I find the case of Harley Barber to be a very interesting window into how Whiteness functions in America. In case you haven’t heard, Harley Barber is a White woman who repeatedly said the N-word in an Instagram post. The post got her expelled from her sorority and the University of Alabama. A video of what she said is linked here (content warning: it’s pretty graphic).
What I find interesting about Harley Barber is how her sorority, Alpha Phi, has reacted to her. They expelled her, rightfully so, and stated that Harley’s statements “are offensive and hateful to both our own members and to other members of the Greek and campus community. The [University of Alabama] chapter leadership and supporting alumnae moved quickly to address the offense, and Ms. Barber is no longer a member of Alpha Phi.” This is almost always what happens when White individuals are caught being racist; their respective organizations, friends, and family act surprised, and say that the racism these perpetrators exhibited is not in line with their, and/or their organization’s, values.
These statements minimize the systematic nature of racism. Racists do not just come into being; they are socialized into racism by their environment. Harley Barber likely has said racist things before and has not been challenged. She likely has also been in environments before where she was a bystander and racism was not challenged. Most importantly, and I know this for a fact, she has been a part of environments where Whiteness was rendered invisible. It could be a coincidence, but I really really doubt it, that Harley Barber was a member of the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Alabama. The Alpha Phi chapter of Alabama gained national notoriety when it posted its 2015 recruitment video. The video went viral because every individual in the sorority appeared to be White. That Alpha Phi was so White, and did not recognize how that would appear in a recruitment video, is a direct indicator of how invisible Whiteness can be.
I think the video also demonstrates how the lack of representation can also breed racist sentiments. Harley, and millions of other Americans gain membership to exclusive organizations through some type of merit, be it social, financial, performance-based, or some other metric. When organizations like sororities are supposed to be accepting and “colorblind,” but have exclusively White members, what kind of message does that send to others, and what kind of message does that send to its members? I think that Harley must have internalized the belief that White people are inherently better, and that Black people are inherently worse. After all, if this sorority is super exclusive, and all its members are White, does it not follow that White women have more of what it takes to be an Alpha Phi sister than women of color? The Whiteness of her sorority was likely one amongst many experiences she has had where Whiteness was implicitly commodified and valued. I find Whiteness so fascinating for this very reason. To people of color, a sorority video of 40+ White girls, at a school in the South no less, having fun tells us very loudly that the sorority does not value women of color. To White girls and women, however, they simply do not see the Whiteness that is so obviously present.
When Alpha Phi condemns Ms. Barber’s statements, it rings hollow to me, as White apologies for racism almost always do. Harley Barber being a member of the ultra-White Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Alabama undoubtedly influenced her. From the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), we know that attitudes, perceived behavioral control, and social norms explain a large amount of variance in behavior. Though other members of Alabama’s Alpha Phi chapter may not have made such racist statements publicly, I have little doubt that many of them feel similarly to Harley and may have made similar statements in private amongst themselves. Research also tells us that when racism is confronted, individuals who witness the confrontation adopt more anti-racist attitudes later on (Blanchard, Lilly, & Vaugn, 1991). The reverse is also true however in that when individuals hear others express affirming remarks with regards to racism, they have fewer anti-racist attitudes later on as well. For Harley Barber to be the person who feels safe enough to say the n-word on social media, she must have had many experiences over the years that told her such behavior was acceptable.
Socialization into racism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens over time, with multiple parties. Her mother, university, and sorority all tried to distance themselves from her, but all of them are implicated. What friends, organizations, and family members need to be doing when they find out a person in their ranks is racist is to do some deep self-reflection. They need to be asking themselves if there were any warning signs, what they could have done differently, and what needs to be done in the future to prevent these types of behaviors from happening. Sure, you may not be as racist as the individual who said the n-word in the video, but do you hold any beliefs that communicate implicitly that non-White individuals are inferior? For example, why do you think people are poor? Why are people of color more poor than White people? Answers to questions like these can reveal racial biases. When White individuals in close interpersonal proximity to outed racist state that the racist individual does not represent their values, it’s a cop-out and lets Whiteness off the hook. If we are to really make progress towards racial harmony in this country, we need to talk about the elephant in the room, we need to talk about Whiteness.
What I think is sad about this whole situation is that fraternities and sororities can be a force for diversity and inclusion. We know from Allport’s original work (1976) on prejudice that meaningful intergroup contact can reduce our biases towards individuals different from us. I can think of few contexts more suitable for meaningful intergroup contact than fraternities and sororities.