Bring It On--The Real Life Version

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Here's an interesting piece by Lawrence C. Ross from The Root on the first white sorority to win a step contest:


It all started on Feb. 20 when Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority, a predominantly white sorority, entered the Sprite Step Off National Step Competition in Atlanta, and beat three National Pan-Hellenic Council sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta, winning the $100,000 first prize. While many black Greeks gave the ZTAs their due, the blowback was immediate from a lot of angry black Greeks who couldn't believe a white sorority could honestly beat black sororities.

The Sprite Step Off, broadcast on MTV2, distributed $1.5 million in prize money via regional competitions to winning step teams from around the country. With musical guests like Lupe Fiasco and Ludacris, this was the first national stepping competition to gain such widespread exposure, and the finals in Atlanta were highly anticipated.

And while the nine African-American fraternities and sororities signed a licensing agreement with Sprite, earning an estimated $75,000 per organization, there was nothing in their agreement that prevented a non-African-American fraternity or sorority from competing. Enter Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority from the University of Arkansas.

Immediately after word got out that Zeta Tau Alpha had won, Twitter and Facebook blew up with accusations that Sprite was biased in favor of the white sorority. Others claimed that it was a stunt for MTV2, which broadcasted the contest.

I think this is all about the competitive aspects of American society. In the commonly rendered narrative of American history, African-Americans are either the biggest loser, or don't exist. We were victims of slavery, victims of Jim Crow, victims of lynching, victims of segregation and so on. And in the commonly rendered sociological narrative, black folks are either the biggest loser, or don't exist. We have the highest murder rate, the shortest life span, the least wealth, the most poverty and so on. From those perspectives, (and they are not mine) African-Americans are the Detroit Lions of sociology and history.

Moreover, integration is not symmetrical. The speed at which whites adopt black cultural forms is unmatched by the speed at which blacks are able to adopt white socio-economic power. Jazz may be officially American music. But the wealth gap is as sprawling as ever. The problem is that it's a lot easier for a white kid in the suburbs to learn to dunk, than for a black kid in the projects to get into college. And even that doesn't tell the story, because likely he'll still be playing catch-up. Thus when Eminem starts laying claim to best rapper in the world, and lays claim to a kind of fan that Biggie could not, questions arise for black folks. It's like they can't even let us have our consolation prize.

White people: ever walk into a mostly black club and get bad looks? Not "I'm gonna kick your ass" looks but "What the fuck are you doing here?" looks. I can speak to that because, as a younger man, I've given those looks. It's about power and the threat to our consolation prize of cultures.It's about white people, not as people whom you do not like, but as an existential threat.


Now, as a friend of mine would say, this is the kind of post that explains everything but, ultimately, excuses nothing. Some years ago black people made the choice to integrate. Martin Luther King Jr. was the clearest symbol of the black desire to be part of this country. That's fine. But I'm skeptical of the notion that you get to integrate on your terms. You can't, on the one hand, complain about the public schools in your neighborhood, and then be pissed when white people move in because the schools have improved.

My son is part of a football organization here in Harlem. There are several age-groups on the team. In the first year we were so-so, and we had, maybe, one white kid in an organization of about 150 kids. But word got out that we were a respectable bunch, and the next year there were maybe ten white kids. That year one of our age-groups won the local championship and got a trip to Florida. Word got out, and this year, while the team is still predominantly black/Puerto-Rican/Dominican, there were so many white kids that I could no longer count them. No matter your race, when you make something good, people come. That's capitalism.

I don't know much about other immigrant groups, but I'd bet money that the movement of the Italians, the Irish etc. was fraught with the same sort of cultural compromise, if to a lesser degree. It'd be interesting to see to what extent, say a century ago, the country discriminated against the white ethnics, even as it appropriated their culture. Intuition tells me that this is what happens as you try to make your way in. I think Ross got it right
Black Greeks, and African Americans in general, shouldn't fear appropriation of our art forms. We should instead be good stewards of our own traditions, work to improve them and demand respect by anyone, black or not, who attempts to bring tribute to it.

With that in mind, anyone watching Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority's performance would not only agree that they respected the art form, but that they also gave a show that is worthy of a win. And for that, black Greeks should remember our roots and congratulate them on a job well done. Because to not do so says more about us as black Greeks than it does about Zeta Tau Alpha as a white sorority.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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