August 2020 Archives News: History of Theta & Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Category: Heritage

Noraleen Young

Alpha Chi, Purdue

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

This quote, by philosopher George Santayana, has been cited so many times it is nearly a cliché. But it is applicable to Kappa Alpha Theta.

Theta is an organization that has existed for 150 years. It was founded just five years after the US Civil War ended; by four white women attending a Methodist university; and it spread throughout the US on college campuses with predominantly white, Protestant students. They, like many of their counterparts, reflected the culture of their families, campuses, and communities, a culture that was often discriminatory.

So how do we reckon with this aspect of our past? As an organization, we are committed to conducting a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) review to identify biases, barriers to members with marginalized identities, and ways we are failing to lead and support our members. As staff archivist, I am committed to researching, documenting, and acknowledging what has happened in the past. (Learn about what DEI efforts our organization is doing today.)

Materials in our archives show that some Thetas of the past produced minstrel shows in which they participated wearing blackface. We find some Thetas used language that describes individuals in derogatory, hostile terms. And while these examples of racism and prejudice were visible, there was a more significant force of silent discrimination revolving around membership selection. As campuses became slightly more diverse in the 1910s and 1920s, Theta, like other sororities, institutionalized recommendation and selection processes to control those whom individual college chapters could initiate, processes that could be influenced by discrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, social class, and/or sexuality.

As we move forward as an organization, reviewing what has been done and what needs to be done, I will be sharing through our communications channels my research on what Theta did or did not do to support diversity. The research itself is difficult and time-consuming; while official documents sometimes contain information relating to this issue, references are often not specific but are shrouded in coded language. I am working on records in the Theta archives, but I know that not everything was captured in the publications, minutes, and other content available to me here. What is missing are your stories. Some have been shared with Theta, and we thank you for sharing. We encourage you to continue to do so. Individual stories provide the personal perspective that is often missing in official records.

Acknowledging our history is not to excuse Thetas of the past for their behavior; instead it is to understand and to learn what we should do differently. We document these activities not to support what was done but to identify, point out what was wrong, and plan how to move forward. We cannot and should not erase or forget what happened in the past. If we do, we ignore the ongoing effects of our history on our organization, as well as on members both past and present.