Winners hurt by corporate bad judgment

There's a fine line between cultural hijacking and cultural broadening.

And then there's injustice, which I'd like to think is universally understood.

When an all-white fraternity won the largest step competition for Greek letter organizations in America on Feb. 20 and then days later was forced to share the award with a black sorority after a "scoring discrepancy" was magically discovered, culture and injustice violently clashed.

I'm sure you're raising your eyebrows because stepping -- a rhythmic form of dancing, clapping and stomping that is widely practiced by historically black fraternities and sororities -- isn't a normal conversation topic around here. But even if you're not familiar with what stepping is, know that it requires just as much agility as gymnastics and emphasizes the precision of a military troop.

Stepping is a big deal for black fraternities and sororities, so I'm sure when Coca-Cola conceived the idea of the Sprite Step Off competition, the company was thinking of it as a way to further connect with an African-American audience.

What nobody envisioned was a group of white women walking away as the sole winners.

But that's what happened, and instead of living with that result -- which I think says a lot about racial progress and how stepping has become a universally revered art form -- Sprite decided to placate people's fragile, racial sensitivities and make the Arkansas chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha share the award with the Indiana University chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., one of the most prestigious organizations for black women in this country, with more than 900 chapters and an estimated 250,000 members.

It's a decision only a French figure skating judge would love.

Coca-Cola, Sprite's parent company, explained Thursday when it announced the altered result that the shared award was merely the result of correcting a scoring error, but, of course, the sponsor wasn't exactly forthcoming about how this decision was made. For all we know, officials could have played rock-paper-scissors to come up with this outcome.

"There is no conclusive interpretation, nor definitive resolution for the discrepancy," Coca-Cola spokeswoman Lori Billingsley said.

To translate corporate speak: There was no rhyme or reason to what they did.

Coca-Cola would never admit it, and the AKAs and Zetas are too gracious to even go there, but surely the results of the competition were changed because there were a whole lot of people who couldn't handle the fact that a white sorority won a competition that African-American groups were supposed to dominate.

Coca-Cola didn't discover a "scoring discrepancy" as much as it made a poor attempt at trying to settle a race debate, thereby appeasing the wrong set of people.

When Zeta Tau Alpha's winning routine was posted on YouTube, it drew thousands of comments, many of which were racist.

It was strongly suggested on message boards and blogs that the only reason the Zeta Tau Alpha women won was because their skin color made them a novelty, not because they were any good.

Hmm, now where have I heard that before?

I don't fault the AKAs, who initially finished as runners-up, because they didn't choose to make themselves co-champions. The blame rests squarely with Coca-Cola and the fools who believe the Zeta Tau Alphas shouldn't have won because they were white.

Had this happened to a black sorority in a predominantly white competition, it would be all over CNN and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would be hyperventilating.

The truly unfortunate part is that some African-Americans are perfectly fine with the Zeta Tau Alpha team's being railroaded because of a twisted sense of cultural ownership.

Certainly, I'm sensitive to the concerns of those African-Americans who feel the mainstream often steals from black culture without crediting its founders. In his groundbreaking book, "Forty Million Dollar Slaves," New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden contends that the integration of baseball was really a setback for African-Americans because Major League Baseball was allowed to poach the best talent from the Negro Leagues without also being forced to make room for black managers, executives and owners.

The fear is that if stepping hits the mainstream, a historically black form of expression will be lost.

But some of us seem to forget racial inclusion is a two-way street. Black people can't have it both ways. We can't push for racial progress on one end but practice exclusion on the other.

If anything, black Greeks should feel proud of what the Zeta Tau Alpha team accomplished because if it weren't for African-Americans' influence and coaching, Zeta Tau Alpha wouldn't be nearly as good as it is.

For nearly two decades, the Zeta Tau Alpha Arkansas chapter has participated in an on-campus step show with black sororities and fraternities to foster unity between black and white Greeks. The white fraternities and sororities are assigned a coach from a black Greek organization. They not only learn a few moves but also are taught the history of stepping and have a better understanding of why black Greek organizations were needed in the first place: African-Americans were being excluded.

And now some of us want to make another group feel the same way.

"We like to share that tradition," said Alexandra Kosmitis, the co-captain of the Zeta Tau Alpha team, which, like the AKAs, was awarded $100,000 in scholarship money. "It means a lot to us. It's a really good way for us to know each other. We've really bonded as a team and learned life lessons and how to overcome obstacles. It's really good for us to learn how to step, just to be able to share something [with black sororities and fraternities]."

Isn't that what exposure is supposed to achieve?

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.