Sociology professor lectures on fraternity dynamics

By Rylee Carrillo-Waggoner ’19

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On April 14, Dr. Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, came to talk to Hamilton students about his recent research on gender norms, race and the culture of masculinity present in American Greek life. 

Ray began his presentation by showing shocking images of fraternity houses with signs on them saying things like “freshmen daughter drop off here,” screenshots of an email a sorority sent out explaining why they will not allow black women to become sisters, a different email from a fraternity talking about a party they were hosting that night that overtly hinted at raping women in order to get lucky that night and a photo of a fraternity and sorority partying together and wearing black face; Ray then informed the room that these photos were taken on MLK Day and that this decision was not one created without much thought, quite the opposite really. 

After the introduction, Ray provided the statistics for his research: 52 fraternity brothers (black and white), seven fraternities, 36 in-depth interviews, 22 informal interviews, nine months of ethnographic observations and two focus group interviews. He conducted the study at a school of 30,000 students, which also happened to be the number one party school in America at the time. During this time, Ray also pointed out the number of high authority citizens in America that were once a part of fraternities or sororities: 48 percent of presidents, 42 percent of U.S. senators, 30 percent of U.S. congresswomen, 30 percent of Fortune500 executives and 60 percent of black doctors, dentists, lawyers and college heads were a part of a Greek society. This is a powerful group of people, explained Ray.

The next piece Ray went into was the significant differences between black and white fraternities. Two of the biggest differences physically were size and space; on average, white fraternities had 100 members but black fraternities had 10 and while white fraternities lived in giant mansions, none of the black fraternities had housing. This  resulted in  black fraternity members feeling that most people knew who they were and thus felt constant pressure to set an example. One of the members was quoted, saying “We are supposed to be setting the bar.” Furthermore, because they don’t have housing, parties are significantly more challenging, as they have to follow school event procedures. These differences cause differences in culture as well. While white fraternity brothers felt responsibility only when they had their “letters on,” black members felt that they could never “just wild out” while on campus. Ray left the topic asking the room what people thought might have been different in the results if the study had been conducted on a historically black campus. 

Ray then moved on to describe the gender dynamics that occur within fraternities. When girls are underage, they are most likely going to go to a fraternity house to drink, affecting age dynamics. Women who are in a sorority, Ray found, are more likely to be treated with respect, because if they are harmed then the boy that hurt them will have a reputation amongst all of her sorority sisters. “When women are given relative power,” states Ray, “the percentage of rape goes down.” Furthermore, because fraternities themselves are societies of just men and their larger, national organizations are all just men, fraternities often do not have to deal with women as coworkers in the fraternity setting, which creates unbalanced power dynamics.

Yet most women on campus, whether in a sorority or not, are aware of the risk of sexual assault. In conversing with the fraternity men, Ray said he found that “men know what to do to get women to the bed, men don’t know what to do once in bed.” Many men fail to confirm consent from women when in bed. Ray believes that this is because “Men think that it’s weird to ask [for consent] and we have to debunk that.” Ray believes we need to normalize asking for consent, rather than stigmatizing it as weird or awkward. 

Throughout the conversation, Ray would reference the Greek life present on Hamilton’s campus. The fact that Hamilton does not have Greek housing or national chapters, the fact that only a small portion of the student body is Greek and that a majority of Greek society members on campus are white, were all mentioned. By bringing the Hill into the conversation, Ray intended for Hamilton to think more about what the culture is surrounding Greek life here and what within that culture Hamilton might want to change. 

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