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Sandy Banks

Rituals Fed by Longing to Belong

September 17, 2002|Sandy Banks

If there had been an ocean in Ohio, I would have walked into it, if that's what it took to earn my way into my sorority.

So I understand what may have led two young women to venture into rough surf at Playa del Rey as part of a sorority initiation routine last week. The women drowned during a late-night outing at Dockweiler Beach, in what police have called an innocent accident but others suspect may be the latest example of hazing turned deadly.

The girls were not drunk or tied up or forced into the water, police say. They apparently waded in as part of an initiation routine, led by blind allegiance to a fraternal organization begun almost a century ago with the highest of ideals.

I was once like one of those young women, eager to belong and willing to do whatever it took. And I am still loyal enough to my sorority to want to close ranks now; to defend the honorable motives behind cruel, generations-old rituals that made pledging a life-changing force for me.

I emerged stronger, tougher, more convinced of my abilities. I learned to face down fear, to stand up for my friends, to keep pushing even when the odds are against me.

But what's the lesson when someone dies?

By all accounts, pledging hasn't changed much since I joined my sorority 25 years ago. Then and now, hazing by black fraternities and sororities ranged from outright beatings for the men to paddling, exercise to the point of exhaustion and humiliating pranks for both women and men. There were positive aspects as well, of course. We had to perform community service, learn our sorority's history and attend nightly "study tables" to get our homework done, because good grades mattered. And we had to wait on our big sisters hand and foot.

Yet, the point never seemed to be brutality. "You value something more when you suffer for it," one of our big sisters would explain, as the others screamed at us, pushed us around and called us names. The pledge process was to test our strength and demonstrate our commitment, to build our sisterhood and bind us to this group through sacred, secret rituals.

It was not so different from the abuse meted out at boot camps to toughen military recruits, or the team-building exercises used by businesses and schools. And then again, it was not much different from the "jumping in" process that street gangs use, where they beat initiates to a bloody pulp and make the survivors part of the brotherhood.

Still, when I think back to my days on a pledge line, what I recall most is not the humiliation, fear and brutality. Our cardinal rule was if one pledge faltered, the whole group paid, and that taught us collective responsibility.

If your sister fails, it's because you didn't care.

That's a powerful mantra that has stayed with me. And it's something you can't learn if all you do to join a group is step up and sign on the dotted line.

We knew even back then that hazing was against the rules. But it was an open secret that being a pledge meant being abused. A decade ago, pledging went underground even further, when the national governing body for the nine black Greek-letter groups scrapped the pledging process in the face of a rising tide of injuries, lawsuits and deaths.

But efforts at reform have met with resistance among college students, who view surviving the pledge process as a badge of honor that raises your social status on campus and gives you stature among fraternity and sorority brothers and sisters.

"On the typical college campus there are immense pressures for [pledges] to submit to the illegal pledge process," explains Lawrence Ross Jr., a fraternity member and author of "The Divine Nine," a book on black Greek organizations. "Pledges do it willingly because they know the penalty for not going along is being ostracized socially on campus."

A University of Washington senior who asked that her name not be used knows that hazard firsthand. Last fall, she pledged her university's chapter of the same sorority the two drowned girls were trying to join. But she and her seven "line sisters" dropped out days into the process, after they were humiliated and forced to participate in dangerous stunts, and one was slapped for laughing during a comic entertainment routine.

She had heard stories of brutal pledge rituals, "so when we first got picked [to pledge], I asked if we were going to be getting hit, and they said no. That's what led me to put my trust into these girls. I didn't want to be part of something that would disrespect me and then expect me to call them 'Sister' afterward."

When the girls stopped pledging, the big sisters called them quitters and warned they'd never live it down. Their grades dropped; their social lives evaporated. They couldn't go out without being called names and harassed. They were ostracized not just by members of one sorority but by several black Greek groups, who blamed them for threatening their sacred rituals by turning a spotlight on illegal hazing.

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