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First published online December 16, 2016

“You’re Either One of Us or You’re Not”: Racial Hierarchy and Non-Black Members of Black Greek-Letter Organizations


Colleges and universities across the United States tout the importance of racial diversity, yet highly public racialized incidents persist. Historically, Black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) were created in the early twentieth century in response to the racism Black students experienced on college campuses. While previous literature provides evidence for the positive effects of BGLOs for Black members, less is known about if and how these effects of BGLO membership extend to non-Black members. Drawing on 34 in-depth interviews with non-Black members of BGLOs, we seek answers to three yet unasked questions: First, why do non-Blacks come to identify with BGLOs? Second, what are the responses and reactions to this identification process and experience? And finally, how does this identification relate to larger shifts in the United States’s racial hierarchy? We find that campus racial climate acts as a catalyst for BGLO membership and that BGLOs continue to serve their purpose as a necessary counter-space but that also, non-Blacks come to identify with these organizations in order to develop meaningful interracial solidarity and oppose their hostile campus climates.

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Wendy M. Laybourn is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on racial and ethnic identity and racial ideology, with a particular emphasis on how both are evidenced through and affected by popular culture and/or raced institutions. She and Devon Goss’s current book project examines racial identity formation and racial boundary making among non-Black members of historically Black Greek letter organizations (Routledge).
Devon R. Goss, M.S., M.A. is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her research examines (1) the color line, particularly in relation to instances of boundary crossing in typically racialized institutions via an examination of white entrance into race-based organizations; and (2) the impact of racialization in family formation and processes, through an examination of transracial adoption.
Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut and Affiliate Faculty in the Africana Studies Institute and the American Studies Program. Over 2016–2017, he is a Visiting Scholar with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. He examines the relationship between racial inequality and collective understandings of race through (1) white racial identity; (2) racialized organizations; (3) mass media; (4) political engagements; (5) science and technology, and; (6) public advocacy with racism and discrimination.

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Published In

Article first published online: December 16, 2016
Issue published: October 2017


  1. race
  2. racial identity
  3. racial hierarchy
  4. fraternities
  5. context

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© American Sociological Association 2016.
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Published online: December 16, 2016
Issue published: October 2017



Wendy M. Laybourn
University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
Devon R. Goss
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA
Matthew W. Hughey
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA


Wendy M. Laybourn, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, 2112 Parren Mitchell Art-Sociology Building (Bldg. 146), 3834 Campus Dr., College Park, MD 20742, USA. Email: [email protected]

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