Academic Thing: The Company He Keeps

April 20, 2009

The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities
By Nicholas L. Syrett
Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009

Why do members of white frats disproportionately turn out to be retrograde jerks? This question—in more judicious phrasing—frames Nicholas Syrett’s social history of white fraternities from their inception in the antebellum period to the present day.

To find an answer, Syrett scoured through college archives, fraternity newsletters, personal correspondence, diaries, memoirs, and novels to discover the various ways in which white fraternity brothers performed their race, gender and class identities over the past 150 years. The reader learns of romances, initiation rituals, and the quotidian affairs of the average white frat boy. At the outset, fraternities were founded as student-run secret societies that provided members with a space free from the regimentation of student life on campus. Membership in these institutions was a high honor bestowed on the those who proved themselves by their intellect, oratorical prowess and strength of character–the contemporary ideals of manliness. As these societies became the center of college social life, rival fraternities vied with each other to be considered more prestigious and more important in defining campus life; as a result, they attempted to become more exclusive, relying not only on individual character traits to choose their members, but also taking into account a prospective brother’s social standing and class background. Over time, ideals of manliness changed, but the basic dynamics of prestige and exclusion remained the same, reinforcing social hierarchies and hardening gender identities.

In the process of sketching out this broad history of masculinity in American college life, Syrett has excavated wonderful illustrative material to demonstrate how gender was enacted in fraternal life. I can’t imagine that I will ever teach the notion of “traffic in women” (as developed by Gayle Rubin and later Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) without using the example of the beauty pageants hosted by fraternities in which the girlfriends of members competed against one another for titles like “Sigma Chi Sweetheart” or “Kappa Alpha Rose.” While the victor of these contests walked away with the title and a chintzy trophy, her boyfriend and his fraternity gained the greater prize of increased prestige in the eyes of their brothers.

At the same time, this evidentiary gem also points to the major weakness of Syrett’s history. For while this example illustrates Kosofsky’s peculiar triangle in which the relationship between two men is constituted through their connection to a woman, it does little to complicate or to elaborate the model. I was left wondering about the specifics of how these pageants were organized, the content of the evaluation, and, more than anything else, how and why women participated in these contests. It is the strength of history, as a discipline, that such details muddy clean theoretical models and force reformulation and refining.

Similarly, when white fraternities were challenged to desegregate after World War Two, a number of white members encouraged integration, against the dominant trend of racial and class exclusivity. Syrett recreates this debate, especially as it occurred at Amherst College, but the emphasis remains on how fraternity men defended exclusion, with advocates of opening up to African Americans and other ethnic minorities receiving only cursory treatment. On the one hand, such a focus makes sense; most fraternities remained white and Syrett explicitly defines his work as a study of whiteness and masculinity. But, on the other hand, the story of the contestation of exclusionary whiteness and the transformation of some of these institutions seems as though it may shed much light precisely on Syrett’s central questions. For instance, how exactly did Columbia’s chapter of Phi Sigma Delta–dubbed “Phi Nig” by members of its racist peer institutions–undertake the effort of integration and how were their notions of manliness–which The Company He Keeps convincingly demonstrates are bound up with understandings of class and racial relations–impacted by this transformation?

Such questions are precluded by the teleological framing of the development of fraternities as the making of racist, misogynist and homophobic institutions. As a result, Syrett’s narrative becomes the domain of the jerkiest of the jerks. The toll exacted on the reader is exacerbated by the fact that fraternity members become, over the course of the book, more brutish and violent in accord with changing masculine ideals. Midway through The Company He Keeps I got the unsettling feeling that each successive chapter was being enlisted in an academic version of the juvenile game of one-upsmanship “What’s grosser than gross?”

In Syrett’s defense, my limited interactions with white fraternity members also led me to this question.


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