In season 2 of Dear White People, the lavish colonial campus of Winchester University becomes a puzzle for Lionel (DeRon Horton) to solve. He sees signs in the patterns of the library’s ceiling murals. He combs through the stacks for evidence. He makes charts mapping out his theories.
Lionel, you see, is searching for evidence of secret societies on his Ivy League campus. As Dear White People’s omniscient narrator explains, he’s not the first intrepid journalist to do so. In 1924, after William Landis was rejected from the Scribes of Carthage, he published a bombshell report outing the secret society network in the Winchester Bugle. Lionel uses Landis’s article as a guide to navigating his school’s network of privilege and mystique.
Eventually, Lionel compiles a list of 12 societies with grandiose names straight out of a Dan Brown novel: Knights of Elam, Scribes of Carthage, and yes – Illuminati. That’s because in Dear White People, secret societies function much like the Illuminati allegedly do. They are groups of people that remain hidden, yet wield serious influence and power. Eventually, Sam (Logan Browning) and Lionel are recruited into one such society.
But is this an accurate portrayal of how secret societies – a common fixture of Ivy League universities.– actually function? Harvard has its “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” — aka “final clubs” — and Princeton have its exclusive eating clubs. But of all the Ivy League universities, Yale has the most bustling secret society ecosystem. While Skull and Bones is arguably the most famous secret society on campus (and in America), there are over 40 secret societies operating at Yale.
According to K.*, a recent Yale graduate and member of the Elihu society, about half of the senior class is affiliated with a secret society. We spoke to three recent Yale grads, and secret society members, about what Dear White People gets right — and wrong — about these groups.
At Yale, the society recruitment process is far more straightforward than in Dear White People.
In Dear White People, Sam and Lionel find strange, chalk-marked x’s on their door. That’s the only indication they’re being recruited to join the extremely mysterious Order of X. Eventually, Sam and Lionel are able to use a map and triangulate exactly where the society meets – but it takes skill.
At Yale, the secret society recruitment process is far more out in the open. Tapping occurs in the spring of junior year. At that time, societies slip handwritten letters under candidates’ doors that list a date, a place, and a time. K. noted that the letters don’t always specify which society it’s from. From there, candidates go through two or three rounds of interviews, each varying based on the society’s traditions and techniques.
“Some societies do that creepy shit,” says B., a member of the all-women society Sphinx. “They’ll come find you in the stacks and wear hooded things. These are the ones you’d expect to see in a movie. My society was a lot more chill,” she says.
However “chill” her society’s questioning was, she was emotionally affected by the process. “I was not okay. You’re getting evaluated as a person. They’re seeing if they’re going to put you in a friend group,” she said. She was tapped by four societies, and was selected by one.
L.’s parents went to Yale, back when recruiting was even more ostentatious. “Back in the ‘70s, all the juniors would sit criss cross on old campus, and the big three societies would run down the lines and tap you on the shoulder if you could be in it.” L. was eventually tapped into Berzelius, the third-oldest society on campus, housed in a stark white building.
At the end of the process, each society selects 16 rising seniors to be a member of its class.
In some ways, the societies are not-so-secret. In other ways, they really, really are.
“‘Secret’ disappeared a while ago,” says L. Rather, emphasizes K., societies are “private.” You know they’re there, but you don’t know what happens within them. K. spent her afternoons hanging out with fellow society-members in a house only they could enter. That kind of casual cameradie is contrasted with the secretive Order of X in Dear White People.
Yale’s societies are organized into three tiers. The oldest (and wealthiest) societies are “landed,” meaning they are either housed in a “tomb” or in a house. “Unlanded” societies are newer, and meet in members’ apartments or coffee shops.
Tombs are large, imposing buildings without windows. Only members can go into them, except for a single day at the end of the year, when some societies allow friends in. L. recalls the first time she and her class saw the inside of Berzelius, their new society, for the first time. “It looks like you’re in the great hall of Hogwarts. I was in shock at the privilege we were afforded. I don’t think anyone thinks this is normal,” L. said. For the rest of the year, she dined on “fucking amazing dinners” prepared by a permanent private chef.
Only a small fraction of Yale's society members have lavish experiences like L.’s. “I’m always going to be curious about what the inside of Skull and Bones is,” says B., whose society, Sphinx, is unlanded. “But you get over it. I was happy I got to cure my curiosity by going into Berzelius. They look like the rest of Yale: old and wooden.”
All of Yale’s secret societies revolve around individual presentations.
Though each society has different traditions and different legacies, the structure is largely the same. Each society has 15 or 16 members per class. The societies gather on Thursday and Sunday nights for group dinners and for presentations called “bios” or “audits,” long-form autobiographical presentations. At a society like Scroll and Key, the individual presentation takes the form of a rigorous debate.
Through these biographical stories or debates, everyone is supposed to emerge with a holistic picture of their fellow society members. Some societies have a jovial, party-like atmosphere during these twice-weekly meetings; others are more serious. “You write 10 page papers, debate them, and no one’s allowed to get drunk,” L. said of some of the more prestigious societies.
That said, B. explains the main goals of all the societies are the same: “Meeting people that you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and sharing your life stories with them in an extremely intimate way. It’s not like you just sit down with your best friends and go through with your childhood up until now.”
The societies greatly impact social life.
The students at Winchester University don’t seem to know much about the Scribes of Carthage or the Order of X. Pegasus, the society that CoCo (Antoinette Robinson) bids for, is perhaps the closest equivalent to one of Yale’s brand of secret-but-not-really organizations. For the most part, however, it seems like not being in a society doesn’t impact your social life at Winchester.
That’s not the case for seniors at Yale. “I would’ve been so sad had I not gotten into one. All of my friends got into one,” says B. “Automatically two nights a week I wouldn’t have gotten to hang out with someone. I’d have to make some new friends.”
B. has given this conundrum a significant amount of thought. “What might’ve been best if there had stayed the seven landed societies and no more. Half of seniors are in societies, and so half of the seniors feel left out. If only 10% were in societies then no one would actually care and you wouldnt feel left out.”
Societies have come a long way in terms of diversity.
When Lionel scrolls through images of society members, he sees the quintessential faces of Ivy League privilege: young, white, floppy-haired men. The Order of X, comprised of Black students, was founded as a sanctuary from Winchester’s overwhelmingly white campus.
In that regard, Yale has little in common with Dear White People. In 1991, Skull and Bones — the bastion of the old boys’ club tradition — began to admit women into its ranks. Now, the societies aim for diversity. “Every society, especially the ones with more clout, are determined to be as diverse as possible,” says L, especially since the goal of the “bio” system is to learn about different life perspectives.
One thing Dear White People gets right? The societies still have great influence.
At the end of the season, Sam and Lionel find themselves in a room of middle-aged Order of X members who are determined to help guide their life paths.
“Secret societies totally do play into the world order,” said L., a member of Berzelius. After joining Berzelius, one of Yale’s oldest and most prestigious societies, L. realized she had access to a large and influential network of alumni. During a Berzelius dinner at the Yale Club in New York the January of her senior year, she realized the extent of her society’s connections. “I was just chatting, not networking at all. When the dinner ended, the other six people at the table stood up and gave me their business cards. One was the VP of Pfizer and he offered to put me in touch with someone for post-grad which would lead to them paying for my PhD,” she said.
As seen in Dear White People, the former members look out for the current members. “If you don’t have a job lined up you can put out one feeler, and you’ll be contacted by 15 to 20 people who are recent alums. They’re all in positions to give you jobs,” L. said.
Of all the societies, Skull and Bones still occupies the most legendary position in campus and cultural life. The society is shrouded in mystery. “My friend in Skull and Bones wouldn’t talk about things,” said B. Allegedly, members have access to a private island and private jet, and receive a $15,000 parting gift upon graduation.
While they don’t know details, all three women agree that being a member of Skull and Bones puts someone in a close position to power. “Just by nature of being in Skull and Bones, you have the ability to call up people,” K. said. Former “Bonesmen,” as members are called, take an active role in shaping the current class. According to B., the members take a yearly trip to Bonesman George W. Bush’s Texas ranch — Bush is the third president to come out of Skull and Bones, after William Howard Taft and George H.W. Bush. So in that regard, Dear White People is right: These societies are the rooms where it happens. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there are only 16 keys given out each year.
*The interview subjects in this piece requested to have their anonymity preserved.