Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been accused of racism. But at one Texas school, the frat is the model of diversity. (Courtesy of Dustin Webb)

Of all the fraternities that have been embroiled in controversy in recent days, it seems none have developed a worse reputation than ours: Sigma Alpha Epsilon. In the wake of a video released earlier this month showing members of the University of Oklahoma chapter chanting a racially insensitive and deeply offensive song, SAE has been widely characterized as a racist, white institution grounded in a Confederate history. But a two-hour drive away from where that video was shot, there’s a chapter of SAE that turns that image on its head. At a college just over the Texas border, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is known as the most diverse frat on campus. It’s the frat that welcomes both foreign students and Texas natives, that recruits both athletes and music majors. We know this version of SAE exists because we founded it.

In 2009, we started an SAE chapter at Midwestern State University, a small diverse college between Dallas and Oklahoma City. Many of the founding fathers met each other as freshmen in the typical way, in dorms and around campus.  We were immediately a diverse group, but we didn’t identify ourselves that way. We just liked hanging out with each other. Sigma Alpha Epsilon attracted us because we felt a natural brotherhood and believed the fraternity’s creed — “The True Gentleman” — spoke to how we saw ourselves. When we were officially recognized as pledges of SAE we had around 40 members representing various ethnicities, religions, native languages, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and fields of study. Now the SAE Texas Omega chapter has nearly 50 members. It’s not only the most diverse fraternity in the Greek system at our alma mater, it’s the largest.

At a news conference on Wednesday, our national organization announced that it is launching a diversity initiative and reviewing the culture of its 237 chapters. Nationally, about 20 percent of new SAE members identify as minorities. Executive Director Blaine Ayers said he wants to see that percentage grow, but he didn’t set a numerical goal. We believe our chapter is proof that SAE — or any organization — can improve diversity by simply enforcing the right values. An appreciation for people of different backgrounds is inherent in the values of good will, humility, and empathy, all established values in SAE’s founding creed. Diversity descends naturally in an organization that appreciates people for their individuality rather than their similarities.

Of course, in news coverage of the University of Oklahoma video, a lot has been made of the fact that many of SAE’s early members fought for the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War. We knew of that history when we started our chapter, but that reality was 150 years old. There are few storied institutions in the U.S. that are untarnished by a prejudiced history, not even the nation itself. Our society has evolved beyond its roots, and we believe that SAE has, too.

When we started SAE’s Texas Omega chapter, diversity wasn’t a conscious goal, but we did know that we wanted to challenge the traditional frat stereotype. None of us identified with the WASPy culture of some Greek organizations, and didn’t fit into the hard-partying, privileged and insular nature of others. We were turned off by the notion of groupthink, and the idea of putting people through mindless — and sometimes dangerous — tasks under the guise of bonding. We had our concerns with the Greek system, but appreciated its foundation: brotherhood. We figured that the only way to change what Greek life had become was to be a part of it.

When we officially became a chapter, we received tons of support from other Greek life members and student groups. Representatives from the national SAE organization visited and were excited to welcome us. But despite the positive outpouring, the negative experiences are, unfortunately, what’s easiest to recall. On our founding day, the brothers took a group photo that we proudly displayed on social media and that one of us, Dustin, saved on his phone. He was showing it off to a few people when one student pointed out in a snide manner how “colorful” our group was. Dustin didn’t realize the negative intention of the comment until someone later filled him in, noting that the person had said, “I guess he will be happy if his chapter is the United Nations.” It hadn’t crossed our minds that diversity was something that could be mocked. That’s when it became a point of pride that our frat could not be easily labeled. The only category we all fit was “brother.”

Bad behavior at fraternities should be called out and punished. But the calls by some to end the Greek system altogether are unreasonable. Beneath the controversies is a foundation of values that build good character and foster acceptance. Amidst the crisis at SAE, people have asked us how our chapter has maintained such a diverse brotherhood. We can’t point to a chapter policy or edict, nor would we want to. Reducing diversity to a number or mandate defeats its value. Instead, diversity is inherent in the men who join our chapter; it is inherent in the principles that define our fraternity. Where members truly subscribe to “The True Gentleman” model, there will be no discrimination. Stripped of the hazing, excessive partying, and exclusion, fraternities can be brought back to the essence of brotherhood.

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