The cryptic letters marking houses on Penn’s campus carry more meaning than just their Greek affiliations. If you look hard enough, the letters also point to some groups’ searches for their own spaces on campus.

Or at least, that’s the case put forth by many members of the Penn community when discussing ways to transcend a historical separation at Penn, one that isn’t always acknowledged: color lines between Greeks.

In addition to the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils, which govern 31 fraternities and 8 sororities, respectively, Penn has an autonomous Multicultural Greek Council. Acting as the umbrella organization for traditionally black, Latino and Latina, and Asian Greek letter organizations, the MGC recognizes 14 independent chapters, 12 of which have active members on campus.

Despite the implications of a separate multicultural governing body, the real picture is not quite black and white.  All three bodies — IFC, PanHel and MGC — participate in activities like Greek Week, and, as anyone can observe at Penn, many friendships here go beyond skin tone.

But there are other distinguishing qualities of multicultural Greek life. Aside from being culture–specific, these groups have culturally–informed histories. They tend to be smaller and less concentrated (and not to mention less visible) at Penn, as none has a lettered house on campus.

Where there exists any degree of separation with respect to race, questions about social diversity are bound to emerge. Should diversity mean every cultural subgroup interacts equally (and holds hands, to boot)? If so, does having independent cultural organizations amount to that seemingly dirty term, “self–segregation”? And must these conversations tend so quickly toward notions of either/or — as in either minority communities fully integrate, or they strive to preserve cultural roots?

Balancing cultural commitments with ties to our broader campus, MGC members point toward a reality that may call for an optimistic rephrasing of the question: at Penn and elsewhere, in 2012 and beyond, is it possible for us to have our multicultural cake — and eat it, too?

“Does anyone have something to say about that?”

The question comes from Justin Walters, a senior at La Salle University and a member of the Philadelphia–wide Delta Eta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. Clad in a well–pressed suit like the rest of his brothers, Walters stands in a Huntsman classroom displaying a slide of Kobe Bryant fielding allegations of sexual assault. This Monday night discussion about the effects of race on celebrity media coverage kicked off Kappa Week, which culminated last Saturday with a charity ball celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Delta Eta chapter.

Kappa, a historically black fraternity, is like many minority Greek chapters at Penn in that its individual history long precedes the existence of the MGC and deeply influences what the organization stands for today.

Although her sorority’s history at Penn does not trace back six decades, Wharton senior and alpha Kappa Delta Phi sister Jenny Fan explains that its establishment in 1994 marked an important milestone: the first Asian American–interest sorority at Penn. The group’s history and emphasis on service were part of what attracted her to join. “The girls I wanted to be like were in this sorority,” Fan says.

Legacy and tradition are important to Greeks, regardless of their cultural affiliation. Still, many multicultural Greek organizations are unique in the solidarity they have provided for growing, and historically marginalized, collegiate communities.

“Lots of these fraternities and sororities began as organizations aiming to support each other,” says Daina Richie–Troy, associate director of Penn’s Makuu Black Cultural Center and a 1998 Wharton graduate. “It was a strategic call to have people of the same mind — who were committed to service and to scholarship — come together.”

When Richie–Troy attended Penn, black fraternities and sororities were known collectively as “The Big C.” There was no coalition for the different minority–interest groups until they transitioned over to the MGC around 2003.

“Before I came to Penn, I didn’t even know that multicultural Greek organizations existed,” says Wharton junior Sasha Lagombra, a sister — or more precisely, an hermana — of the Latina–interest sorority Sigma Lambda Upsilon. Lagombra arrived at Penn seeking the close bonds offered by Greek life, but she says that as a naturally shy person she felt overwhelmed by the size of Panhellenic organizations. Then Lagombra met a 2006 Penn graduate and SLU sister who later introduced her to hermanas around Philadelphia. At the time there were no sisters at Penn, but that didn’t stop Lagombra and another Penn student from pledging.

The process for joining an MGC organization varies from group to group, unlike in the IFC and Panhellenic systems, which set recruitment calendars followed by all their constituents and use a vocabulary that does not always match up with MGC customs. “Sometimes I get the question, ‘Do you guys rush?’ And I think, ‘Oh, how do I answer this?’” says Lagombra.

The familiar sight of girls lined up in black coats along Spruce and Walnut, or of boys enjoying hoagies at houses on Locust, do not apply. For many MGC groups, such as Kappa, members are spread across Philadelphia–area schools including Penn, La Salle, Drexel, Temple, Villanova, Bryn Mawr College and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

“I use USP’s library now more than ours,” says College junior Leo Park, a member of Sigma Beta Rho fraternity. Lounging in the living room of the 40th and Baltimore house he shares with some SigRho brothers and other Penn students, Park — whose family is Korean — explains that his primarily South Asian chapter often collaborates with other South Asian organizations at affiliate schools.

“I have friends in East Asian fraternities. I just never looked for them specifically.” He pauses. “And actually, I do like the whole multicultural aspect — you’re no longer defining yourself by one group.”

College senior, Omega Psi Phi brother and MGC president Jae Barchus says that facilitating interaction between the groups has been one of his priorities in heading the Council. Barchus — who has a knack for rapidly switching from a serious expression into a disarmingly friendly one — took on the role following a prolonged absence of formal leadership among the organizations.

In addition to helping each of the 12 active chapters “build a brand,” Barchus has focused on collaborating with Makuu and other cultural centers, including the Pan–Asian American Community House and La Casa Latina, as well as increasing MGC exposure within the rest of the Penn community.

“It’s harder for us to be noticed,” he says, citing the lack of lettered houses as a major cause of MGC organizations flying under the radar.  “Some IFC and Panhel Greeks will ask, ‘Where’s your house?’ — they just don’t know,” Barchus explains. “And then they say, ‘How do you function without a house?’”

These kinds of conversations provide a starting point for these different communities to learn more about each other, something Barchus believes groups would like to do. “It’s just, how do we facilitate that?” he asks. “We have to feel comfortable letting them into our spaces.”

For many, the phenomenon that often gets labeled as self–segregation — gravitation toward people who belong to your culture, whether in a Greek organization or any other social unit — comes down to the simple issue of comfort, rather than deliberate attempts to block off other groups.

“It’s natural for people to tend toward what they know,” says School of Engineering and Applied Sciences senior and Delta sister Magalie Lilavois. She adds that she does not think this tendency should be equated with something as absolute as self–segregation.

College freshman Mikal West, who says he was one of the few minority students at a predominantly white school, believes that navigating race in our social lives can feel like choosing between hanging on to what you know and branching out — but that the dichotomy of that choice is ultimately artificial.

“It is something people have to deal with. I’m not sure if it’s self–generated pressure — you may just feel more comfortable with people who understand certain things about you and your background,” says West, who participated in IFC open rush and has attended events hosted by black cultural groups on campus. “But then you have other friends who may not understand you as much culturally, and you still have things in common.”

Some members of the “mainstream” fraternities and sororities feel that they have found cross–cultural commonalities within their organizations as well. College junior and Phi Kappa Psi member Mike Russom says that he sees a level of diversity in his fraternity that reflects the range of backgrounds he has encountered at Penn.

Speculating on future directions for relationships between Penn’s many communities, Barchus settles on a face that is serious, but optimistic.  “I think there will be more fluidity,” he says.

Not long after Barchus makes this point, College junior and Phi Kappa Sigma (or “Skulls”) president Jon Monfred walks up the stairs to the second floor of Van Pelt. The two Greek leaders greet each other warmly, having met the previous weekend at a retreat for Penn’s three Greek umbrella organizations. They chat about the Kappa Week event planned for that night, a discussion entitled “The State of Obama–nation,” something they both might like to attend.

In the library, of all places, things are starting to look a bit more fluid.

For Greeks and non–Greeks alike, the spring semester is about renewed energy. Deltas will be busy tutoring girls in high schools around Philadelphia, aKDPhis, promoting breast cancer awareness; several other organizations will commit themselves to several worthy causes. Just this week, Barchus and the Omegas collaborated with the sisters of Panhellenic group Zeta Tau Alpha to offer a self–defense class for women.

But everyone needs a break sometimes, and a good option is usually goofing off. Lagombra says that she and her sisters sometimes come up with fun strolls if they’re feeling silly — strolls being a tradition that developed out of the black Greek community, combining dance moves and salutary motions to honor an organization’s letters.

The brothers of SigRho show their pride another way: a chant. But not just any chant — when the occasion calls for it, they perform a SigRho–related verse over “Ruff Ryders Anthem.”

“We scream over DMX,” Park explains, with nodding agreement from USP sophomore and SigRho brother Neil Sheth, who has stopped by the house on Baltimore.

When I politely ask to hear the verse, Sheth’s answer is instant rejection.

“We can’t do it for you now!” he exclaims, laughing off the suggestion. “You’ll just have to come to one of our parties.”

If I did go to one of their events, there’s a good chance I would be a brown face among many — and for me, that would be just fine. You can sing over DMX with people who look something like you, but you can also do it with people who don’t.

In the end, there just doesn’t seem to be any reason to have the cake if you’re not going to eat it, too.

Elena Gooray is a junior majoring in Cognitive Science. She is from Silver Spring, MD.