University of Tennessee-Chattanooga made the wrong call in not allowing white Greek organizations to participate in a tradition both white and black students had shared for decades.
This past October, the administration of the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga caused an uproar amongst the student body after it canceled one of the most popular events on campus, the Homecoming stepping competition. Historically-black Greek organizations have been stepping (a form of step dancing with traditionally African roots) on college campuses across the nation since the early 1900s. At UTC in the early ‘90s, members of the predominantly white sorority Alpha Delta Pi asked Delta Sigma Theta if they would be allowed to participate in the latter’s Homecoming stepping event. In a triumphant moment of racial unity, Delta agreed and began a tradition that would last for more than 20 years, with Greek students from all walks of life coming together to show off their moves. This year it ended. The culprit? That dreaded bogeyman – cultural appropriation.
In 2016, the black fraternities and sororities at UTC decided not to participate in the “StepDown,” which had been sponsored by the school’s administration ever since Delta Sigma Theta was suspended in 2008 for hazing a new member. They instead opted to organize their own competing show, the Chattanooga Black Greek Weekend, held the same day at an off-campus venue. In doing so, they were sending a clear message: that stepping was theirs, and they would not have it appropriated by white students any longer. After a year of debates and town hall forums, Jim Hicks, the dean of students, canceled the event altogether.
According to a “Washington Post” article published in December, some of the routines put on by majority-white Greek organizations in recent years had featured students dressed up as chain gangs and basketball players, costume choices that, though not by definition evocative of black people, were clearly intended to play on African-American stereotypes. You will find no argument from me that these costume choices, particularly the former, are in extremely bad taste and rightly offensive to many who would view them. But arguments from other figures on campus, including Hicks and Kinnawa Katibi, a 23-year-old graduate from UTC, did not stop at decrying these mocking get-ups. They insinuated that the very act of stepping, when performed by a white person, was disrespectful to black culture. And this is where I have to disagree.
Hicks was quoted in the article as saying to white students that “stepping isn’t yours” when they complained about StepDown’s cancellation. Why isn’t it theirs, exactly? What makes the dance the exclusive property of black students? The general sentiment among members of black Greek organizations seemed to be that because their reasons for stepping were rooted in an older tradition than that of the white students, they were also more valid. UTC grad Nate Harlan put it like this: “When white students performed, it was just a performance. It had no greater meaning, or a sense of why. We don’t step without a ‘why.’ It connects us to something bigger.”
What is this larger meaning? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters because the meaning is immaterial, undefinable. Connection to “black culture” or more specifically to one’s roots, is a rather ethereal concept, one that means something very different to each individual. It’s far from insignificant to those who harbor such sentiments, and I won’t attempt to diminish the experience of those black students who feel that stepping is something more than just a dance. But one’s subjective thoughts about the importance of an action do not dictate who else can perform it.
It may be that not one white Greek student at UTC views the stepping show as anything more than an opportunity to show off their dancing ability. But what if there are some out there who feel, as I do, that a performance where different cultures come together over a piece of art is as beautiful a display of racial unity as we can see in this racially polarized age? Is stepping not something significant to that person, albeit in a different way than it is to the black students?
You still might not be with me, and that’s totally fine. For one, I presented a hypothetical hinged on a person feeling a particular way, and that is no guarantee. In addition, there are those who feel that the act of borrowing from a culture, or as they would probably refer to it, “stealing,” is inherently wrong. I contend that white people adopting an element from a non-white culture is indicative of their acceptance that white supremacy is bogus. Stepping is not an inferior form of dance because it arose from African roots. Quite the contrary, its rhythm, musicality and lack of defined moves make it universally appealing. Attempting to establish stepping as something that only black people can perform sets a dangerous precedent and only serves to further stoke tensions between black and white. It is quite literally segregation along racial lines and all ultimately based on the argument “We did it first.”
Could you imagine if we applied this same logic consistently? If people were only allowed to use products or services that were created by their own culture, when that culture is so loosely established in this case that it is defined as little more than the color of one’s skin? We could go into innumerable examples of things that would have to be “white-only” and vice versa. Hell, it would probably take us even longer to go back through everything that both races wouldn’t be allowed to use since it came out of Asia.
Obviously, we don’t treat the real world this way. Not only is it functionally impossible, it is based on a racist, evil precept — the idea that a person can be denied something because of the color of their skin, that their worth as a human being is different from one’s own because of differing levels of melanin in their skin. It’s this sort of thinking that led to subjugation and enslavement of African peoples by white colonialists for hundreds of years, and it is the type of mindset that we must never allow ourselves to fall back into. That holds true for everybody.
I don’t use such language to sound alarmist. This will not be a piece that concludes with a warning of the death of an alleged “white America.” I don’t think that the black Greek organizations at UTC want revenge against white people for past grievances. But they should step back and examine what they are truly saying when they argue that they should be allowed to do something that white people cannot. They should ask themselves, as should you, why is more division something to be encouraged? Why not come together? Why not share?