We can’t talk about Black Greek hazing without talking about slavery
By George Johnson
It’s been a few months since Netflix aired the controversial movie Burning Sands, written and directed by Omega Psi Phi member Gerard McMurray about the underground pledge process of Black Greek Letter Organizations (BLGOs). The violence displayed in the movie was at times over-the-top and in many scenes hard to watch, as a narrow lens focused on some of the worst parts of our illustrious Divine Nine organizations, erasing any hope of full context and comprehension around the needed discussion around hazing.
Following the release, social media went ablaze with commentary from people for it, against it, and in-between, leaving many to question where one should place the blame. But after the dust settled, we were still left with no real critical value added to the necessary discussion around hazing. Nor had we even addressed how scapegoating Black Greek Letter orgs as the problem follows a system that often projects Black people as being more prone to violence, rather than assimilators in a system setting us up for condemnation.
The story of hazing has often been told in a vacuum, casting light only on BGLOs as the main perpetrator of the offense, without any historical acknowledgement of whiteness. White fraternities and sororities are just as culpable as they have had more national hazing incidents than BGLOs on record, yet the significance of the problem isn’t seen as the same.
The first college hazing death incident occurred at Cornell University in 1873 to Mortimer N. Leggett, who was attempting to join Kappa Alpha Society. Coincidentally Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc, the first Black Greek Letter Organization, wouldn’t be founded for some 33 years following this event at that same institution.
White organizations for the next 70 years would continue to have deaths attributed to hazing in the interim, while the first ever instance of a death from a BGLO occurred in 1977 with Omega Psi Phi fraternity Inc.
Of the 219 deaths on record from hazing, 12 of those have been attributed to the Divine Nine. We can all agree that no deaths should be occurring from hazing, but we must realize that we are a problem within a problematic structure, and there is a danger when we only focus on a micro level in an attempt to fix a macro issue.
Focusing on BGLO’s in the discussion of hazing leads to the scapegoating effect, which paints the image that Black folks are more prone to violence, inevitably becoming an extension of the myth of “Black on Black Crime.” This in turn is used as a weapon by other races to justify the treatment of our community.
Outside of the vacuum lies the truth about hazing, which is more of a system that has been used against Black people as a means to create a power dynamic within white supremacy.
Hazing is, by definition, “the imposition of strenuous, often humiliating, tasks as part of a program of rigorous physical training and initiation.” It is done as a way to invoke discipline and structure into a set of rules and principles that one should live by.
More often than not, this is a term used only when discussing fraternities and sororities, but a macro look at this term reveals its true origins. If the standard in society is white male cishetero-centered, assimilation toward that standard would be the optimum objective for those looking to fit in.
The “initiation” for such assimilation would be the enforcement of respectability politics. Conformity would reign supreme, and deference would be given based on race and social status. The “humiliation” factor comes at the expense of the Black subject, who, as we know, time and time again has been embarrassed on camera by law enforcement.
Our deaths at the hands of police on camera serve as a reminder of how powerless we are against them, and of the necessity to conform or be condemned. Our ancestors hung from trees for white amusement, only for us to assimilate into a culture where we can sit and break bread with the descendants of those who once enslaved us 70 years later. That system then trickles down into the Black community, where we place the Black cis-hetero male at the place of dominance and power, with all other Black people falling below.
Fraternities are not unique in creating a power dynamic based on these factors. The position of Dean and ADP are revered by those who follow in the long tradition of bringing in new initiates and upholding the legacy of our beloved chapters and organizations. Deference is given based on age, line year, and positions held just as society would have it in any corporate or political structure.
One can’t have a real conversation about hazing if we aren’t willing to acknowledge how its roots are tied into slavery, and the Black condition which has always been rooted in pain, tolerance, and conformity as a means of survival. When we created our own communities after denial from white organizations, the principles of what the “talented tenth” looked like had already laid the foundation for assimilation.
Just like the Black cop or prosecutor who joins the institution of white law enforcement, Greeks inevitably succumb to anti-black principles due to the system structure, regardless of the obligation to the protection of those who look like them.
This doesn’t mean that hazing isn’t a problem for BGLOs and the Black community as a whole. Many people are willing participants in processes that are bogged down more in tradition and culture than general logic and will. Hazing is indeed a problem, but one that requires combating assimilation into whiteness on a large scale. That said, if these organizations plan to continue for another 100 years, there will have to be radical change or acceptance of the end of BGLOs as we know it.
When one takes hazing out of the vacuum of “Black on Black crime,” we can fully understand the role whiteness has played in our narrative and begin the unlearning necessary to create spaces “for us by us” without the justification of having a pain threshold. Hazing will not be fixed tomorrow, but with full context around the totality of the systems in place that make it an acceptable standard, we can do the real work to end it once and for all in our communities.
George M. Johnson is a Black Queer Journalist and the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He writes for EBONY, TheGrio, Teen Vogue, NBC News, Black Youth Project and several other national publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram