Tuesday was pre-tap day for secret societies, and I’m remembering how a year ago, I walked up College Street with one of my best friends since the start of college, who was in a landed society called St. Elmo. I rubbed my shoulder against my friend’s through our puffer jackets and asked if he had any news.
I had walked out of my final interview at their tomb feeling like I had represented both my thoughtfulness and silliness pretty well. I knew four of the society members well and had partied with them, gone to Montreal with them. I could envision myself coming back to 35 Lynwood after a night out and curling up on the couches with my new best friends.
When I got my first tap letter from St. Elmo’s, I spent some time on Wikipedia, learning that they were founded in 1889 and have their tomb on Lynwood Place and are considered part of the Ancient Eight consortium. They’re on Business Insider’s list of the top 7 wealthiest societies. OK, I thought to myself, if I get in I’ll be set. I could anticipate the feeling of prestige cloaking me — the way I’d be all nonchalant and NBD about it when others asked, but because deep-down I’d know that I was good.
“No, not really,” he said, as breezily as he could.
My stomach clenched. We ran across the street, eyeing the cars starting to speed towards us. The clench loosened into an unease that persisted — Wednesday, Thursday — until I called him on Friday. I hadn’t been accepted, he confirmed.
Horrible. Bad. Not good enough. I started crying. “What happened was that 16 of my peers, including four of my close friends, sat in a room and decided that I wasn’t excellent enough.”
“Isa…” he said. A pause. “It’s just… complicated.”
I slowly found out which of my other friends had gotten in: my poetry friend, my friend from TD, my other friend from TD. I sank into all of the feelings that I had kept away and thought I was beyond: jealousy, self-hatred, humiliation. Surely I’m better than him. Surely I’m better than them. Isa what the hell?!
In my time at Yale, I wasn’t too stressed about the society process. I felt like in the natural flow of pursuing my development and self-realization, I would rise to the top, like a piece of kelp.
I spent a lot of my junior year aware of my friends who were in landed societies: Skull and Bones, Wolf’s Head. When I was procrastinating, sometimes I’d look up their resumes and compare their accomplishments to mine, and say to myself, I’ve done at least as much. I’ll be fine. Whenever I asked a peer which society they were in, there was a moment before they said the name. I could feel my estimation of them hover, vibrating with the potential to go either up or down. “Wolf’s Head.” Up. “Oh, just a casual one called Red Mask.” What’s that? Down.
By junior year, I felt I’d done good. I’d done good work as editor-in-chief of the YDN Magazine, and I’d had journalism internships at the CT Mirror and the Texas Tribune, where I got national recognition for my work covering and countering the conservative attacks on anti-racist education. I organized with the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective. I led erotic dance workshops and thought deeply about the intersection of embodied and sociopolitical liberation. I FOOT-led, danced (Yale Modern Dance Company) and sang (Glee Club, incoming musical director of Whim ‘n Rhythm).
But more than anything, I loved people. Like, really loved people, in a post-religious-crisis, in-queer-love-with-every-being, existential way. But if I knew that to be true, why did I feel like this one decision decided my ability and potential?
Why did I not even get tapped for Manuscript? Am I not a real writer? I’m bad. I’m not good enough. I didn’t do enough. Shut the fuck up.
For the past year, as I’ve found out who is in landed societies, I’ve tried to understand why my lack of admission into one makes me feel like a bad person. How it sets off judgment lasers multiplying and ricocheting inside me and onto others. How it’s made me less able to love myself, or love you.
Part of it is that I’m someone who really cares about institutional recognition and prestige, and haven’t been able to resist the seduction. But the other part is that the seduction is there.
The secret society system neatly crystallizes a fundamental truth about humanity: our need to self-define, and feel belonging and power, by excluding others. The pleasure of inclusion into an order whose precondition is the exclusion of others. This is how most of our systems and institutions work. We’ve all felt that as Yale students. And as Global Affairs majors and education studies scholars, as members of audition-based arts groups, as scholarship winners, as members of American society.
What distinguishes secret societies is that they weren’t founded to carry out a specific project — singing, education or even community-building, as they often claim. Many people in landed societies say they joined, and stay, “for the people.” But that’s not why they were built.
They were built on the core of exclusion. They were built by people like me who felt humiliated by their exclusion from existing powerful institutions, and in turn created a new exclusive group.
The first secret society, Skull and Bones, was founded in 1832 by two men when they weren’t admitted to Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honors society. The next one, Scroll and Key, was founded in 1841 by twelve men when they weren’t selected by Skull and Bones.
For decades, these two societies began to dominate social life. Junior, sophomore and first-year societies were established that acted as pipelines into the senior societies.
As they kept growing in power, secret societies were almost abolished — once.
In the 1880s, a committee formed and drafted a resolution calling for the abolition of the system. It described how secret societies created a “social aristocracy” and how it “fosters a truckling and cowering disposition among the lower classes.”
In 1884, a gathering of 140 men (out of the total class of 151 men) attended a meeting to debate the resolution. William Speer, the man leading the movement, was counting on the votes of some of the most popular men who hadn’t been selected by Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key to get the resolution passed. But he didn’t know that after they weren’t tapped, fifteen of them quietly gathered to form a new society of their own: Wolf’s Head. They were “firmly convinced that there had been an appalling miscarriage of justice in their individual omission from the category of the elect.”
These 15 voted against the resolution. It failed (67 to 50, when it would have been 65 to 52 in favor). Wolf’s Head became known on campus as “Fox and Grapes” for the Aesopian fable of jealousy.
Every new secret society in the 139 years since has been formed by a group of rising seniors who feel excluded from the hierarchy. They were never defined from a tangible inner purpose outward. They were defined in opposition to other invented symbols of privilege, other tools of hierarchy. In response to feeling excluded, people excluded others.
Even the one society that explicitly tried to resist this ethos succumbed to it. Elihu was founded in 1903 as a non-secret society, meant to be more open than the other societies. At first they refused to participate in the spectacle of tap and procured a house (with windows!) instead of a tomb. In the early 1970s, the society reached the peak of its openness, hosting open parties and allowing non-members to access the space regularly. They let groups like AASA (the Asian American Students’ Alliance) and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) use the space, before the Asian American Cultural Center and La Casa were established and had buildings. In 1982, alumni revoked the group’s right to tap new members, citing these reasons. They imposed new policies that closed the house to non-members.
Up until recently, every junior was invited to apply and participate in the interview process if they wanted. “Because of its open interviewing process, Elihu is considered to be less prestigious,” read a 2002 YDN article. Today, Elihu operates in the same way as the secret societies it was created to oppose. Keys to the house, members-only policies, an invite-only tap process. It’s also known to be one of the more prestigious societies. Even a secret society that starts out trying to cultivate openness eventually caves to the pleasure, and social reward, of closing its doors.
Even when a system was established in 2015 to allow any junior to opt-in to joining a (non-landed) society, all it does still is offer people inclusion into an existing power hierarchy, leaving the hierarchy untouched.
If you take the supposed purpose of secret societies, which I find so powerful — put a group of sixteen people together and ask them to love each other, for the reason that they are humans, and build community; get to know them deeply and share meaningful experiences — and create a structure from the core of that purpose, it would look so different what we have today.
Maybe everyone opts into or out of society, and for those who opt in, randomize selection across the senior class into groups of roughly 16, and the university (or alum of the general program) funds each group equally to have food and drink. If you like the idea of a curated social group, then have each group explicitly establish an orientation or theme as its project — discussing literature outside the limitations of the formal classroom, exploring the arts, partying, intensely getting to know each other or “general” — and have opted-in juniors select the theme they’re interested in, and sort them based on that. If there’s more interest in a particular theme than existing groups in that theme, make a new group.
Arguments I’ve heard for keeping the tap process are usually based on the idea that we have the ability and authority to vibe out who’s good. What would it take to believe in the radical power of seeing each person as inherently good, worthy, with dignity, fully human (an idea at the root of abolitionism and countless faith traditions alike)? Can we believe enough in the value of meeting new people and creating community to do so, without needing to be bribed with the idea of power?
What to do about your tap? I want to argue that the question is what kind of training you want to receive.
The secret society system wants to train us to be incorporated into power structures, cushioned in pleasure. It develops our fluency in the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that maintain uneven hierarchies of power in our daily lives, and in our social systems. We dehumanize ourselves and each other.
Instead, I want to challenge us to take this as an opportunity to train ourselves in navigating problematic institutions with criticism, complexity and grace.
If you choose to join a landed society, some ideas of what that might look like: share your resources with others. Make your dinners/talks open to the public (you can start with one, or every other). Steal (in the lineage of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney) — steal the alcohol and give it to those who can’t afford it. Open your house to groups that need spaces. (What if Elihu became the de facto MENA house until Yale finally gets them a space?)
Join and organize with others across landed societies to implement these open policies together — nullifying any alumni’s claim that this is lowering your society’s status relative to others’. At the most, pull a William Speer and organize across the whole senior class to abolish secret societies on the whole, and create something new.
If you feel unprepared to take on a level of criticality (which is so valid! you probably have a lot going on in your life, including organizing for endowment justice at Yale, trying to survive under the conditions of this university, etc.), I would challenge you to consider not joining.
At that challenge, there’s an argument that — at least it’s me, a person of color, a woman, a queer person, a disabled person taking up space here and using these resources. To that, I’ll just note that, as ethnic studies scholars have argued for decades, this is the same liberal multicultural argument that celebrates people of color being in the military, that counts diversifying Yale to stand in for creating educational justice, that diversifies the ranks of the worthy without transforming the underlying structures that deem others unworthy.
At the same time, I know in my bones that if I had gotten tapped by St. Elmo’s, I would have taken it and likely wouldn’t have developed a critical mode of participation. To myself, my ER&M friends and those of us with radical justice concerns: if we can’t change secret societies, how are we supposed to change the world? If we can’t bring ourselves to critically engage with something as small and silly as secret societies, how are we supposed to transform public education, or the carceral system?
To myself: if I’m so upset about my exclusion from these bastions of power, how am I supposed to be a writer and artist dedicated to radical love and radical justice? If it took me being excluded from these bastions of power to develop a critique of them, how can I take this lesson (this embodied knowledge of humiliation) forward into creating more equitable systems for all? (And by all, I mean all?)
To all juniors considering their participation in secret societies: for our whole lives, we will be navigating institutions that we don’t agree with, oftentimes violent institutions, focusing our energy into changing some of them and loving others and distancing ourselves from still others that we don’t love but must engage. I hope that you’ll take this as an opportunity to prepare for this.
A couple months ago, my friend asked me if I wanted to see his tomb. The metal door swung open into an enormous carpeted room with green plush chairs and glass tables. Wooden cabinets filled with society artifacts lined the walls. Above them hung portraits of society men over the years. We moved on: a living room, a kitchen, an enormous dining room glowing from a skylight far above our heads.
As we wandered the polished wooden floors, I felt another body in my body — one that could belong in this space and enjoy it. One that could sit in this green plush chair and read a book on a sunny Sunday morning. Stop in for a snack and catch a friend. Hear someone famous speak at dinner and feel grateful for an opportunity that was special because others didn’t have it. Curl up on this couch and tell my life story to 15 incredible people that I’ve come to love. Print out little cream cards inviting my outside friends to a private party, and watch my outside friends meet my 15 inside friends and their friends and dance in the cavernous space under the soft skylights.
The edges of the room shivered, I snapped back into my outsider body, and we left.
ISABELLA ZOU is a senior in TD and a former editor-in-chief of the YDN Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org