What I Learned About Privilege by Joining a Frat

By
Photo: Chris Keane/Getty Images

“How many people in this freakin’ fraternity do you think are taking Black Feminism this semester?” If my mom’s question hadn’t been rhetorical I would have given her the answer: one if I decided to join the fraternity, none if I didn’t.

It was my freshman year at Brown and I couldn’t believe I was considering joining a frat. My choice was pragmatic: A fraternity would be the easiest way to live with a big group of friends and avoid the housing lottery. But my baseline understanding of contemporary frat life was that it made Animal House look like "Fresh Air With Terry Gross," and I bristled at the idea — it went against everything I wanted from college.

I’d entered school determined to better understand the histories of discrimination and oppression from which my life as a straight, white, cisgender man had shielded me. I chose Brown in part because it seemed like a place that encouraged that kind of learning, and also because I thought I could find a community there that would value and celebrate my family. I was in middle school when my mom came out. Some kids weren’t allowed to come over to my mom’s new home; during AAU basketball games I constantly scanned the gym to see if anyone was noticing my mom in the stands with her wife. I had quickly realized, also, that my feeling of being an outsider was merely secondhand and buffered by a massive force field of privilege. I wanted to understand that privilege better, not celebrate it obnoxiously while I wore a Hollister tank and listened to an Avicii mash-up and vomited off a balcony. 

On the night I had to decide, I declined the invitation. Two days later, I got cold feet thinking about my friends living without me and asked the fraternity if I could still join. I decided it would be better to see for myself than to make a choice based purely on a stereotype. Within minutes of signing on, I was whisked to an off-campus welcome barbecue. To my right, someone was inhaling beer from a rubber tube dangling out a third-floor window. To my left, a group of guys were trying to pin their friend down so they could shave his head with an electric razor. All around me, a sea of swashbuckling douchebags to whom I had just promised my brotherhood. I nursed a warm Natty for 20 minutes and then went anxiously back to my dorm.

I assumed that I’d committed myself to months of brutal initiation to a group I didn’t really want to join. Yet what I found instead was a place that had all of the fraternity pageantry without the apparent fraternity pathology. One early surprise was how seriously the fraternity took issues of sexual assault: I saw people booted from parties and possible initiates rejected for pursuing someone too aggressively or creeping someone out. Over the course of pledging, a pattern emerged in which each week’s classic fraternity shenanigans would eventually give way to something much more substantial and meaningful.

The highlights of the initiation process were long nights of structured conversation, led by the older members, where we were encouraged to share our anxieties, our family histories, and our hopes for our time at Brown. Sometimes we were assigned poems or speeches to read and discuss together. I was nervous on the night I told the story of my mom’s coming out and explained how it shaped my politics and my goals. Before me, a guy named Chris had told us how important it was to him that we all knew that he was passionately pro-life. When it was my turn, I had the urge to gloss over the part of my family I feared some of the guys would find gross or wrong, but I didn’t, and wound up talking, like everyone else that night, for over half an hour. A few weeks later, Chris found me at a party and told me that what I’d shared that night had sort of blown his mind. He gave me a huge hug and thanked me for my story. It meant so much to me. In the coming years, my moms would host a Super Bowl party for my fraternity friends.

I soon realized that the outward displays of bro didn’t contrast with the internal workings of the frat so much as they enabled them. Some guys just needed a sort of safety net, assurance that if they broke down to a room full of dudes — about how they were scared and self-conscious and regretful about something they’d said years earlier to their parents — that those same guys would listen compassionately and then afterward play FIFA and flick them in the balls while they attempted a penalty kick. The fraternity offered a shield of goofy bonding behind which guys could feel comfortable setting aside all the ridiculous alpha-male expectations and figure out who they actually wanted to be. 

All of the other spaces I occupied at Brown — editing the independent weekly, majoring in Africana Studies — were pretty much devoid of people in fraternities or sororities. From this I bounced between two different conclusions: that I was a particularly enlightened renaissance bro who read Audre Lorde and managed multiple fantasy-football teams, or that my progressivism could only be understood as total bullshit because I belonged to a bastion of misogyny, elitism, and white privilege. Some days I believed the former and it gave me confidence; other days I felt like a fraud. I turned this anxiety into a running joke. With my friends at the paper I would sometimes break into a sort of bro alter ego — my voice an octave lower and my diction more obtuse — when someone referenced something fratty. It was my way of acknowledging both that I was a little embarrassed about my fraternity affiliation and also liked my fraternity friends too much to disown them. This joke worked both ways. At the frat I was teased for being a radical leftist hipster; at the paper, for being an oafish meathead. During my paper’s bi-annual kickball game with the much frattier Brown Daily Herald, I mockingly pointed out an opponent’s boat shoes. “Wait a minute,” one of my fraternity brothers grinned from the other sideline, “aren’t you, like, in a fraternity?”

What I came to realize, though, was that my anxiety over being in a fraternity had nothing to do with my actual frat brothers. My fraternity provided its members a space for both a lot of carefree fun and a lot of inward reflection — but it demanded little reflection as to what we represented as a group in the outside world. Chris was receptive to the story of my mom’s coming out not because he was necessarily interested in exploring marriage equality or undermining the norm of patriarchal households, but because I was his fraternity brother and he wanted to have my back. There’s real power in that kind of loyalty when it gets people to look beyond themselves. But those personal connections are possible because they’re protected by the sanctity of the organization — there’s no room to question the principles of the fraternity itself. Frats produce nothing except the experiences they give their members, and all of those experiences hinge on trusting the principles and the ethos of the frat. 

Being ambivalent about the fraternity you joined at Brown is one of the least important problems I can think of anyone having. But fraternities remain at the center of many problems that are hugely important: When we talk about sexual assault and rape, or privilege, or drinking on campus, we talk about fraternities. 

When we look at fraternities with contempt, we’re denouncing, I think, the same thing that makes them valuable to their members: the shrinking of a social circle that allows people to find and form themselves in a sort of safe cocoon. This process sounds great until you remember that most people who join fraternities — the male, the white, the straight, the well-off — live in a society that already provides them this cocoon, the safety and leeway to define themselves and move around freely. And bonding so intensely with a bunch of people just like yourself can erode your sense of responsibility or compassion toward outsiders. People, especially people with privilege, can do terrible things when they feel they only answer to a small group who are just like them.

My fraternity was not one of the alcohol-enema-ridden cesspools that have garnered national attention, and in that sense I’d like to say we were one of the good ones. What’s probably more accurate, though, is to say that we were one of the lucky ones. We were all in a frat, but we also all went to Brown, which (while far from perfect) is home to a lot of people asking important questions about power and privilege. My best fraternity friends do environmental work, or teach eighth-grade English, or wrote theses on Judith Butler. We all spent a lot of time out of the cocoon.

There’s a fraternity axiom, expressed a lot of different ways, that the guys who get the most out of the experience are the ones who put the most in. I put in a below-average amount if you take the usual metrics of attendance, leadership, and gallons of light beer, but got more out of the experience than I ever imagined. What I came to realize was that what I’m calling the frat cocoon isn’t an alternate world for straight white guys — it is the world if you’re a straight white guy. Fraternity life wasn’t antithetical to my education about privilege. It was more like my work-study program.