Mandingo Redux: Notes on the Quest of Black Men to Save ZTA

Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks (or, unless you have a life where these issues just don’t concern you…which I can dig as well), then you have heard the buzz about the Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority claiming (now a shared) first place and $100,000 in the 2010 Sprite Step-Off competition. Those who are familiar with the routine presented by the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority will have recognized their theme in homage to the film “The Matrix”; those familiar with and aware of the recent “Post-Race America” mythology that is currently at work in U.S. culture should be questioning whether or not some folks actually ENTERED The Matrix after watching this performance and evaluating its aftermath.

 “This situation can be compared to the time Blacks broke into the sport of basketball…whites felt that they were ‘appropriating’ the sport…”

“This is similar to the riots that took place after [First African American World Heavyweight Boxing Champion] Jack Johnson beat James J. Jeffries in 1910, defeating ‘The Great White Hope’…”

“I stand with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in condemning the hate and discrimination that Black folks are perpetuating towards the Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority…”

True Story…these are three of the statements I have read – all written by Black men – regarding the reaction to the 2010 Sprite Step-Off results. You have read these statements correctly, folks – these men are comparing this situation to historical instances of deep-seated, INSTITUTIONALIZED, SYSTEMIC, racism. Here’s what’s up: These men are out of their f***ing MINDS!! I can provide anyone who is interested with a list of citations/references to read for yourself on this issue, but here is the long story shortened: those on the MARGINS cannot “appropriate” from those in the CENTER. The term “appropriation” – as it relates to relations between groups that have been historically/systematically oppressed and those who have not – has the aspect of systemic and institutionalized POWER imbedded within its very meaning. It is a very, very dangerous pursuit when one attempts to place the discriminatory RE-actions of any oppressed group on par with the DIRECT oppressive action of a dominant group. Dangerous…and ignorant as all hell.

Regarding the Sprite-Step off debacle, concerns and issues are plentiful, and many have been presented for consideration: At both the 2009 NPHC National Conference and the 2009 Delta Sigma Theta Eastern Regional Conference, representatives from the Sprite Corporation stated during their pitch presentations that this event would feature ONLY member groups of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (a.k.a. historical Black Greek-letter organizations). They used the image and status of NPHC groups to promote the event, and held it during Black History Month. $100,000 was at stake. In my perusal of commentary about and around this issue, folks have raised valid and cogent points around corporate exploitation, cultural appropriation, U.S. history, Greek Life history, Black history, the origins of stepping, the sanctity of traditions, and the subjective nature of stepping competitions – among many others. And yet, all of these points have been tossed aside, misinterpreted, misconstrued, or misused in the public discourse around this issue. Instead, the negative re-action of the Black community to ZTAs win has been narrowly conceived, oversimplified, and poorly analyzed.

To cut right to the chase: Folks who have been publicly commenting on this event – and most of these “folks” are Black men – have turned this into a “balls out” critique of the Black community. Specifically, several have compared the (uncritically analyzed) re-action of the Black community in this instance to the direct action of racial discrimination which has been historically and systematically placed upon Blacks in this country. Apparently the election of a Black POTUS has made people lose all sense of history. And their damned minds. Or perhaps folks are just too lazy to pick up a book. I don’t know. But what I DO know is that the assertions made as of late – many bordering on the contention that Blacks are promoting a kind of “reverse racism” in this event – fly square in the face of 50+ years of sociological, feminist, post-colonial, and critical race theories.

But who needs grounded theory and research, anyway?!? In our current Anti-Intellectual America, well-researched and well-founded critical perspectives have been replaced by completely ahistorical and opinion-based meanderings. I blame Bill Cosby for this. (Yeah…The COS! That Ed.D. that you rock at the end of your name…it was HONORARY, Bill!) Cosby – who has not known what it was like to be an “average Black man in America” for the past 50 years – has, as of late, consistently defecated on the Black community without even attempting to address the multiple and varied social structures at work in U.S. culture. It is my contention that Cosby was so popular in the 1960’s/’70s that even Klan members listened to and laughed along with his comedy albums in secret. There is no doubt that the man had a gift, and certainly an ability to cross racial lines. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make him an expert on race relations in the U.S. – especially since he was tokenized as an “exception to the general Black rule” decades ago. And he needs to do some real research, or put a Pudding Pop in it. (Mmm…banana Pudding Pops…have not had one of those in YEARS!]

So this is where we have arrived: the Sprite Step-Off debacle has now been transformed into a conversation about how messed up Black people are. What a surprise!

“See…that’s what gets me. You have to be able to understand your African American history, your African American Fraternal history, and understand that your organizations came out of a rejection – rejection of African American students on college campuses, the rejection of African American Fraternal organizations in the midst of white organizations – and when you understand that, you cannot turn around at the exact same time and reject others just on the basis of their own race.” ~ Lawrence Ross, NPR Interview – February 26, 2010

This statement, made in the aftermath of the Sprite-Step Off, is an excellent illustration of the angle that some folks have been working lately. What is most fascinating to me though [and do check out the interview for yourself at] is that seconds later, when the interviewer addressed the issue of money – namely, that there was $100,000 at stake – and asked if Ross felt that this had influenced “what happened here,” Ross never answered the question. Instead, he took that opportunity to (1) provide a short history of how Step Shows/Greek Shows were once produced, and then (2) critique Black Greek-letter organizations for being overly obsessed with Stepping. While he was on NPR continuing to shape/promote his career…by talking about Stepping. In-ter-es-ting. When given the opportunity to address another (extremely important) aspect of the response to ZTAs win – one that would have brought depth and complexity to his analysis – he chose to evade the question. He also ended the interview by stating that a Step Show result is not “the end of the world” – “the world will keep spinning.” And indeed he has continued to spin this story to every mainstream media outlet available, very problematically comparing it to the historical and systematic exclusion and rejection of Blacks by whites in this country. And he’s not the only Black man to do this…these brothers are running through traffic, jumping over turnstiles like O.J. Simpson in a Hertz Rental Car Commercial, swooping in to save Zeta Tau Alpha!!

[Yeah…I went there. And I’m going to keep it goin’…]

Like the awestricken Mandingo character in the “Black Acting School” scene from the iconic film Hollywood Shuffle, Black male “experts” have run to the rescue of the Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority in the aftermath of their “earth-shattering” (Gasp!) win in the 2010 Sprite Step-Off competition! I mean really…it is like watching some bizarre In Living Color-esque skit, folks! Here is what the women of ZTA had to say about the reaction to their win last month:

“We haven’t been focused on any controversy,” McDowell said. “Our girls just came to step and win a scholarship. Whatever happened, there were two winners. I think everyone walked away happy.”

Where, pray tell, are the accusations of reverse racism?!? Where are the deep-seated feelings of rejection and discrimination, which – according to many Black men whom I have read blogging and Facebooking about this issue – these women have been subjected to at the hands of members of Black Greek-letter organizations (or Black folks generally)?!? Do these men believe that if Zeta Tau Alpha had a problem with their treatment…they would not feel empowered to come forward and speak out on their own behalf? *Sniff*…*Sniff*…that smells like SEXISM to me. Because it ain’t chivalry, folks (that’s been dead for some time.) ***Paging Betty Friedan: SOMEbody is trying to place white women back in the elusive and restrictive Guilded Cage!***

[Sidenote: This reminds me of the time I saw Paul Mooney perform Stand Up at the University of Southern California sometime in the ‘90s. He was heckling a young white woman who was sitting in the front row. She was handling it, laughing her ass off. She had come to see Paul Mooney, and she knew what she was in for. His heckling continued, when all of a sudden…out of nowhere…a voice rose above his rant: “Leave her alone!” Paul Mooney shaded his eyes to look out into the audience: “Was that a BLACK person who just said that?!?” The crowd was tense, waiting for Mooney’s Read. “Let me tell you something: This white woman does not NEED Black people to protect her from me! She has the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard, LAPD, FBI, SWAT Team, CIA, ATF, DEA…she does not need YOUR Black ass to save her today.” The woman in the front row: ROTFL. In fact, she could fend for HERSELF! But a Black person in the audience was made so uncomfortable by what Mooney was doing, that this person felt compelled to speak up on her behalf. This happens all the time in Women’s & Gender Studies courses…some women will come IN to the class believing that male-bashing WILL take place, and they are ready to protect all men. Or at least the ones who are in our classroom. It is really disheartening for me to see so many women diving to cover the genitals of male students when I first walk into a class…mostly because I haven’t even gotten the chance by that point to show them my Castration Machine.]

In fact, the leadership of Zeta Tau Alpha is more than capable of weighing in on this issue. And if they found it to be of any import, they would. The fact that some Black men have chosen to use this group of women in order to call out the Black Greek community as perpetuating discrimination that is allegedly on par with historic/systemic racism is completely egregious. Go to Zeta Tau Alpha’s national website – find a statement, an edict, an interview…ANYTHING that would suggest that they are concerned, hurt, or offended by what took place at the Sprite Step-Off. We need to get rid of our own stereotypes about meek and docile white women. National Panhellenic Conference sororities are extremely large, powerful, wealthy, and well-run organizations. I was able to see the inner workings of this system quite intimately when I was a House Mom for an NPC sorority at Syracuse University. These are strong, organized women who do not back down when slighted. At a school where I recently worked, a member of an NPHC fraternity sent an email out wherein he made disparaging statements about an NPC sorority and about historically white Greek-letter organizations generally; the sorority in question did what they needed to do in terms of mobilization and retaliation. This young man did not receive a coveted position for which he THOUGHT he would be a “sure thing.” Because he effed around with a sorority.

So what is REALLY going on here, folks?!? Why have some Black men chosen to use this event as an opportunity to place the entire Black community on BLAST?!? Or maybe folks are willing to do anything these days to further their own professional/economic aspirations…and they are more than ready to defecate on the Black community in order to make this happen. Because really…I have not seen/read one positive thing about the Black community and/or Black Greek-letter organizations coming from any of these uppity Black men as of late. And I know for a fact that we are doing things that are worthy of positive media. But since NPR and CNN are not invested in perpetuating positive images of Black people…these men are only succeeding in selling out our community. And I am calling it out as Uncle Tom Foolery.

In closing my very first Blog entry, I must take a moment to shout-out the incomparable Paula Giddings – African American Historian, Innovator of Black Feminist Thought, and member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. – who originated the public conversation about Black Greek-letter organizations when she published her book In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement in 1988. I’m not sure why women seem to have fallen out of the public discourse on Black Greek Life, or Greek Life generally speaking; but it is clear that we are in desperate need of a more inclusive and thorough analysis of this community. At the moment,   perspectives engaging gender, class, sexual orientation – and in some cases, any critical analysis of race – are scarce or missing on this topic. This assertion is supported by the fact that in a conversation about two women’s organizations competing for a top prize in Greek Life, MEN have Kanye’d the mic and held court…and framed this discussion in their own masculinist, “fraternal” terms.

While Facebooking about this subject, no matter how cogent my arguments, Black men have worked to “put me in my place” – when I cited the “Compton Cookout” debacle during one thread about racism and Greek Life, one man admonished me as promoting an “emotional” response/perspective. After I engaged another man – a Scholar – about the problematic perspectives presented by a commentator on this issue…he accused me of “having a crush” on the man.

|Blank Stare.|

Well, allow me to formally introduce myself: My name is Leslie Grinner. I am a Black feminist thinker/researcher/writer, a Popular Culture Fiend, an advocate of Ending Oppression, and a Woman with a very, very big mouth. I am doctoral candidate at Syracuse University in the Cultural Foundations of Education department, and I will  be completing my doctoral dissertation this year. I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated in the Spring of 1990; I have over 15 years of Greek Life Advisement experience, and the councils/member groups I have advised include the NPHC (historically African American organizations), NPC (historically European American & Jewish American sororities), NIC (historically European American & Jewish American fraternities), NALFO (historically Latino/a organizations), AGC (historically Asian organizations), and MGC (multicultural organizations, including South Asian Interest organizations.) I am a proponent of Greek Life amongst all cultures/interests/experiences. And I have now entered into the Public Discourse on Black Greek Life.

God Help Us All.

 ~ Grinner



Filed under Critical Commentary

5 responses to “Mandingo Redux: Notes on the Quest of Black Men to Save ZTA

  1. “So what is REALLY going on here, folks?!? Why have some Black men chosen to use this event as an opportunity to place the entire Black community on BLAST?!?”

    Umm….what happened is that them white girls dropped it like it was hot at the end of the program. That’ I mean, I could engage you in some sort of philosophical discussion as to why this entire thing is happening, but it really boils to is a bunch of “Captain Save a Hos” flying into action. (Not calling the ZTA women Hos. I just don’t know them all personally.)

    The better question is how in the world did the reds and your esteemed P+G squad let this happen? I blame YOU. ::Keeping his fingers crossed hoping the Bruhz weren’t entered in the show::

  2. douglas ramsey

    This white woman does not NEED Black people to protect her from me! She has the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard, LAPD, FBI, SWAT Team, CIA, ATF, DEA…she does not need YOUR Black ass to save her today.” hahahahahhaah great work i look forward to your blogs

  3. douglas ramsey

    This white woman does not NEED Black people to protect her from me! She has the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard, LAPD, FBI, SWAT Team, CIA, ATF, DEA…she does not need YOUR Black ass to save her today.”

  4. Newt

    My sister, I have long sought your feedback on this item and to read your work, it was as I envisioned it. Brilliant!

    I feel like Brother Fishburne at the end of School Daze…”WWWAAAKKKEEE UUUPPP!”
    Unfortunately, some people only focus on “Stomp the Yard…”

  5. I am *so* glad you’re finally blogging! You’re a smart, young woman with a whole lotta good stuff to say!

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