Picture this: it’s a dark summer morning in the beginning of August. The air is thick with that Deep South humidity and the crickets are echoing about. The faint sound of heels clacking against the pavement sounds in the distance. At last you see an army of girls, mostly white of course, 1,800 to 2,000 strong, marching in unison to the respected student centers at their respected colleges. Across the way, sorority row, with its numerous plantation-style houses, lights up as members rise to their 6 a.m alarms, dousing themselves in makeup and perfume in hopes of attracting a new band of loyal comrades.
It’s rush week in the South, a longstanding tradition within Greek life organizations on most college campuses and a tradition with a deep-rooted, problematic history.
So, why bother? Why continue to participate in an institution that has repeatedly sought to restrict certain people from joining? The answer is simple for some: social security.
Beginning college comes with a number of obstacles. There is leaving your sense of comfort by moving to a completely alien environment full of unexpectedness. Your cultivated identity from middle and high school is essentially wiped clean and replaced with a blank slate. This can be liberating, but also extremely daunting. Joining a sorority or fraternity alleviates some of the unknown and allows for an escape to a land of familiarity. It offers access to a large circle of like-minded people and detracts from the possibility of being socially lost — you’re granted social events, networking opportunities and instant friends.
However, not everyone has access to this elite club. Greek life organizations have come under fire across the country for various accounts of hazing deaths and racially motivated exclusion. The institution of Greek life is marketed to a certain type of individual — a white, rich, Christian individual — and therefore works to perpetuate a feeling of white superiority that has specifically plagued the South for generations.
Clio Chang, a contributing writer at US News, commented on the homogeneity seen within the sorority culture across schools in the South Eastern Conference (SEC). Members of these organizations strive to perform a certain look in order to attract a certain person. More often than not, the aforementioned social comfort is inextricably linked with physical and racial comfort as well. Institutions such as these operate on a hierarchical system and favor those at the “top” as worthier of inclusion than others.
In 2013, the University of Alabama Greek Life Organization came under scrutiny after a perfectly well-rounded, deserving candidate did not receive a single bid (membership offer) from any of the 16 sororities on campus due to the fact that she was black. Chang later recognized that to sororities at southern schools like the University of Alabama, inducting a woman of color could potentially lessen their social ranking amongst other Greek affiliations. The very fact that this individual wasn’t awarded membership because it would taint the purist identity of the organization speaks to how they function to perpetuate an elitist agenda.
Furthermore, these organizations continue to participate in antiquated and racially insensitive traditions. In 2009, Fox News reported on an incident that occurred, again, at the University of Alabama. The Kappa Alpha Order chapter held their annual Old South Ball, a tradition that celebrated the lost days of the Confederate South. Members were garbed in Confederate uniforms and flew the Confederate flag and were accompanied by young women clad in hoop skirts. They deliberately stopped in front of the school’s historically black sorority, who was celebrating their 35th annual celebration. Apologies were made in the wake of the event, but the intention was still there.
However, the problem does not end there. In addition to the desire to uphold such outmoded traditions, a number of these organizations pride themselves on their hazing practices, and consider them — though criminally dangerous — mandatory. These are rituals that include consuming heavy and deadly amounts of alcohol, ingesting noxious food items, partaking in laborious physical acts and being subjected to emotional and mental stress. Just in 2017 alone, five people died as a result of hazing.
Hazing practices are telling of fraternity culture in general. They are examples of calculated fear that test endurance. Inability to incomplete some of the tasks mark you as unmanly and therefore unworthy of acceptance. They perpetuate the toxic masculinity that bleeds deep into the culture. And if you want to speak up in defiance you risk ostracism for challenging the sacred behavior.
Measures have been taken to prevent further incidents, including the indefinite suspension of fraternal chapters and entire Greek Life organizations. However, people are demanding more elaborate action to be taken. Those responsible for the deaths of the young men lost to hazing should not pay a light debt. In an interview with Time, the parents of Andrew Coffee, a 20-year-old pledge who died after drinking an entire bottle of whiskey, exclaimed, “even as we are heartbroken, we are troubled. Troubled that our son died alone in a room full of people.”
“Brothers,” as they call themselves, are facing criminal charges. They are being indicted for manslaughter, assault and battery, as they should be. This is no longer a matter that can be dismissed as simply just boyish behavior. It is no longer something that is excused by whiteness or maleness or richness, it is a reoccurring issue that threatens not only livelihood but life itself.
The popularity of sororities and fraternities is on the decline as more people come to recognize the numerous issues surrounding them. Their influence across college campuses will likely waver in the face of increasing social change and attention.