This is the first installment of a two-part column on the eating clubs. The second part will be released in the coming weeks.
At a student group meeting months ago, one of my friends — a member of a Bicker club — stated that in an ideal world, all the eating clubs would be sign-ins. I issued a vague, “Mhm,” but felt like something was missing from their analysis — something that I wasn’t sure I could articulate yet myself.
A series of conversations following this year’s Street Week helped me figure out what was missing.
The question isn’t sign-in versus Bicker. We should imagine new forms of community and stop excusing the existence of the eating clubs. The system is unsalvageable. It’s rooted in white supremacy, and it will always produce toxic, oppressive, exclusionary environments that devalue marginalized people.
It doesn’t matter if a club’s membership brands itself as woke, progressive, liberal, inclusive, chill, or diverse: they largely fail to look past their own moral superiority to see that they actively recreate the same racist, sexist, exclusionary dynamics that they claim to be against.
Bicker is discriminatory (which we all already knew)
For several years, discourse on the eating clubs has centered on Bicker, which is thoroughly explored in this guest contribution by a Cannon Club alum. In other columns, Bicker has been aptly summarized as a “gamification of social life” and a “marginalizing, discriminatory, self-important admissions process.” The social stratification that Bicker clubs create is quantitatively evidenced.
For those unfamiliar with the process, it’s an admissions system that originated among rich, propertied white men over a century ago to decide which rich, propertied white men they wanted to luncheon with. Any time you read “Bicker,” you can think of undergraduates having brief conversations with and subsequently ranking their peers to decide who will get the honor of paying over $4,500 per semester to hang out with them.
Bicker is harmful at the individual level because it forces bickerees to sell themselves to members. The process also encourages members to believe they are important and interesting enough to govern the social lives of people a year younger than them. (They’re not.)
The process is rife with childish, petty, and mean behavior: scheming across cliques to get people “hosed” (rejected), fabricating drama, and so on. (Additionally, alcohol flows freely during the hours-long decision period, which adds another layer of arbitrariness.)
It also encourages the reproduction of broader systems of oppression. An emphasis on physical activities reproduces ableism. A focus on being connected with current members and from a “similar background” often works against students from marginalized backgrounds: when clubs are overwhelmingly composed of white, upper-class students, this can mean the reproduction of racist stereotypes (i.e. Black bickerees might be considered ‘too loud’ or ‘not deferent enough.’)
The clubs try to beautify Bicker in a number of ways. For instance, comments about bickerees during Tower Club discussions must be ‘positive,‘ which does nothing to affect the basic exclusionary dynamics of the process or remedy members’ biases. Regardless of the particular moment or club, Bicker is always going to lead to racist, inequitable, and generally appalling outcomes.
It’s safe to say that Bicker should be eradicated. I don’t think this is a controversial point: Bicker is just a very entrenched process that graduate boards remain attached to and thus naturalized for students. Sign-in is only a feeble alternative: while marginally less elitist, sign-in clubs still recreate exclusionary dynamics with their price tags and the same business structures as Bicker clubs.
It’s also easier to lament the process than to challenge it. A lot of the people I know — myself included — attempt/ed to distance themselves from Bicker by complaining about how bad it is but still participated in it. That’s an easy thing to do. It’s also a lazy and cowardly thing to do. If you’re going to be part of the system, you need to recognize your active role in perpetuating inequality, not just dismiss it with empty complaining.
Aren’t the more liberal clubs fine?
I’ll be focusing this two-part column on Cap & Gown Club and Terrace Club: two of the clubs regarded as the most liberal and inclusive.
Cap and Terrace don’t have to fight constant allegations that they’re playgrounds for white trust fund kids to act out antebellum fantasies. They’re also never accused of existing solely so varsity athletes can spit on the rest of the student body.
However, they are just like any other club on the Street at a foundational level. All the eating clubs are alike. In my opinion, Cap and Terrace’s distinction is their hollow liberalism: they encourage members to congratulate themselves for being “woke” without doing meaningful work to interrogate the eating club system or societal structures of oppression.
What’s the point of this piece?
Prior to continuing, I want to think more about what this piece is and why I wrote it. Some people will hate it. (Some of my friends hate it.) The eating clubs mean a lot to some people — they’re community spaces. They provide places to unwind (we can talk about how disturbing it is that Princeton is such a high-pressure environment that many students turn to recreational heavy drinking another time). I’m not trying to shame people into leaving the clubs; I’m trying to get them to think about the system and not just their own experience.
I’m also writing to bickerees who didn’t have a good Street Week and to members who don’t feel at home in their club. There’s nothing wrong with you. The clubs are not the mythologized, idyllic communities they purport to be: they’re plagued by cliquiness and discrimination. They’re businesses that rely on exclusion and prestige to persist.
I don’t regret my time in Cap. I do regret buying into the eating club system and unquestioningly participating in a process as toxic as Bicker.
When I confronted the ramifications of being in an eating club and facilitating exclusion, I decided the best thing for me to do was to no longer be part of the system at all. That’s not going to be the right choice for everyone. I can’t tell current members what their choice should be; I can only say that they should seriously reckon with their actions instead of excusing them as normal.
Regardless of what we all do in the short run, I still think the system should ultimately be destroyed and replaced with something better.
Welcome to “The Illustrious”: My early experiences in Cap
I joined Cap in my sophomore spring. My motivations for bickering Cap had been mixed: friends in the club, friends bickering, morbid curiosity, and the allure of being part of a larger community. I enjoyed most of the conversations I participated in and games I played.
The only snag was when a tall, white man — a varsity athlete — asked my group of bickerees which time period we would go back to. I blinked in disbelief. Another woman of color in the group said something to the effect of, “Do you see me? Why would I go back in time?”
The member’s question was not ill-intentioned. However, intention isn’t the most meaningful metric for behavior. Impact is. So when I became co-Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) chair of Cap some years later, I wanted to get members to think about how their words and actions could affect people who didn’t have the same life experiences as them.
(Sidenote: yes, we are skipping Spring 2020 and the virtual semesters. Only two things worth mentioning happened in that time period. One: one of my friends, a member in the Class of 2021 told me at the time that half the people at Cap are the greatest you’d ever meet, and the other half are the fakest. Two: I spent 16+ mind-numbingly horrible hours ranking people over Zoom while my family looked on in confusion and disappointment. Again, we all know that Bicker is appalling, it’s just that no one wants to do anything about it.)
DEI chair was a new role at Cap: given the chaos and horror that is having to run a business while being a full-time student, the Officers didn’t provide many details on the nature of the position. Our first task was preparing people for Fall Bicker; we could structure the rest of the role later.
Our presentation went fine. Some members gave me feedback that it was helpful, which was super appreciated. Even during the presentation, though, I was disheartened. I watched a table of people chat in the back while we were presenting, which in retrospect reads like foreshadowing.
During Bicker, I watched people swap stories of how they had screwed with bickerees, like they were guards in some low-level Stanford Prison Experiment. (In case it wasn’t common decency, the presentation did say that you should not attempt to manipulate, bully, embarrass, or cause emotional harm to the bickerees.)
At the very least, no one asked a bickeree of color “What time period would you go back to?” during that bicker cycle. (Or not that I know of.) And, like I said, my co-chair and I received positive feedback. But that’s the thing: that feedback came from people who were already critical about the way in which they navigated the world. Those who inflicted harm didn’t seem willing to engage in the first place.
The limits of Cap’s liberalism
My own research focuses heavily on the failures of liberalism, as in the political philosophy undergirding the modern-day Democratic Party. The Democrats are characterized by an embrace for the liberty of marginalized individuals: a Black person should be able to find a job, a gay couple should be able to buy a wedding cake. They similarly view episodes of discrimination and hate as individual as well: the racist employer, the homophobic baker.
However, the Dems care little for collectives: they consistently fail to challenge the systems and structures that create and leverage discriminatory outcomes on a large scale. Nonetheless, they still claim to be advocates capable of speaking for the historically and currently oppressed.
Left-leaning and moderate people confidently view themselves as advocates and allies to marginalized people because they are not waving guns in the air and screaming epithets. There’s not a lot of interest in learning about the limits of their mindset because they already think they’re perfectly ‘woke.’
As previously mentioned, Cap is known for being left-leaning: I saw the same attitudes that characterize the modern-day Democrats reproduced there.
Brittani Telfair is a senior from Richmond, Va. concentrating in SPIA and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She is the former DEI co-chair of the Cap & Gown Club for the 2021-22 school year. She dropped the club in late December of 2021. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @brittanit10 on Twitter.