Posted on August 29, 2023

In Alabama, White Tide Rushes On

Tressie McMillan Cottom, New York Times, August 22, 2023

Sorority rush is a tradition at many colleges. But in the South, rush inspires the same passionate zeal as collegiate football. Thanks to TikTok, the University of Alabama’s incarnation of that tradition — peak neo-antebellum white Southern culture on display — is now a global phenomenon. Since it entered the zeitgeist in 2021, millions of people have followed Bama Rush, as if they’re royal watching through Mason-jar-tinted glasses.

When a small phalanx of white coeds in Tuscaloosa self-organizes under the Bama Rush banner to promote their sorority, they are battling for ritual supremacy. The current sorority members choose coordinated outfits like crop tops and tennis skorts for synchronized dance routines to promote their chapters on TikTok. There is a lot of hair in these videos — standardized for length and blond in ratios impossible without chemical intervention; it swings exuberantly, signaling good health and traditional femininity. Their robotic dancing to hip-hop songs showcases gymnastic athleticism instead of looser routines made for the club. They keep time, but even the fact that they aren’t clapping on the one and three seems intentional — being cute rather than sexy protects them from the dreaded label “trashy.” Walking that fine line without mussing their hair is part of their popular appeal.

The rushees who wish to join the dancers’ ranks give daily reports, with noticeable twang, on what they are wearing. Their Southern accents are the linguistic equivalent of pointing a ring light at their shiny hair and tasteful makeup. The sororities purport to make these videos to attract the highest quality rushees. But they have found a wider audience.

For a mainstream culture struggling to adapt to the ways that gender is exploding all around them, that accent is seductive. It says these are ideal women from a regional culture that values traditional gender norms — and people cannot get enough of it.

As for myself, I’m proud to say that my TikTok algorithm has not delivered me any Bama Rush videos. All my exposure has been secondhand. My friends who love true-crime podcasts were excited for the documentary from Rachel Fleit, “Bama Rush,” that was released on Max earlier this year. My feminist academic friends forwarded me Bama Rush memes during a recent faculty dinner to dissect the kitschiness of sorority microcelebrities. Anne Helen Petersen, a culture writer, has been obsessively unpacking Bama Rush 2023 “like we’re a 400-level Sociology class,” as she recently put it on Instagram.


I assume I don’t get Bama Rush videos on my social media feeds for the same reason that I would not have been an ideal Bama Rush candidate when I was a coed. Bama Rush is very, very white, and my algorithms are programmed for me — someone who is not. Fleit’s documentary touches on the inherited culture and code of conduct that filters for the “right” type of young woman — thin, able-bodied, athletic and, yes, in most cases, white — to rush at the University of Alabama.

Seeing that culture rendered so explicitly primes the progressive impulse to call for diversity. It feels like the response to the vague unsettled feeling that something is wrong with Bama Rush. It could be the hair or the matching outfits or the accents. But it is clear from watching RushTok that there are a lot of young white women involved. We fixate on that and haphazardly reach for the diversity hammer in our progressive tool kit, without thinking through why that lack of diversity exists in the first place — or what it tells us about the American South.

Despite alumni and cultural pressure to maintain tradition, there have been a handful of attempts to integrate sorority rush at the University of Alabama over the last three or so decades. This is an example of the Faulkner adage that the past is never dead. When it comes to our willful collective amnesia about racism, the past isn’t even past. Most recently, the university pushed to integrate the Greek system in 2013, the year the U.S. Department of Justice inquired about allegations of race discrimination in Alabama’s rush process. Still, in 2022, almost 85 percent of the sorority members in the Alabama Panhellenic Association, comprising most of the university’s sororities, were white, a percentage disproportionate to the racial makeup of the university and the state.

Consider the university’s failed attempts to integrate rush in concert with its comfort with the social media blitz. While there is no definitive proof of causation between the Bama Rush popularity and the University of Alabama’s fiscal health, the university is coming off record enrollment in 2022, even as the general higher education climate in the United States is being roiled by crises.


One biracial rushee in Fleit’s documentary discovers the true qualifications to this culture when joining the sorority does not get her the same male attention as her white sisters. Even if you could integrate Bama the brand, you cannot integrate Bama the social reproduction machine.

The impulse to diversify Bama Rush got me thinking about the book “Elite Capture.” Author Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s thesis is that radical terms d’art like “identity politics” and “racial capitalism” have lost their radical potential. They are victims of elite capture, the process by which the nominal winners of our system strip the terms down to a brand. In the case of “integrating” Bama Rush, no one is talking about the radical roots of integration. They don’t even mean integration as an accommodationist principle. They mean the neoliberal branding of integration as cosmetic diversity. That would look like adding a few plus-size bodies, a racially ambiguous but nonwhite young woman, and some dark hair here and there and calling that fixing Bama Rush for our new sensibilities.