The Quest for Legitimacy:
Hazing in HBCU’s and BGLO’s
Let me be very clear. Hazing is wrong. In all forms and in all instances, it is unacceptable - in the military, marching bands, athletics, and fraternities and sororities. Hazing has no place in these groups (or anywhere else) and quite frankly it erodes the foundation of our groups and weakens our fraternal bonds. While I believe hazing is hazing in any form and a little hazing is just as bad as a lot, I do think there are some cultural differences related to why students haze.
On November 19, 2011 a 26-year old man died. He lost his life going through what has been tacitly described as a hazing ritual in the Florida A&M University Marching 100 Band. From reports we have heard from students, who are reluctant to come forward, Robert Champion was participating in a hazing ritual called “crossing bus c.” I’m sure the students who participated in the incident didn’t consider what they did as hazing; “this is how we ensure honor” were their likely thoughts. I’m sure the students that knew it was happening and did nothing to stop it didn’t think it was hazing either; “it is what it is, he knew what he was getting into” probably ran through their minds. I’m also sure that the culture around what is acceptable in joining and maintaining status in such hailed groups as the FAMU marching band and other culturally-based groups has reinforced that this behavior is ok and in some circles deemed necessary. For a long time I believed it, too.
The Orange County, FL coroner stated the cause of death as “hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident.” Shocking. Disturbing, in fact. Am I surprised that he died? Yes. Am I surprised by the act? No. In many culturally-based fraternities and sororities and on HBCU’s where groups like the marching band are more admired than the football team, hazing is conducted as if it were an accepted practice, and many people, affiliated and not, remain silent. I am challenged by hazing experts who claim that the reason students haze comes from a lack of self-esteem and the desire to have power over others. While parts of that may be true, I feel that in some of our culturally-based organizations that the self-esteem/power argument only tells a small part of the story. It’s not that hazing is a bigger issue in BGLO’s/HBCU’s, but I would suggest that it is done for very different reasons. Hazing in most culturally-based organizations is not done for fun, public ridicule or for sport, as we often see in mainstream fraternities and sororities and athletic teams. Rather, the continuation of tradition, the earning of respect and honor from others, and a sense of earning the right to be called brother or sister are prevailing themes in why this behavior continues in BGLO’s/HBCU’s. You won’t find many reports or studies about this because most of us aren’t talking or telling. If it happened to you and you made it through, you keep your mouth shut. If you got caught, you drop the “I don’t know what you are talking about” card. If you know about it, you mind your business. These are the messages that peers pass on to one another, continuing the enabling of hazing and the wall of discretion we have built around it…until now.
I was hazed and I participated in hazing when I was an undergrad. Before I even began the process of joining a BGLO, members openly told me that I would be hazed, not as a warning, but to prepare me mentally for what was going to happen to me – what I would need to be able to sustain if I wanted to be “in.” Of course, they didn’t call it hazing. Pledging was the term we used, and it was not until I had almost graduated in 2003 that I realized that what I had engaged in was truly hazing. When I was in the depths of a very illegal and wrong pledging process, my big sisters often explained to me that I would see Greeks from other schools, and what I was enduring was to prepare me for my “coming out party.” It was like training for the real show; when they could show off their pledges that had been tortured and now hardened and ready to fight for the sorority. In an ironically twisted way, my sisters were trying to protect me in the only way they knew how. You see, I could have been placed in great bodily danger if I visited another campus after I was initiated and perceived as not “made.” I have literally watched people stripped to their underwear in the middle of campus because other members didn’t feel that they were “made right” or a “real” member. Being considered a “paper” member for some is a fate almost worse than death and, because of that, students are willing to endure almost anything to be “real.”
What we have done is create organizations obsessed with making sure people are tortured so that they can be protected from their own members. Crazy, right? I participated in hazing acts when I brought new members into my chapter. Neither I, nor my sisters, lacked self-confidence or esteem. To this day my sorority sisters are some of the most confident women I know. However, I remember being fearful of other chapters and sisters when I didn’t allow certain “traditions” to continue. I became fearful for myself, my new members, and the future of my chapter.
It is disgusting that we have reduced good and noble organizations into groups that could potentially take the lives of new members. Why is leading the band or playing the clarinet or wanting to do community service potentially hazardous to your health? We have created a culture so obsessed with honor and respect that is has seeped into the very roots of our community in HBCU’s and BGLO’s. I know grown men and women who accept and are prepared for their sons or daughters to be put in harm’s way when it is time for them to join one of these organizations. As a people, we have let hazing come too far and stay too long in the African-American community. Our reasons are no more justified than any other group that chooses to engage in hazing. While our rationale is different and widely accepted, it is ultimately deadly and egregious. The want and need to be known as a legitimate member with all the scars and stains that hazing creates has weakened our chapters, our national organizations and our college campuses. In the both the FAMU incident and in several BGLO hazing incidents, administrators and national officials admonish hazing and cite policies and procedures that are supposed to curb this behavior. What we all need to realize is that this problem runs deeper than we can imagine, and no amount of paperwork or even the death of another student will stop the behavior unless we are willing to consider real, sustainable change.
I agree with our critics. A complete and total repeal of hazing chapters and organizations is the best solution to help eradicate hazing in our culture. Given what we now know about the history of hazing within the FAMU band, we can say with certainty that the band should have been suspended and disbanded long before Robert Champion’s death. Anything less, as we have seen, can have deadly consequences.
Michelle Guobadia is the Director of Fraternity/Sorority Life at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. She is an active volunteer for the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors and for her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. She is also a speaker and facilitator for CAMPUSPEAK.