Kass Newton is a biochemistry senior. The views expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
Trigger warning: Mental illness
To all extended members of the Cal Poly community and the greek life community past, present and future,
My name is Kass Newton (she/her), and following the resignation of my national affiliation and membership, I am the now-former Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director of Cal Poly’s Chi Omega chapter. To start, I’d like to characterize the place of intersection I hold in my personhood: I am queer; I am a survivor of sexual and power-based violence; and I am a womxn of color. These pieces of myself have not only been deemed irrelevant to the organization that was supposed to be my home, but unwelcome, pernicious and to be hidden at all costs.
I joined Chi Omega as I was beginning my second year at Cal Poly, not knowing what to expect, but excited nonetheless to find sisterhood and a place of safety. Going through recruitment was terrifying. I felt tremendous pressure to constantly be “on,” to be the brightest light that was able to outshine the womxn around me and to be the perfect version of myself. At many houses — as I stood in my brown skin — I faced a wall of gleaming, white faces and knew I did not belong. I was asked where I was “from” countless times after watching the implied question bubble to the surface of their curious blue eyes. I was mysteriously dropped from houses that I had thought to have amazing conversations and was told to trust the process.
I wanted to feel special. I wanted to be chosen. And, if I’m being totally honest, I wanted the validation that I was and had something that made me different. Because that’s what being in an exclusive organization grants you, the sense of some shared aspect that separates your group from the others. These feelings were not clear to me until very recently and are even still hard to admit. I had, like many others, drank the Kool-Aid out of self-defense, trying to defend at all costs the fragile perception of my reality.
Once I had been donned with both the invisible and very real, very expensive, very required pin that marked me as worthy, I felt an overwhelming amount of love and support showered on me. My first quarter in Chi Omega was beautiful, warm and bright; it is what I imagine the experience of non-marginalized folx to be. And for that, I feel both profound jealousy and resigned understanding as to why so many choose to stay. As I walked my path, carrying my patchwork of identities, I was hurled countless red flags all begging to be seen. Now I am acutely aware of the blinders in place that enable others to walk easily past — unaware and unaffected by the very things that broke my stride.
I am sorry to say that I was not able to stay basking in the light; the winter quarter of my second year was when I began to truly process the things that were done to me and accept my identity as a survivor. In this messy recovery, I was also brought to confront both my sexuality and place as a person of color, both of which I had deeply denied in defense of my safety and was terrified to confront.
I will simply say that I was destroyed. Every part of my world and self was broken. I was living in a new, scary place where the meaningless touch of a friend could trigger a panic attack and send me into a dark, downward spiral of fear. I did not know how to exist. I felt like I was protecting a hand of cards that, if seen, would mark me as different, wrong, dirty, broken and pitiable.
We were told that we had been chosen for Chi Omega because we were like suns — bright and warm, but all I felt like was a black hole.
I could no longer lay claim to her — the person they had chosen; I felt like an imposter waiting to be found out. In the words of the national representative now running my former chapter, I couldn’t figure out how to exist in a place that was just about “fun and friendship.”
Continuing to remain but not exist within the group, I was convinced that once I fixed myself, once I made myself whole, once I could fit neatly in the center again, then I would be accepted back. First, I just needed to repair myself.
As I write this and reflect back, I know that there was never anything wrong with me. I was living in my totality as the flawed, imperfect, strong, resilient human that I am. But I had bought into a narrative of hierarchies that placed the identities that built me at the very bottom.
Wanting to be accepted back, wanting to feel the warmth again, and wanting — desperately — to know that the other womxn in my circle would never feel as adrift as I had, I applied to be the Diversity & Inclusion Chair and eventually became the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director. To characterize the gravity with which my position was initially treated in our bureaucratic structure, it existed at the same level as our Birthday Chair. From the new members to the executive board, there was no support for this work. I was only met with derision, resentment, animosity, and hate while trying to bring voice to mine and others’ experiences. I entered this leadership position because I had seen the innumerable ways that other leaders were able to be seen, form friendships, and overall be connected. But I’ve come to realize that this is, yet again, not a privilege afforded to the womxn of color and definitely not to those pushing for equity and inclusion, especially given the fact that the line between these two is unsurprisingly, typically non-existent.
And that is because greek life and organizations that parallel it celebrate the perpetuation of the status quo. But for us marginalized peoples, the status quo is our oppression, disregard, and subservient position in every space.
Now, as I attempt to characterize what this past summer has been for me, I sit in deep, stagnant reflection. Across the world, we watched and sat with the weight of 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Across our campus, we bore and continue to bear the weight of the raw testimonies shared on various Instagram accounts, most notably @shadesofcalpoly. Now enters those fiercely strong-voiced womxn, the leaders and stakeholders of equity within our former shared organization, who have become my personal source of inspiration and support. From the beginning, we set the finish line at nothing short of complete and utter equity, anti-racism and untamed belonging. It is difficult to encapsulate the frustrating mosaic of interconnected, oppressive structures in which myself and the ever-expanding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee have attempted to navigate, characterize, and dismantle. But I will do my best.
Greek life is shrouded in secrecy; it is bathed in traditions that are considered sacred and upheld to an everlasting fault. As a member, much of the organization remained a purposeful mystery; it was only through the process of working to uncover and dismantle all malignancies that we slowly dug up the putrid, intentional layers of systemic oppression that were designed, crafted, and enacted to maintain homogeneity.
I wanted to fix it. I wanted to fix it all. I wanted so badly to be a part of the reform that finally made greek life a home for all, that finally brought it to a place where it could, at its core, accept me and people like me. I’m sure many can relate to these feelings, regardless of the specific oppressive structure in which they find themselves. I poured my limited energy, hopes, and time into it all summer, treating it like a part-time job, working 20 to 25 hours a week as I was told to be patient, that not everyone had come from the same background, as I supported the predominantly-white chapter’s enlightenment to the pain that had been mine and others’ realities forever.
What else could I have done?
I wrote on behalf of and for the white leadership apologizing for racist, bigoted comments made by the white membership of Chi Omega against Asain-Americans. Go look. It’s still up today. I did so solely thinking of what I, an Asian-American womxn, so desperately needed to hear but hadn’t. I wrote the apology I had hoped for on behalf of the white chapter.
What else could I have done?
I sat on calls as white womxn cried to me about how awful they felt, about how angry they were, about how they felt attacked and disrespected as I received, accepted and centered their narrative. What else could I have done? I slowly delineated myself and my narrative from existence for the sake of survival. If this work was going to be done, I could not hold any personal ties to it, I needed to be an empty vessel that could accept, cradle, and validate the white fragility which my fellow leaders expressed.
What else could I have done?
At the end of it all, as our executive members tore themselves apart in conflict, defending the national organization they felt obligated to and representing the community they belonged to; as our committee members sobbed in meetings begging to be seen and heard; as Nationals sent in representatives to manage and prevent a public media nightmare, I had lost myself.
I buried myself because otherwise, I’d be threatening. I buried myself because folx needed time to educate themselves. I buried myself because otherwise, they wouldn’t hear me. I buried myself because this organization couldn’t see me. I buried myself because I just wanted this work to be done, and if the quickest way to get there was to centralize and epitomize the white experience, then I would do it. But that is, for lack of a better word, bullshit.
Womxn of color and other marginalized identities should not bury those sacred parts of themselves so that their voices can be heard more clearly. We should not be forced to fit ourselves and personhoods into that model which will be most accepted and received. But that is the fact. That is the toxic-positive, color-blind atmosphere in which greek life breeds and maintains an everlasting fault. There is no room to address the burial of marginal identities. There is no room to allow them to thrive and flourish. There is absolutely no room for me to exist, unscathed and uncensored, in my full entirety.
I want to be clear in my definition of the particular brand of racism that greek life and those systems like it employ. It is of the most intimate kind — the kind that slithers its way into every space to make every non-white soul feel strangled by its grip and simultaneously responsible for its presence. It is, to be frank, racial gaslighting that has seeded very deep feelings of inadequacy and self-hate; to be relegated to the margins of this story of “community” for the predetermined less-than, unimportant, unprioritized identities held. This is not isolated to a single greek organization. It is much larger. It is beyond the scope that our minds in their beautiful but limited capacities can comprehend. I promise you, it is there in your organization.
To begin this discussion, I contextualized those personal identities that have placed me within the margins. Now, I must clarify the place of intersection I inhabit in my various privileges: I am fairly white-passing physically and culturally; I am a native English speaker; I have no physical disabilities; I have American citizenship. In the identities I hold, I sit in a severely privileged place in this society. I digress in my discussion to address these aspects of myself because they are the tickets that have given me access and insider status to these structures.
At the end of the day, I have benefitted from existing within this system: I have grown immeasurably into my individual; I have made lifelong connections that hold some of the most tender spaces in my heart; I was given a place of (relative) safety that I could turn to in the dark. Yes, greek life has hurt me and the people I care about by targeting the parts of ourselves that mark us as Other-ed. But, what about those voices who were never allowed a seat at the table? What hurt do they carry knowing they did not fit? What is that absence like, knowing that you were never even allowed a chance to see for yourself?
These are the experiences of greek life that should matter. These stories of harm, hurt and exclusion are the very real ramifications of the perpetuation of the white supremacist, misogynistic, heteronormative, transphobic, racist, bigoted foundations upon which all of greek life rests.
To me, this is the final nail that has sealed my convictions in the necessity for abolition. It is all of the voices, peoples, and identities that were never given the chance to be heard. Greek life will never be open to the most marginal folx. Occasionally — and arguably for the sake of tokenizing — folx such as myself who hold specific Other-ed identities gain admittance. So long as our Other-ed identities never compromise our ability to conform to homogeneity.
I want to gently emphasize one last point. Despite the innumerous positive experiences that you have had, greek life has no place in an equitable society. Those of us who were accepted and have benefited are able to do so by the privileges we hold. Nothing more. By continuing this tradition of selective admission, the white supremacist structures upon which greek life was founded will perpetuate, amplify and propagate its pain.
At the end of the day, we are all young adults, some of us barely out of childhood and it is profoundly terrifying setting yourself adrift without an organization to anchor you and provide you with a safety net. But we are all so much stronger than we think; we do not need to pay an organization to find connection. We are all a part of the movement to establish radical, brave love for each other, and that starts with destroying the systems that keep us from doing so.