Historically, Black fraternities and sororities have been said to haze prospective pledges at a higher rate and more harshly than White fraternities and sororities. However, the secretive nature of fraternities and sororities makes it difficult to track hazing incidents.
According to the website Insidehazing.com only five percent of college students report being hazed. For this reason, it is usually only in death that hazing incidents are discovered.
“It was a rite of passage when I went through it, but was not a practice I was prone to practice,” said Mario Browne a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the nations largest Black fraternities. “Yes, I went through it. I do not endorse physical hazing, but I have no problem with challenging a prospect’s mental toughness and resolve.”
Of the fraternity and sorority members interviewed by the New Pittsburgh Courier, Browne was the only person who had been hazed in the past. While others admitted they had heard of hazing incidents occurring within their organizations, all said hazing was strictly forbidden by Black fraternities and sororities.
“I was not hazed,” said K. Chase Patterson, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. “Hazing is probably just as common as before however more dangerous in that there is so much secrecy around it that there is no legitimate control. You can’t be safe without controls.”
In 2010, Alpha Phi Alpha placed a short-term hold on pledging processes nationwide. The mandate came as a result of battery charges against a student member at Fort Valley State University involved in an incident with a student pledging Alpha Phi Alpha.
“Hazing is any physical contact or mental oppression of a potential candidate or member of your organization. I think hazing across the board is dangerous regardless of the history of any organization,” Patterson said. “I probably wouldn’t have joined had I been hazed. No, I take that back; I would’ve joined. Hazing is just based on a historic perspective that there is a level of exclusivity that comes with being a member of a fraternity or sorority and the history that comes behind our organization comes with rights of passage.”
In 2002, two women pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the largest Black sororities, drowned during pledging activities. The chapter at Cal State in Los Angeles had already been suspended since 2000 for incidents involving pledging.
“It’s something we just don’t tolerate and we will close down a chapter. We have a closed down chapter at the University of Pittsburgh because of hazing,” said Delphina Briscoe, president of Ivy Charitable Endowment, a nonprofit affiliate of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s Pittsburgh chapter. “They feel it’s historical. Well it’s just not acceptable. Yet people don’t see that they’re hurting someone. They don’t see that; they don’t feel that. They think if it happened to me, why shouldn’t it happen to you.”
Despite these incidents and more, a national study on hazing released in 2008 by researchers at the University of Maine found that hazing is more common among White fraternities and sororities. According to the study, White students reported 86 percent of hazing incidents. Three percent of respondents in the study were African-American.
“Historically we have had persons severely injured and who have lost their lives, all behind something that someone thought was a practical joke. It’s just a mindset; people think it’s not going to be harmful,” Briscoe said. “People have covered up a lot and there’s no cover up anymore. There are people who might have gone along, but when you take a stance as an international organization you say this is not going to happen.”
The Fraternal Information & Programming Group defines hazing activities as “Any action taken or situation created, intentionally, whether on or off fraternity premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule.” But, with this strict definition of hazing, what methods can fraternities and sororities use to test new members?
“The difference between pledging and hazing is just that. When you are pledging someone you are trying to teach life lessons related to goals like perseverance, working together, staying calm under pressure,” said Leon Orr, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. “Beating a pledge is hazing, what lesson is being taught there? The lesson is in threatening to beat a pledge so that a pledge can learn how to confront or deal with difficult situations in life.”
While none of fraternity and sorority members interviewed would go into specifics about their pledging rituals, Briscoe said new members are considered by invitation only and must come highly recommended. Others declined to comment entirely.
“I will not discuss specific rituals but I’ll give you some light examples. One event for pledges to learn is the Greek alphabet. In teaching the alphabet one of the tricks used sometimes is to light a match, ask the pledge to recite the greek alphabet backwards before the match burns the big brother’s fingers,” Orr said. “Many pledges will try to recite the alphabet from the end to the beginning. This actually does help them learn the Greek alphabet but the deeper lesson of course is for the pledge to simply turn around and recite the alphabet from beginning to end.”
Forty-four states, including Pennsylvania, have outlawed hazing. Although there is no government record kept of hazing deaths, there were 56 documented deaths related to hazing between 1979 and 1999.