On one of our first dates together, the two of us walked past Skull & Bones and, full of curiosity, tried to sneak a peek inside. We gasped in unison when we glimpsed a shadowy figure through the tomb’s basement window before realizing it was one of their private chefs. In a long discussion spanning movies based on Skull & Bones, the 2004 presidential election, and the Apache leader Geronimo, one thing was clear: as uninterested as we both claimed to be, we both knew a lot about secret societies at Yale – and we were both eager to learn more.
This fascination isn’t unique to us: The Atlantic recently published an article focusing on the Ancient Eight secret societies, the oldest and wealthiest societies and those most exemplifying Yale’s elitist traditions. According to Rose Horowitch, a Yale graduate and former Editor in Chief of the News, these societies have in recent years made a shocking turn away from their traditional preference for the blue-blooded and instead welcomed students of color and FGLI students.
Ancient Eight societies, like every other privileged organization in the country, didn’t suddenly enter their “DEI era” after going through an earnest social justice awakening. Rather, they did it to survive and perpetuate themselves in a changing environment. This is why it’s imperative that FGLI students and students of color make note of how their participation sustains an Ancient Eight society. The relationship is always mutualistic, as easy as it is to believe that you’re taking more from the society than the society takes from you. By tapping members who better reflect an increasingly diverse campus makeup, these societies have avoided a terminal drift into irrelevance.
Similarly to how higher education institutions pride themselves on diversity metrics, the half-true embrace of the principle of equal opportunity and the fetishization of glossy-brochure diversity has reached even our least meritocratic institutions. Going through a DEI era does more than just grant societies relevance; it also allows for them to effectively sustain the illusion of meritocracy that fuels your participation. While it was once feasible to pretend that the best and brightest a generation had to offer ‘just so happened’ to be white and affluent, that’s no longer the case. The integration of formerly all-white spaces is certainly a good thing. We also don’t mean to suggest that fostering diversity and meritocracy are in a zero-sum relationship, nor do we believe that marginalized people are being tapped for societies primarily on the basis of their identities. Yet this change in societies’ membership serves to strengthen these institutions, as well as expand their grip over communities they’ve formerly excluded.
The illusion of meritocracy fostered in secret societies certainly makes it easier for tapped students, particularly those whose politics are averse towards elitism and class privilege, to push down any qualms they may have had about their participation. Benefiting from a network of insider connections feels a lot less guilt-inducing if it feels truly earned. Yet, it’s an undeniable truth that benefitting from these connections bypasses the principle of meritocracy in favor of the insider networks that prevail in all aspects of society.
What’s more, the increasingly-diverse makeup of these societies has secondary effects on the dynamics of campus life for students from marginalized backgrounds. In the days when the Ancient Eight societies drew their membership exclusively from the Brooks Brothers-clad Berkshires set, being tapped for these societies as an FGLI student or student of color occupied no more mental space than the thought of enlisting in the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right.
But now, we are heartbroken to read Isabella Zou’s deft, emotional account last year about exclusion from the secret society network, about how the intentional exclusivity of these organizations breeds a culture of stress and insecurity for her and numerous other students we know. It’s a truism on campus that Yale has a million ways to make you feel less than. The feeling of not being good enough that comes with rejection from a secret society cuts all the deeper when the society portrays itself as a meritocratic incubator for those most likely to succeed in life.
This is where it’s most important to reiterate what secret societies truly are: fraternities with fewer windows. Fancy architecture and a veneer of secrecy are all that separate Skull & Bones from Sigma & Chi.
We don’t blame Ancient Eight society members of marginalized backgrounds for choosing to take part. After three long years of feeling out of place at Yale, it’s hard to turn down an offer of status and acceptance. Frankly, curiosity alone may be reason enough. But for students of marginalized backgrounds, it’s also important to be critical about why your presence is desired and what your presence does. You may be using societies, but these organizations are also using and exploiting you. Your participation means that the relevance and credibility that is the lifeblood of these organizations endures for another year.
Whether the institution in question is a finance firm, a grad school, or even a secret society, we have to recognize that their disingenuous efforts at diversity are driven by their need for survival. These institutions adapt because their old models of hoarding wealth and opportunity have led to a state of crisis of their own making. They are in a sinking ship, and we shouldn’t rely on their survival to guarantee our futures.
Though this may be easier said than done for anyone who walks past a society tomb and wonders what it looks like on the inside, the best thing you can do to abolish these institutions is simply stop caring.
BELIZ BAYULGEN is a Connecticut native and political organizer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JULIAN DANIEL is a senior in Saybrook College and a contributor to the News’ Opinion desk. He can be reached at email@example.com.