Eve Dempsey doesn’t look like her sisters.
When she joined the Zeta Phi Beta sorority in the spring of 2007, she joined because she believed it was an organization with the same values she had, the same dedication to community service and sisterhood.
She didn’t care about the fact that she would become the sorority’s only white member.
Zeta Phi Beta is a historically black sorority in the National Pan-Hellenic Council. When Dempsey joined, she did something rare, but not something entirely unprecedented. Her sorority had integrated before – in the 1980s – but integration hadn’t become a trend.
After Dempsey “crossed” – the term for joining – she saw she wasn’t alone.
“There was another Caucasian girl who crossed the year after I did,” she said. “She joined, as I did, because of her own personal reasons. It didn’t have anything to do with race. It wasn’t to put a spotlight on the organization.”
Having a white member did make Dempsey’s sorority stand out from the others, she said.
“I’m sure at some point somebody was like ‘Oh, that’s the Zeta chapter, they have a white girl,’” she said.
White students join black fraternities and sororities on a somewhat regular basis, said NPHC President Xavier Burgin.
“It’s actually a lot more common for a person of a different background that’s not an African-American to join a black fraternity or sorority than it is for a white fraternity or sorority,” he said.
Burgin estimated that NPHC organizations have accepted about five or seven white members in the last ten years, but that their diversity efforts do not just involve white students. Alpha Phi Alpha has a member who is Filipino, and people of every race are welcome in the organizations.
“What I’ve come to find is that, for someone who’s not an African-American to join a sorority or fraternity, we pretty much welcome it with open arms,” he said.
Burgin said most NPHC organizations were founded in the early 20th century, when black students were kept from joining white fraternities around the country.
“The reason why a lot of people were brought into that is because a lot of white fraternities and sororities did not want us in their system, but we wanted to have a greek system as well,” he said. “We started this because we were discriminated against by the white fraternities or sororities, so it would be hypocritical for us to discriminate against anyone of any race.”Dempsey said the racial divide was not something she was used to after growing up in Tallahassee, Fla.
“The way a lot of people in Alabama are brought up, in the school cafeteria, the white children sit with the white children and the black children sit with the black children,” she said. “Where I was brought up, everybody sat with everybody.
“Because of that, I’ve always befriended everybody, and I’ve sometimes had people who are white discriminate against me because I associated with people who weren’t white,” she added.
Dempsey also came into contact with a lot of people she may not have met if she hadn’t joined the sorority, she said.
“Me and four other girls all came in at the same time, so I was really close with the girls who joined when I did,” she said. “One of the girls, her father was a Black Panther, so that was an experience, growing close to her and her growing close to me. We had to overcome not only stereotypical differences, but things that are instilled deep down in our childhood.”
Burgin said the opportunity to join a traditionally black fraternity or sorority is available to everyone, regardless of race.
“With us, it’s open to anyone and everyone,” he said.