It Wasn’t Religion That Led Me To Denounce My Greek Letters, It Was Hypocrisy
I know more than likely where this conversation will go. I’ve already grappled with the backlash that may or may not come from it and have accepted my obligation to speak on it anyway. Having been a member of a Black Greek-letter organization for over 10 years, I know all of the talking points, rebuttals, and clap backs. Fortunately, I’m not writing this for the approval or pacification of the audience I used to belong to. So let the backlash come.
I struggled with the decision to denounce my Greek letters for years. It wasn’t a religious decision or a financial decision, it wasn’t even a philosophical decision, but still, I struggled with how my peers might perceive me. A fear that’s been the crux of my relationship with Black Greek life since the tender age of 17. I had no business pledging a sorority, especially not at that age. As an adult, I wouldn’t join any organization that used “do your research” as their unofficial motto. Especially an organization that knew full well that all the research in the world wouldn’t reveal much, only intensifying the curiosity and leading me right back to its doorstep in search of answers. But in my adolescence, I was captured by the allure of it all.
The sisterhood, the social elevation, the infinite connections, the historical significance, it all seemed so right. That whimsical naïveté ended just minutes into my first night in the basement when the same young woman who encouraged me to pledge and essentially took me under her wing would bust my lip open for wearing the wrong color underwear. “Y’all better get y’all line sister,” she said sternly. That would be the last time I didn’t adhere to the strict guidelines set forth by the women bringing us into the fold. And what other choice did I have? Abandon my line sisters with whom trauma had forged a seemingly unbreakable bond, only to become a walking pariah on campus. You may not have known when someone was pledging but you sure as hell knew when they dropped.
My other option wasn’t that much better. Ditch the only respected way to join a historically black Greek organization and go full-on paper. And I wasn’t about to set myself up to have paper planes tossed at me in public places; to have people I called my sisters ignore and avoid me in social settings; to be physically pushed out of party strolls and laughed off of step shows stages. I knew all too well that I was better off being a renegade than being an actual card-carrying member of the organization. Nobody cared whether you had an identification number or if you could attend regional conferences if you could take wood until the sun came up, that was far more important. So I committed to enduring the process because it was the lesser of three evils, that’s what I thought.
Pledging makes you hard, and I’m not just talking about your ass. I’m talking about your soul. People did things in that basement that most people would find horrifying. Adult women AND men were paying their visits, testing us both physically and mentally, eager to take part in our process. Not for their delight of course, what 40-something-year-old man takes joy in paddling a bunch of teens to the point of vomiting? No, these adults with careers and spouses and children were abusing college students for our benefit. It’s not enough to be “made” if no one’s there to vouch for you. These people were doing us a favor. And the light at the end of the tunnel, one day we’d be able to pay it forward. We would pass by other students also in the process of earning their psychological stripes from other organizations.
All of us avoiding eye contact, avoiding the grass, avoiding each other’s gut-wrenching realities but inside we knew what was going on, everyone did. One day we’d hear about a young woman having her leg broken pledging another organization, being hospitalized as a result, and subsequently ending the process for her line sisters. But who cared about her leg? She knew what she signed up for and nobody forced her to pledge in the first place. Ultimately, the young woman would cooperate with an internal investigation resulting in the suspension of various members of the chapter. Only making things tenser for those of us who still had journeys to complete. When the news broke, we whispered about the possibility of having it a little easier. Maybe the severity of the matter and the fact that it all happened so close to home would guilt our molders into using a softer hand. Instead we received the following warning, “I dare one of y’all to try that shit. Just drop. Don’t ruin it for everybody else.” And so we persisted, through the beatings and the degradation and the chastisement and the intimidation and the financial strains and the failed classes. All of us seeing it through to the end, all except one.
A legacy on our line who had been hospitalized twice throughout our process. She quickly earned the label as “The Rock” and was everybody’s favorite. Known for her ability to swallow blows from some of our most aggressive visitors, she could endure the most pain and so they made sure that she did, on full display. She did so unfazed until the skin on her backside became so hardened from excessive bleeding under the skin that it was like hide. She could no longer handle the physicality of the process and none of us could blame her. We were called in for an emergency meeting, during which we were punished severely for her decision. Advised that we were suffering as a result of our inability to keep our line together. What kind of sisters let one of their own drop? Although she had informed us of her decision and the chapter had agreed not to contest her application for official membership, the underlying message was that we were to be eternally grateful for whatever torture we were subjected to.
Did we have any idea how many women would die to be in our places? We did. We’d heard the stories, and what a strange pseudo attempt at motivation. We were instructed to separate ourselves from our fallen sister. We were given a long list of things she couldn’t do, we were to police her behavior in public places, continuously reminding her of her weakness. One chapter meeting she brought up the social torture we were subjecting her to and we knew we were all guilty. As things heated up she was attacked viciously. Leaving the meeting (and ultimately the university) bloodied and defeated. Later, we would get word of her suspension along with other members of the chapter she transferred to. The cause of said suspension: hazing. How did we become so calloused?
This would be the theme for most of my college career as a member of a Black Greek-letter organization. I didn’t get the sisterhood I so desperately desired, but I did get a lot of attention. Attention that I thought was good at the time. Guys saw fresh meat and jumped at the opportunity to seduce a neo or two with the promise of the perfect Black Greek couple. Girls saw social status and were suddenly vying for the bestie position, offering to type your papers, buy your boyfriend sneakers, blow their meal plan feeding your entire chapter, just about anything to gain some favoritism. One really sick method for weeding out potential interests was to pressure a young girl to engage in sexual activity with a male member of a BGLO and then blackball her for being a salacious trollop when she obliged.
And for the girls who did pass our sick challenges, they were left to endure the consequences of our unresolved trauma. I would continue on this way until my own suspension, tearing young black women down in the name of sisterhood. Promising them some imaginary rebuilding process at the end, one that I knew didn’t exist because I hadn’t even experienced it myself. As I found myself cloaked in a candlelit room, kneeling at an altar and swearing oaths, I thought to myself, what part of sisterhood is this? In my adolescence, I didn’t have the foresight to know better. These were adult decisions being made by a group of children, no wonder it costs some of us our lives. I wasn’t bothered by my suspension, I saw it as a much-needed break from my organization.
What did bother me was how quickly the same people who “made” us were so eager to abandon us. “This is a nonhazing, nonpledging organization” they regurgitated. One woman in particular who rarely missed an opportunity to trek down those basement steps was spearheading the reprimand party. “What on earth would cause you all to participate in something like this??” She barked. “Is that the spirit of sisterhood?” As far as I knew, yes, and so did she. The hypocrisy was too much, I was over it. Over her. Over lying to myself. Over lying to young girls who would give anything to join the fold. I had risked everything in the name of my organization and year after year I couldn’t figure out why.
Ultimately I would denounce my affiliation fully, a request my organization would deny on paper. Oddly enough, you got in the same way you left, when they said you could. But they didn’t own me anymore so it wasn’t their call and I removed every aspect of the organization from my social life. Unfortunately ridding myself of the affiliation didn’t do anything to rid me of the fear. Even in therapy sessions when the topic would come up, I shied away. Still protecting their secrets under the twisted guise of loyalty and discretion. Encountering young women who would likely follow the same path in search of a community that wasn’t healthy enough to foster their growth and remaining quiet. I watched them covet membership to organizations that proudly proclaimed black lives matter while staying mute about the many black lives they’d claimed along the way. To the young women who came to me seeking answers and guidance, I apologize for denying you the truth. Yes, Greek life isn’t for everybody and if we were honest about what it entailed upfront more people could make that determination on their own.
To those who will discredit my experiences by arguing that I’m bitter, I say that you’re right. I am bitter. I’m bitter that people my mother’s age thought it their right to beat me mercilessly for weeks all while singing the praises of an organization who would turn a blind eye to the abuse of young black women. I’m bitter that I paid to be a hypocrite. I’m bitter that I was led to believe that how much pain I could endure had any bearing on how devoted a sister I could be. I’m bitter that I celebrated elitism and the intentional cultivation of hierarchy amongst black people. I’m bitter that I believed my affiliation would give me any leg up in the real world, an affiliation I often had to explain during interviews with white employers who couldn’t have cared less. I’m bitter that I allowed fear to keep me bound to an oath I was too young to understand.
For those who will say that their experience was nothing like mine, I’m happy for you. I wouldn’t wish my experience on my worst enemy. It changed me and the women with whom I stood arm in arm permanently. Some of us will never recover. To those of you who will say this is some personal vendetta, I understand that you need to believe the best about your organization. It’s part of your conditioning. But this is no vendetta, this is liberation through transparency and no one has the right to abuse me and then silence my pain. Some of you will wish death on me because you’ve been bred to see violence as a means to an end. Some of you will spend hours scouring the internet to find any sort of personal information to invalidate my claims, I hope your organization is compensating you for all your hard word. But this is my story to tell, whether your bylaws approve of it or not. And if it keeps even one young woman from sacrificing herself to uphold the reputation of an organization that wouldn’t save her if she were dying, literally, then I’d say it was all worthwhile.