Even those with no immediate connection to Greek life have seen their TikTok feeds overrun with videos from University of Alabama’s sorority rush (or “Bama rush,” for short). In these videos, potential new members (PNMs) make outfit of the day (OOTD) videos, name dropping brands and showing off items suited to sorority fashion and the panhellenic rulebook. It’s a strangely fascinating world, no matter your collegiate status.
On Saturday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, co-hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher dig into what lies beneath the shiny surface of Bama rush: namely, a history of racism and classism. They discuss the very recent desegregation of University of Alabama’s sororities, the class signaling in the way these women dress, and the way this homogenous, white culture adapts particularly well to TikTok.
Rachelle Hampton: Despite my deep familiarity with the way that race operates in the south, I was still absolutely shook to my core reading about the year that Bama finally desegregated their Greek life: in the year of our lord and savior, 2013.
Madison Malone Kircher: And it really only happened because of a Black high school salutatorian with a 4.3 GPA, who, on paper, should have been a perfect fit for any fricking sorority.
Hampton: Yeah, and she also had ties to the Alabama Civic Community. She was everything that a sorority should want, and yet she was denied membership to all 16 sororities on campus. And according to members of the sororities at the time, that was not because of what the actual membership wanted, it was due to the interference of alumni and advisors, a.k.a. the adults in the room.
Kircher: The story broke in the Alabama campus newspaper––shout out student journalists, the real MVPs of pretty much every story––in September 2013, and it opened the school up to nationwide criticism. It was so intense that in a very uncharacteristic move, they reopened the bidding process.
Hampton; So the school president decided to do a video with Bill Cosby to prove … honestly, I’m kind of still unclear on what she was trying to prove with this video. That she wasn’t racist?
Kircher: To prove she had one Black friend. Yeah.
Hampton: She picked the wrong one.
Kircher: After all of this national attention, a few Black women are eventually offered bids in that reopened process and that’s the first time in the school’s 110-year history that multiple women broke that racial barrier.* Once again, this is in the year 2013.
Hampton: If you also like to do math, that was eight years ago.
Kircher: Like “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus had just come out. And “Roar” by Katy Perry.
Hampton: Can you imagine listening to “Roar” by Katy Perry as you’re breaking the color barrier at a 110-year-old institution? I can’t. Shout out to these girls.
Kircher: Sara Bareilles just wants to see you be brave.
Hampton: Oh God. You know, they fucking played that song as they let these Black women into the sorority. Just like, “Yeah, we’re brave.”
Kircher: Well, it was that or “What Does the Fox Say?” Man, I remember a lot about the year 2013.
Let’s shift and talk about the classism that we’re also seeing inherently in these TikToks. We’ve talked a little bit about the cost of what it is to be in a sorority. You know, the thousands of dollars to live in the house, to pay your new membership fees, your dues—that’s sort of like the top-level costs. But what you’re wearing costs money, what you’re going to costs money, what you’re drinking costs money, spring break trips cost money. There’s a phrase in those OOTD videos that’s becoming a little bit of a meme in and of itself–– so much so that Southern prep-preferred jewelry brand Kendra Scott is now using it in their videos to sell shit. And that is of course, “Jewelry is normal.” “Normal,” as these women are gesturing to these tiny glinting golden jeweled pieces all over their bodies. It’s like this weird code for “the normal gold stuff I wear every day.” Some of the women mention like, “I got this from my grandma,” “I got this from my mom.” And some of them will name brands––David Yurman, Tiffany, high-end jewelry brands–– but most of them just say, “Jewelry is normal. These are my rings.”
I feel like we could have a whole episode just about “jewelry is normal.” I’ve been thinking about it for days.
Hampton: Yeah, we can have a dissertation about the fact that what adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of gold jewelry is kind of just casually tossed off as normal, and also paired with clothes from Shein. The mix and match here––fascinating to me.
Kircher: Shein, if you’re not a TikTok OOTD regular, is a fast-fashion retailer based out of China, where you click to order things and say a prayer that what arrives will in fact be the size, shape, and color it was promised and not, like, a dress for a doll.
Hampton: And by “order things,” I mean $10 for a dress, $3 for a shirt, $6 for a skirt, all new, which means that if you are being sold that at that price, somebody somewhere is getting exploited.
Kircher: Here’s a clip from one of the PNMs who does talk about her jewelry a little bit more specifically by brand name.
And here’s a TikTok from a Bama rush voyeur like myself, who has some really good thoughts on the classism that we’re witnessing.
Hampton: As that video details, there are a lot of “-isms” underlying sorority recruitment and sororities in general, specifically southern ones, and I think one of the main questions we’ve gotten in doing this episode is: Why is this taking over my FYP? Why are so many people interested in it? Because of the people who are in it, but also because people who are watching it like to pretend that it is a problem isolated to the south. And again, as someone who both grew up in the South and then went to a PWI in the Midwest, I can assure you it’s fucking not.
Kircher: PWI is a predominantly white institution.
Hampton: Yes. And the thing is, maybe Northwestern integrated their sororities quicker than Alabama did, but perhaps one Black girl would get in per rush class, per sorority. And almost without exception, within two years, would have stopped paying dues because of how toxic that environment is. There is a gawking element of looking at Bama rush and saying, “Look at these women. Look at these accents. Look at this various specific kind of femininity. Look at how toxic it is. This is white feminism.” But this exists everywhere and isolating the systemic issues that rush is built on to the south absolves everyone and every other place that is complicit in these exact same issues. I’m looking at you Princeton and Harvard, with your dining or social clubs. If you think that they aren’t trafficking the exact same shit that these Alabama sororities are, you are mistaking yourself.
Kircher: Picking up a thread you were talking about on how this has gone viral, specifically on TikTok, this trend is like so many other things we’ve seen blow up in the app, right? It boils down to whiteness, to wealthiness, and to thinness, and to your proximity to those three things.
Hampton: Yeah. I mean, someone in my mentions, when I said that we’re doing an episode about this, said, “I have seen one Black girl, one redhead, and one plus-size girl in my hours on #BamaRush Tok, even scouring the crowds.” So not even just looking at the people posting videos, but looking at the people in the background of those videos.
Kircher: We’ve talked before about how the algorithm was built to center and elevate those things and here is where we’re seeing it again. But this also comes back to the idea of how did we all end up trapped in #BamaRush Tok? You didn’t, right, Rachelle? You had to seek it out.
Hampton: Yeah, I didn’t really know about this until people started asking in my mentions, and until you brought it up. I think for so many people who aren’t part of this world, or were never part of this world, it’s just fun to watch a universe that, for you, might as well be Mars. But the truth is, it’s on your FYP because your algorithm was trained to show you what you want or what you have demonstrated that you wanted to see. Getting trapped on #BamaRush TikTok probably means that you have proximity to thinness, whiteness, wealthiness, or a desire for it, or a fascination with it.
Kircher: Here’s an admittedly very funny video from a white woman who is trapped in #BamaRush Tok and has become obsessed with the characters and with following along with the “drama.”
All of this is making me think about a piece by writer Rebecca Jennings that ran in Vox a few months ago about how TikTok’s biggest stars are TikTok’s biggest stars because they’re bland and mediocre. My apologies to the D’Amelio’s and Ray’s of the world. But that’s what we’re seeing here. Rush, by design, isn’t about standing out. It’s about establishing yourself within a strict set of standards and strictures and hemlines, and about looking and acting great while also looking and acting exactly like everyone else around you.
Hampton: If that isn’t a perfect metaphor for TikTok and for social media in general, then I don’t know what is.
Kircher: So as you’re seeing these TikToks come across your feed, please enjoy them. We have enjoyed them. We have enjoyed the parodies. We have enjoyed the originals. This is not to suck the joy out of something that is ultimately supposed to be I think fun, right?
Kircher: It doesn’t seem fun to me. Seems like blisters and sweat, but in theory, supposed to be fun. But let that little voice in your head be an East Tennessee accent interrogating why these are coming across your feed in the first place.
Hampton: And with that, “My shirt is from Shein; my jewelry: normal; my sense of skepticism about everything on the internet? Well, that’s from ICYMI.”
To listen to the rest of the episode, subscribe to ICYMI.
Correction, Aug. 17, 2021: This article originally misstated that the first time a Black woman was offered a bid to a University of Alabama sorority was in 2013. That was the first time multiple sororities offered bids to Black women.