A Serious Matter

With American soldiers at war, the nation’s jobless rate bursting at the seams and oh, let’s not forget that perpetual health care debate; there surely are more serious topics to consider than which college sorority wins a step competition. Ordinarily, the outcome of such a contest would merit little more than a passing mention among friends engaged in idle chatter.

But, when a white sorority beats a black one in a first-of-its-kind national showdown and uproar erupts in its wake, AND when the tournament’s organizers later reverse course and split 1st place with the runners up, then arguably that deserves a second look. Unintended as it may have been, the Sprite Step Off™ produced a veritable smorgasbord of culturally relevant considerations and became an unlikely laboratory for postmodern racial integration. Put simply – as Alpha Kappa Alpha women might say – it’s a serious matter.

It matters first – seriously or otherwise – to AKA because its step team from Indiana University was the one that came in second, losing hair down – er, um – hands down to the white team, Zeta Tau Alpha from the University of Arkansas.

It matters moreover when you consider the history and preponderance of step.

Stepping, with its synchronized hand slaps, stomps and blends of rhythm and verse, finds its origin in black Greek culture. While a number of organizations including white and Latino Greeks, plus non-Greeks as well have themselves embraced step, the art form is mostly practiced by and widely associated with black Greek letter organizations.

The notion, therefore, that any group other than a black fraternity or sorority could claim the inaugural tournament’s prize and prize money was – well – out of step with rational thought. Yet, there it was happening right on an Atlanta stage last week: The white sisters of ZTA – clad Matrix style in black replete with dark sunglasses, shiny mid-length coats, and high-heeled, calf-height boots – stomped and slapped and bootyliciously dropped it like it was sizzling on their way to a decisive victory.

Or so it seemed. As it turned out, “decisive” was relevant.

When word of the Zetas – the white ones, not the blue and white ones – hit the street, the ensuing firestorm was swift and terrible across the Internet and particularly on Youtube where someone posted video of ZTA’s winning performance. Among the comments were numerous postings challenging everything from the tournament’s integrity, to ZTA’s originality, to whether the white sorority should have been allowed to participate in the first place.

One poster, Harmony1922, suggested the novelty of ZTA’s racial background had more influence than anything in the foreground. “I do think the fact the they are a predominately white organization played a MAJOR factor in the crowd and judges [sic] reaction to the show,” she theorized. “They were a good team, but what made it more interesting was that they were good…and white.”

Another explained, “The resistance is about them mimicking our cultural traditions and then being rewarded for it. It’s about the distrust of a system that ALWAYS validates WW over BW [sic].”

If distrust is part of the backlash, then sponsor Coca-Cola’s next steps did little to instill good faith among critics or supporters. The makers of Sprite went back and conducted what they called “a post-competition review” that revealed an irresolvable “scoring discrepancy.”

Now, I’m not sure I’d recognize a scoring discrepancy if one crossed the street in front of me. And the sponsor’s not giving clues about what this particular discrepancy looks like either. Maybe it’s the mathematical version of a wardrobe malfunction. In any event, the result is that AKA was awarded a share of 1st place with its now co-winner ZTA, the previous clear-cut tournament victor.

Publicly, both sororities’ national spokespersons are equal parts “truly blessed” and “delighted with the outcome.”  But behind closed doors you have to wonder what the real conversations resemble.

The AKAs can’t truly be pleased with becoming the Greek equivalent of Suzette Charles, the second, first black Miss America. Neither can ZTA be elated with progressing through several rounds of regional contests only to discover that the Super Bowl can in fact have two winners.

If there’s any benefit for these Southern ZTAs it’s that the episode should quicken all those stories they may have heard about racial inequities in the South of their grandmothers and grandfathers. It’s a splendid opportunity for them to experience how the black pioneers of sport – the Jackie Robinson types – felt as they kicked open the doors of integration. Now, perhaps they’ll understand and share with their friends how it feels to have the rules change to outlaw dunking in college basketball.

Only “if they make the connection,” says my friend Linda (she asked me to change her name for this article). Linda, who is an AKA, says she’s not convinced the girls will understand the irony of living on the dark side of integration.

“They didn’t want us in baseball because they knew there would be a Jackie Robinson. They didn’t want us in boxing because they knew there would be a [Muhammad] Ali. They didn’t want us in golf because they knew there would be a Tiger Woods,” Linda says recounting a tale of resistance to integration built upon fear.

And then Linda, who admits ZTA gave a very good performance, swings for the deep and unspoken fences.

She explains that as an African American woman she sees this in another context. Linda describes feeling like white women, who already were winning the affections of so many eligible black men, had crossed the line one time too many. “That and then this; the sistahs don’t stand a chance,” she says wondering what will be the next encroachment.

I’m not a black woman. So, I’ll never truly experience her dismay. Instead, I awkwardly and uncomfortably find myself identifying with white men.

As a black Greek watching pony tailed ZTA best an entire field of black sorority chapters, I finally understood – I think – how lifelong members of the exclusive Augusta Country Club must’ve felt when Tiger Woods put on a clinic and won his first Masters. There’s that mix of admiration at a job clearly well done and chagrin at embracing a new normal when the old one seemed just fine.

So this is how integration feels to white men?

African Americans understandably expect equal access to all life’s pursuits. And we’re naturally offended when the gates of integration don’t always swing open to a flood of smiles and open arms.

Perhaps playing integrators for a change, we at last can peep the matter some from our white brothers’ perspective. Perhaps we’d learn that integration is tough work on both sides of the fence. Perhaps we would have allowed ZTA to remain the tournament’s sole champion.

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