfitz said.

He explored how people of color were denied access to the Greek system because they were both outsiders to the established fraternities and did not have the social nor economic clout to gain membership. The system, then, became solidified. All those of the type that were already in would remain in, and all those who were not would remain out.

“I wanted to come to see how the frat boys would react,” said sophomore Suchi Jain. “As a student of color who’s not in the Greek system, I feel the exclusivity of Greek life every day.”

The denial of membership to all of the outsiders is now subconsciously embedded into fraternity life. The needed change, however, has yet to come because those within the system do not feel the daily oppression.

There is room for change, in both Yarfitz’s opinion and those with the power to enact the change.

“We need the pressure of lectures like this to address the history of exclusion, a really hard topic to talk about,” said senior and Interfraternity Council president Jack Walsh. “We’re working to refine the idea of what it means to be a gentleman. That starts with understanding the multiple experiences of different members of our community and working to reconcile them.