February 24, 2010

What? White Girls Ain't Allowed To Win?

Traditionally White Sorority Zeta Tau Alpha Pulls Shocking Upset. 
The ladies of Zeta Tau Alpha - Epsilon chapter at the University of Arkansas rocked and shocked the crowd during the Sprite 2010 Step-Off  Finals in Atlanta on Feb. 20th. The blogosphere is full of haterade over their shocker win.  Stepping and step competition is a long standing cultural tradition within black Greek organizaitons with roots deep in African American culture.  So it was a shock to the system to see the sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha, a traditionally and predominantly white sorority, bring a tight routine to the stage and rock it pretty decent. Now, black folk are mad but wait a minute, its a step COMPETITION. So I'm moved to ask "What? White sorority girls ain't allowed to win?

The anger at this win is running hot and heavy in many sectors of the net with some alleging that ZTA won based on novelty value, others stating flatly that they were not as good as the 2nd place team (AKA Tau chapter, Hoosier women hailing from right here in Indiana at IU Bloomington). Others have said they won because of Sprite/MTV rating manipulation or simply because the judges were influenced that they got more "house" than the other teams did.  Some folks who were on the scene for the competition say ZTA broke the rules with the rump shaker moves at the end of their routine and should have been penalized.

I've watched the routine several times from a variety of You Tube generated vantage points and I've watched the other routines.  ZTA was good. They weren't perfect.  They got a lot of house from the crowd, perhaps a fair bit more than the other teams and that was certainly due in part to the fact that they were white and doing something a white sorority was assumed incapable of.  But for me, the bottomline was that their routine was a whole lot of fundamentals. A lot of step action, very little dancing or playacting and short transitions without long pauses.  They were in motion nearly the entire routine. At the end of the day, ZTA won with a little bit of novelty and a whole lot of heart and hard work.  They brought it as hard as they knew how and it was enough to win.

They took home $100,000. The crowd and now the rest of us, took home a whole lot of angst. Here is the team that the judges awarded second place.  You can judge for yourself. Bear in mind that for both, the angle is not the best.

Around the net, here were common themes and my reaction:

Stepping is Ours, Now White People Want That Too?
I am so sick of our culture getting raped and we can never have anything to have self respect of our culture and pride….Kingsley - Bossip.com

Black folk didn't lose something because a white sorority chapter learned to step. Their win doesn't elevate to a rape of black culture just because they won $100k doing something that traditionally has been a cultural domain of black America. On a more objective level, its not true. This is a southern chapter of ZTA based at the University of Arkansas, so for their entire history as a chapter, they have been surrounded by the cultural practice of stepping. Why be surprised that they took it up. This chapter has been stepping for 15 years according to some reports. I would be very surprised to find that stepping is a part of ZTA sorority culture outside their southern chapters. The reality is that stepping remains very much a part of the cultural DNA of black folk. Nobody came and violated us to take stepping away, we freely displayed and spread it, indeed taught it to ZTA at some point. To say now that we are diminished by their emulation of us is simply foolish and misapprehends the value of our cultural capital.

They Won Because of the Novelty Factor
I was there, and while the ZTA’s did do an excellent job, the Tau Chapter AKA’s definitely did better. What put them over the top for the win was shock value which garnered crowd participation. The crowd went wild when they saw they were white. Bailey - The Smoking Section

This basically boils down to the argument that they had an unfair advantage because they had a gimmick: they were white.  Guess what? That's true.  They were white and that made them interesting out the gate. The fact that they actually knew what they were doing however is what took them to the next level.  The novelty would have meant nothing if they could not actually step. The novelty was an early hook, it got you to pay attention. After that, it was all hard work and showmanship, the best way they knew how. Crowd appeal is a component that affects judges scoring and Zeta Tau Alpha had that. Its called showmanship. The fact that they (ZTA) all looked alike in appearance and body type generally also gave the “illusion” of higher levels of precision and so on.They worked with what they had.

My personal favorite - Conspiracy! It Was Fixed by Sprite for the Ratings
they definitely won for ratings, which obviously worked; its all over the media.  Bailey - The Smoking Section

This last one is so stupid you can only laugh. They got a standing O from a black crowd in a competition filled with black teams and with all black judges. But the fix was in. This line of thinking was apparently being spun by some judges from the competition on Atlanta radio, some stating they gave TAU a perfect score, and questioning what may have happened.

Bottom line: the contest result here upended everybody's cart of assumed understandings about who can step, who should step and how we interpret this cultural activity when people traditionally not a participant in it get involved.

Update:  Holy mackerel! Sprite announces on their Facebook page that they have discovered a "scoring discrepancy" that can't be resolved and to preserve the "integrity" of the competition, they are naming AKA TAU chapter as co-winners of the competition.  The ladies of Indiana's TAU chapter will now also pick up $100,000 as well.  I'm happy for the AKA sorors because they can use the money I'm sure.  It makes Sprite look pretty lame though, caving in to all this pressure and lends credence (in some minds) to the conspiracy theory.  Pooly played Sprite, poorly played.

Takeaways from this debacle:

Black Greeks: Stepping is traditionally, historically, culturally your territory and domain, but don't let cultural arrogance allow you to take your eye off the ball in a step competition.  As ZTA has now clearly demonstrated, you don't have to be black to step with some level of proficiency. You are all on notice, you can get hosed by a white, yellow, brown or something in between step team on any given day if you're not paying attention.  We invented the game, now raise it.

White Greeks: The novelty factor will only provide an edge once and this was it. From here on out, you're going to have to bring it hard and with authority. Given the controversy surrounding the ZTA win, you may even have to be twice as good as the black greek teams in the field to get the win, because now black greek teams will be checking for you.  ZTA did a good job, but their performance was not error free. Future white greeks entering the arena won't have the surprise factor ZTA did to help cover their mistakes. We're all clear now; white greeks can step if they put their mind to it. You want to compete in this cultural tradition owned by the black greek community, respect it by bringing your A game.

Sprite: Raise the level of your game with the Step-Off competition. First, make sure the rules of competition are clear and fair. Some transparency about the rules and the judging criteria would have helped you immensely in this mess. Clean that up.   Second, make sure you have judges that have some background relative to stepping. Celebrity judges are cool, but you need to balance them with other judges who command credibility (like some stepping experts)  to avoid this kind of controversy in the future.

Now,  the reaction to this has been silly, but for those of my brothers and sisters who just really can't get past a white step team taking the top prize, you can be consoled in the knowledge that the competition passed out over a $1.5 million in scholarship and prize money and the vast bulk of it went to worthy recipients from black greek organizations, with the exception of the $100k to ZTA. If that doesn't get you there, you can further console yourself with the knowledge that at least one of those ladies appears to have been a very fair sista who led this team in competition and taught them the moves (look for the one who's dance moves look particularly competent, practiced and natural...).  Feel better now?

Thats my take on this controversy. Whats yours?