The new film Burning Sands on Netflix has ignited the Black Greek-Letter Organization (BGLO) community into a flurry of conversations about the film’s message, intent, and content. Does it expose the secret (or not so secret) “underground” pledging-hazing new member process? Is it another way to focus on the negative aspects of BGLOs? Is it an accurate portrayal of hazing in Black fraternities? Is this film condoning and supporting hazing?
What is apparent is that discussing hazing as it relates to historical, prominent and influential organizations that promote brotherhood/sisterhood, scholarship, service, and leadership is challenging. People who believe in the positives of these organizations do not always want to believe that hazing could actually take place in or by these organizations. How does one promote racial uplift in the Black community, but then turn around and physically abuse someone? Does discussing hazing in public spaces somehow air BGLO’s dirty laundry that is already on a clothesline viewed by all?
Hazing behaviors are complex issues that cannot be resolved with one solution. Additionally, one movie cannot and does not deal with the nuances involved with these issues. Remember, movies are for entertainment purposes. Accordingly, Burning Sands should be viewed through a proper lens.
Here are 9 perspectives to consider when discussing hazing in BGLOs:
Honesty vs. Truth
Honesty is where we address only the question posed, usually filtering information based on the facts that paint us in the best light. Being truthful requires us to respond to issues and questions based upon all the involved dynamics. In the interactions between Prof. Hughes, we see this dance of truth vs. honesty. Zurich is asked to weigh in on the Willie Lynch letter. His response, “I don’t see how we address the real issue by adopting half-baked urban myths. We don’t need a document to wake us up. You know?”
The National Pan-Hellenic Council’s decision to abolish pledging in 1990 and adopt MIP, or membership intake process, was an attempt to address a situation with policy. But, that’s not the most effective way to effectuate change. Policy doesn’t disarm the belief that a process makes you a better soror/frat, or person. In her dissertation, Dr. Joyce Ester, President of Normandale Community College, spoke about the impact of being “in for a penny, in for a pound.” The truth is that some people seek to be hazed as a desire to belong to something meaningful. The truth is I look at my prophytes and think, “He/she ain’t better than me. If they got through it, I can too.” The truth is that if I admit to myself that I allowed myself to be subjected to some intolerable mess, it has to mean something. The truth is that low-key we know who some of the hazers are and don’t break the code of silence. The truth is that looking back I might see the wrong in what I did, or what was done to me, but I only talk about how it made me a better person. The truth is that our values clash with many of our practices. The truth is simple–telling it is difficult. Let’s start having some truthful dialogue about the topic.
#BlackLivesMatter – even in BGLOs
The movement was created to address the injustices that Black people consistently suffer. The Black community often focuses on external entities such as law enforcement and the pipeline to prison systems that are integral parts of these injustices. What about the internal systems like Black fraternities and sororities, which can be also be destructive? Burning Sands, highlights some these internal injustices and the community should be as collectively concerned about them and be ready to have ab open dialogue to get to real a solution. For example, at one point in the film, Prof. Hughes shares her favorite Frederick Douglass quote about “Building strong children is easier than repairing broken men.” Prof. Hughes further challenges both Zurich and the Dean of Students, implicitly and expressly, to challenge the hypocritical fraternal culture that exists between dynamic organizations of proud successful Black men with the culture of violently abusing Black bodies. It is those types of challenges that embraces the #BLM mantra and is necessary for the type of changes that are needed. It is hard to get angry, disappointed and frustrated when law enforcement hides from accountability for its historic and systematic physical violence on Black men behind the “Blue Wall” when Black fraternities also hide behind a shield of “brotherhood.”
Facts Tell, Stories Sell
It is ok to be passionate about an issue or topic. However, to have constructive conversations about hazing in Black fraternities and sororities one must have factual based evidence to substantiate, contextualize and provide accurate analysis. While Burning Sands may be a new movie, hazing in Black fraternities is not. For example, African-American scholar, Dr. John Hope Franklin, in his autobiography, Mirror to America, documented hazing in his fraternity in the 1930s. For almost 100 years, this has been an issue that has not gone away. There appears to be an increase in hazing related incidents since pledging was stopped by BGLOs in 1990. But, there weren’t the same reporting mechanisms that have evolved over the last 30 years than prior to 1990. So, it is very possible that there were even more incidents never reported about hazing at the hands of members our grandparents age.
The movie provides insight to this point as well. From the Dean of Students to the alumni brothers, who seem to be both personally and professionally successful, they acknowledge that this type of behavior has existed. Recognizing proper context provides insight into the magnitude of the problem. It’s unfair to exclusively blame today’s undergraduate BGLO members for a problem that has existed before they were born. When collective generational accountability is initiated and implemented in a more realistic, comprehensive and sustainable fashion, then a solution can be realized.
Risk avoidance vs. harm reduction
Caution! If you show this movie to chapters who do not engage in the types of abusive behaviors depicted in the film, then reviewing this film as a cautionary tale that may not be well received, because they don’t do “stupid stuff like that.” If hazing is always discussed in the worst possible way, then that doesn’t allow undergraduate members to consider the things that can potentially carry a lot of risk, just waiting for that one time when things go completely wrong. Yeah, hazing should not exist. But, when we think about the strategies used in abstinence movements, the Just Say No drug campaign in the 1980s, or alcohol prohibition of the 1920s, telling people to simply avoid undesirable behaviors is not effective.
Researchers from various fields ranging from public health to higher education agree that strategic educational preventive efforts are what reduce risky behaviors. In college, data shows that students participate in various risky behaviors. Hazing is one of those behaviors. To reduce negative incidents around sexual intercourse and drinking, we educate students on how to make better choices and how the wrong choices can have tremendous consequences with some success. BGLOs should consider similar approaches when addressing hazing.
Deference vs. Respect
This film also focused on fraternity members that are mean-spirited, egotistical, and/or are power hungry. They thrive on validation through deference, or humble submission by a pledge. But, many BGLO members who have experienced a pledge process, both above ground and underground, can share about the support they received through their process. This support is evidenced in the forms of mentorship, familial support when a loved one passes away and even financial assistance for textbooks.
Additionally, some members made the decision to join because of the respect they have for others. For example, some join because their mentor, mom, dad, pastor, as well as other influential individuals in their lives are members of these organizations. In some instances, it is these respected individuals who encourage them to be part of a “pledge” process. In the same way, Zurich was encouraged by the Dean of the Students, a man he respected and who provided a letter of recommendation on his behalf. These special connections, which are often not accounted for in the hazing discussion, may be reasons why the underground pledge process continues to exist. One cannot dismiss these perceived positive experiences with respected influencers as simply misplaced feelings. It is not just about the current member’s ego issues, or pledge’s insecurity issues. Again, ultimately, this may be true for some, but not necessarily true across the board.
“Humiliation builds humility.” Or does it?
Dean and “Big Brother” Harris offered the above statement in response to Zurich questioning what he and his line brothers have been subjected to during their pledge process. By the look on Zurich’s face, we can tell what he’s thinking. The invisible side of hazing is the toll it takes on an individual’s psyche, and the long-term effect on their brain development. It’s not like Lambda Lambda Phi, the fictional fraternity in the film, appears to be a frat full of humble men based on how they show up in this space. The humiliation brought to bear in hazing often leaves scars that are unseen. The film alludes to this issue without taking it on directly. Advances in neuroscience teach us that trauma can literally rewire the brain making things seem “normal” that really aren’t, and causing us to repress memories until triggered. While the movie doesn’t wade into the membership experiences of women in BGLOs, Dr. Gina Lee-Olukoya, author of Sisterhood: Hazing and other membership experiences of women belonging to historically African American sororities, shares stories of some women reflecting that they have trouble with trust and meaningful relationships as a result of being on line. Gerrard McMurray, the film’s director, spoke about his desire to shine a light on the complexities of masculinity within the Black community; and, certainly, there are differences in the reasons male BGLOs haze versus those of female BGLOs. Just as there are differing motivations for subjecting oneself to a being hazed.
Why does hazing even exist?
According to researcher and professor, Dr. Aldo Cimino of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, he suggests that “one potential function of hazing is to reduce newcomers’ ability to free ride around group entry.” His theory and initial experiments suggests that when new members of a group can receive ALL the same benefits of members who have been in the organization for many years, humans have a tendency to make these new members work harder to gain entry in the group to ensure they don’t become “free riders” in the group.
What we know from BGLO oral tradition is that Black World War II military men who were fraternity members incorporated military bootcamp activities into the pledge process. Maybe the thought was that since bootcamp helped to weed out individuals not cut out for the military while simultaneously preparing men for service, these activities could do the same for Black fraternities. There is some information about the possibility of members utilizing the tactics learned from civil rights sit-in trainings to prepare pledges for the next phase of the movement. Lastly, BGLO members may have also needed a way to sift through the incredible growth of African-American students at colleges and universities across the country in the late 1970s after federal legislation made it easier for them to attend.
With these perspectives, we can begin to see that pledging may be rooted, for some members, in the value of weeding out some pledges while preparing those remaining to be effective and productive members in the organization. Especially when considering that BGLOs have brought in new members who have been “free riders” who just wear letters, or just party, or just disappear. So, there is much pressure to maintain what is considered tradition. But, without informed structure and guidelines, the intent may be misguided and involved activities that don’t support the intent.
Is Burning Sands real?
The film definitely highlights many of the egregious hazing acts that are known to have existed or do exist. Actually, it almost seems like it took multiple hazing headlines and combined them into the movie. It is possible that all of the incidents have occurred with some chapters at some point in time. It is even possible that there are chapters that have actually done all of the things seen in the film. The reality is there are chapters who may participate in an underground process who do not feel the need to beat, spit in someone’s face, or have sex with women to bring in new members. However, as previously mentioned, when the focus is on the most egregious acts, it doesn’t leave room to discuss the seemingly harmless behaviors that can lead to something far more dangerous. No one thinks about the harm that push-ups, jumping jacks and running around a track can do. In and of itself, each activity may be harmless. Combined with individual’s pre-existing health conditions and/or prior stressful pledging behavior, however, the outcome can be disastrous and in some instances deadly.
So, is this film useful?
Look, educators use film clips all the time to illustrate a point. Although the film has missing pieces, and should not be taken to represent all Black fraternities and sororities, there are parts of the film that are great teaching points possibly resulting in realistic, deep dive conversations. For example, Burning Sands could be used to start a discussion about how pledges going into financial debt is antithetical to the promotion of economic empowerment in the Black community. Or, how hazing is not only at the hands of undergraduate members, but often persists because alumni members perpetuate this tradition. Ignoring hazing, because the rules say it is illegal, is like ignoring texting and driving because the law states it is prohibited. You can’t simply legislate cultural change.
Burning Sands only explores the tip of the iceberg for Black fraternities and only one aspect of what may happen with specific chapters within these organizations. Black fraternities and sororities have worked to address the issue of hazing since their early development and have focused even more so since 1990. Hazing has been a part of the cultural fabric of these organizations and the use of arts and media may assist with constructive dialogue that can be productive so long as the members of these organizations are genuinely opened to having courageous conversations.
Syreeta N. Greene, Ed.D., MSW has been a higher education professional for over 15 years. She’s a speaker and trainer who conducts student leadership training with culturally-based fraternal organizations on college campuses. She is also a proud member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. Twitter @sgdiamond22 | [email protected]
Suzette Walden-Cole, M.Ed. is a doctoral candidate studying the factors that contribute to the development of culture in student groups and effective strategies for cultivating change within student groups. As a risk management consultant, speaker and trainer, Suzette seeks to help individuals and organizations realize their potential. Twitter – @swcspeaks | [email protected]
Rasheed Ali Cromwell, Esq. is one of the leading authorities on fraternity and sorority life. Through the Harbor Institute, he has presented dynamic keynote speeches, interactive and engaging training sessions, and consulting for thousands of students and administrators at over 235 colleges and universities in 36 states. He is a proud member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Twitter – @sheedyali @harborinstitute | [email protected]