Diversity and Inclusion Commissioner, Austin Deray, Shares His Story in Honor of Juneteenth
By Austin A. Deray
The most frequent question I have been asked since joining Phi Delta Theta is, “Why did you join a ‘white’ fraternity?” I always found the question and some of the follow-ups and comments interesting. “Do you actually fit in?” or “How’s it going, Uncle Tom?”
The notion that, as a man of color, I could find community with an all-white or predominantly white student organization baffled my friends and peers. The simple truth is that I did fit in for the most part, and I did find a brotherhood; however, it would be a lie to respond to the question with, “yes, I fit in seamlessly; no, I’ve never been ‘Uncle Tommed,’” because frankly, I have. I would choose what I could and would share with brothers; some getting to know the real Austin, and others the Phi Delt “Deray.” In the early 2000s, there were constant negotiations I made; some conscious and others subconscious I didn’t realize I was making until years later.
In 2020, chapter brothers and pledge brothers asked, “did you feel different?” or “did we make you uncomfortable at points?” and I was surprised to learn that they were surprised that I answered yes. In the 1960s, Phi Delt repealed its Arian Clause from our code and general statute, and an era of color-blind policy began in our organization. It wasn’t until the summer of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and moment of socio-political unrest, did our Fraternity take the next step to grapple with the lived experience of our membership. Justin Holmes, Campbell ’17, has shared with me that “during my undergraduate experience, Phi Delt wasn’t the best at acknowledging our unique differences through the lens of diversity. As an alumnus of the organization and General Headquarters, it is comforting to see Phi Delt install systems and processes to intentionally celebrate diversity and educate our members on the importance of inclusivity.” As we strive to be an inclusive environment for all our members, we are now recognizing all aspects of our memberships’ diverse identities and have moved from a color-blind Phi Delt.
The recognition of Juneteenth is just one of the many steps Phi Delt and our Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Commission are making to help change the climate of our Fraternity to one that is inclusive of all our members’ diverse identities. For many, Juneteenth represents not the end of enslavement, but the moment when the United States really began to take the first steps on the journey of inclusion, a journey it is still on today. While President Lincoln’s proclamation ended the enslavement of individuals in states that seceded, it was the Union army that went out and enforced the proclamation. It took almost 900 days, two years and 169 days (i.e. June 19, 1865/Juneteenth) for the Union army, under General Gordon Granger, to arrive in Texas and enforce Lincoln’s proclamation, the last Confederate state to still practice the institutional enslavement of peoples. For many, Juneteenth marks a change in the US policy and a first step in the country’s journey toward inclusion. While the observance of Juneteenth has not always had a national/international stage, for Persons of Color this holiday has been recognized since the 1930s (starting in Georgia and Texas) and was made a Federal Holiday in 2021, the first federal holiday to be added since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, added by President Reagan in 1983.
As The Bond serves as the North Star for our Fraternity, our undergraduate members are navigators propelling us forward. Themba Nsubuga, Mercer ‘23, shares that, “I celebrate Juneteenth to recognize that regardless of what background one has, we should all celebrate the day that our country put to an end to an excruciatingly painful horror called slavery. I am humbled and blessed by the efforts of my Fraternity celebrating this holiday, because I am proud to witness that my brotherhood supports my cultural background and is willing to take extra steps to embrace and understand what it values.” I think Brother Nsubuga’s words are important for us to remember as it speaks to the direction our Fraternity is currently tracking. With the creation of the D&I Commission, the first-generation student scholarships, the expansion of the roles of the chaplain, and the new chaplain track at Kleberg, the observation of holidays and celebrations that speak to the identities of our membership is pivotal a step as the rest.