Laylah Amatullah Barayn
In his new documentary Hazing (Independent Lens and PBS, premieres Sept. 12), filmmaker Byron Hurt explores the abusive—even deadly—rituals of hazing culture and how they reflect the powerful human desire to belong. Hurt spoke with Inside Higher Ed via Zoom. Excerpts of the conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
Q: As a college student at Northeastern University, you were a member of the Black fraternity the Ques. How did that experience drive your desire to make this film?
A: I typically say that I am in a fraternity; I am still active with my fraternity, as a member of a graduate chapter. For members of Black Greek-letter organizations, membership is a lifetime if you choose to participate. So the film was born out of my experiences over the last 30 years of being connected to my organization.
But I was on an airplane when I read the story of George Desdunes and how he died [in a hazing incident in 2011] as a student at Cornell University. And it broke my heart, it really did. I just felt so much for George and his mom, who worked so hard to provide a quality education for her only son, only to see his life end so prematurely. That was the first time that I had the inkling of making a film about this topic. And then, you know, several weeks later, I saw the story of Robert Champion, a young man who was beaten to death by his marching-band mates [at Florida A&M University]. And after reading that story, I said, “I have to do something about this.”
Q: You talk in the film about how different organizations tend to utilize different initiation rituals. How does hazing among Black fraternities differ from white fraternities, or sororities from fraternities?
A: Not all hazing takes on the same look and feel; it’s different for different groups, based on race, gender, class, where you go to school. I wanted to underscore that in the film. Hazing among Black Greek-letter organizations tends to be far more secretive, far more underground and more physical in nature. With white fraternities, there tends to be a lot more alcohol consumption—forced drinking—which leads to serious accidents and deaths.
Black sororities tend to borrow some things from Black fraternities. But it tends to be a lot more intense emotionally and psychologically—a lot of sleep deprivation, demeaning put-downs and that sort of thing. In that way, there are similarities with white sororities, where there tends to be a lot more sexual degradation, sexual humiliation, mean-girl culture, if you will.
Q: I always sort of assumed hazing mostly took place within the confines of Greek life. But your film talks in-depth about Robert Champion, the marching band drum major who was hazed to death by his bandmates. So clearly there are similar practices going on in other, non-Greek organizations.
A: One of the things that I really wanted to do was show the scope of the problem—just how far-reaching and widespread it is. When people think of hazing, they do think about fraternities and sororities; they may think about sports teams. They have higher rates of hazing incidents than other groups, but they exist elsewhere as well. This is not something exclusive to Greek life.
Q: Do you think there’s something about being at college—or being in your late teens and early 20s—that makes hazing so prominent?
A: No, I do not. College is where you find a significant number of cases of hazing. But it happens early; it happens in high school. Just recently, there was a national story about a high school football team in Pennsylvania that got suspended because of hazing rituals. It’s not exclusive to college. I mean, there are grown adults who participate in hazing rituals. College, I think, is where you see it often because of the sheer number of young people who are there. But I think that this is more a function of organizations and institutions where there is an established history of hazing. There are many organizations on college campuses that do not have a hazing culture, but that’s because of the leadership in the established culture. But there are many organizations that for several reasons, hold on to those long-held beliefs about the importance of these rituals in creating valuable members—members who can cut the mustard, if you will, to become a member of that group.
Q: You talk in the film about trauma bonding—the idea of forging a brotherhood or sisterhood in the throes of trauma. What is it about undergoing hazing rituals that creates an irreplaceable bond among people?
A: I think people tend to unify around stories where there’s a commonality, whether it’s positive or negative. Stacey Patton speaks to it extremely well in the film, but I think there’s something about surviving something together that makes you feel connected in a unique and special way. I also think that people don’t really know how to unpack trauma, either. One way that you can unpack it without really being retraumatized is by laughing about it, or by talking about it as a badge of honor—as opposed to talking about the shame or the humiliation or the fear or the anxiety that you felt as you were going through it. The story becomes more about how you overcame it, how you survived it. And that’s what makes you different from someone who’s not a member of that organization. That’s why the group feels like it’s an exclusive group: you had to endure something that someone else either did not endure or chose not to endure.
Q: The film does a good job of exploring the tension between the desire to belong and the limits of tolerating physical abuse. How do people determine where to draw the line?
A: I think a person’s acceptance of it really depends on their values and belief systems, and what they feel is important in terms of maintaining their own sense of personal integrity. It’s really hard, because you want to become a member of this organization, you want to feel like a valued member of this organization and you know that one way that you will be seen as a credible member is by going through what the existing members went through, so that you can feel a part of that group.
But there comes a time where you are faced with making the decision about whether you are going to compromise your own belief system, your own personal space, and choose whether to continue. And I think young people don’t necessarily have the skills to deal with all those complex feelings as they’re going through such an arduous process. It’s one of the reasons why they continue to go through it: because they don’t really see leaving as an option. Once you begin the process, if you are a high achiever, if you’re a very ambitious person, you don’t want to quit—you want to continue all the way to the end. And then on the other side, there is no real incentive to quit, because otherwise, you’re going to be seen as someone who didn’t have what it takes to be an esteemed member of this organization. It becomes a very difficult line to walk.
Q: It sounds like there’s another sort of inflection point when you’re an established member and it’s your turn to inflict the abuse on the pledges. How do some people who’ve endured it themselves then decide they’re not going to do the same thing to the people who come after them?
A: There may be some who decide they’re not going to do the same thing; I can’t speak to every individual who makes that choice. But I do know that it’s easy to internalize your experience, to internalize the abuse, internalize the victimization and then perpetuate it to other people who are now coming through the same process. It’s about becoming a gatekeeper. It’s about ensuring that the organization is producing strong, resilient people who can take it, who can pass the test to get in. People who are victims of hazing and have a really unpleasant experience then become a member and say, “Oh, well, I survived it, it wasn’t that bad after all, I made it. And now in order for you to get in, you’re going to have to go through exactly what I went through.” It’s a weird sort of internalized victimization process that takes place where you are the victim and then you become the perpetrator.
Q: In the film you note that there’s been at least one hazing death in the U.S. every year since 1959. Do you think colleges and universities should be doing more to prevent it? And what could they do?
A: I know that there are a lot of universities and colleges, as well as sports teams and other organizations, that are really trying to change hazing culture. And the fact that they cannot speaks to how difficult it is. A lot of it happens underground, in the darkness of night. A lot of it happens in places where people in positions of power and authority are not present and can’t really do anything about it. So I think it comes down to really educating young people about the risks, the dangers associated with hazing culture, which a lot of organizations are already doing.
People have to make a mental shift, just like how when the pandemic became really dangerous, we had to go from not wearing masks to wearing masks, right? And that cultural shift took place fairly quickly based on a public health crisis. And I think the same approach needs to be taken with hazing culture, which is a public health problem. People have to take the right steps in order to thwart the problem so that we don’t have a hazing death every single year, because no one sends their child off to college for them to die while pledging an organization, or becoming a member of a sports team, or while becoming a member of the band.
It’s difficult work. It’s going to take leadership that’s really committed to creating that cultural change by having strict antihazing rules and policies on campus. And it will take leadership from the ground level, where young people have the permission to stand up, speak out against hazing culture, but then have the creativity to create something new and different.
Q: It sounds like you’re saying change needs to come from a number of different directions at the same time: from the college and university administration, but also from student leaders on the ground and maybe the national chapters of these organizations.
A: Absolutely. What I’m really speaking to is that more people who don’t believe in hazing culture have to stand up; they have to speak out. And one thing that I hope that this film accomplishes is creating space for people to tell their truth, to speak out and to challenge hazing culture, because a lot of times these traditions and these rituals continue to happen because the loud voices, who are proponents of hazing, are the ones who are engineering everything.
Q: In one especially moving scene in the film, you talk to the last guy that you put hands on when he was pledge. What do you think makes or allows someone to get to the place of speaking out or apologizing or denouncing hazing for the abuse that it is?
A: I think it takes a level of self-reflection and honesty, to get to a point where you can acknowledge your own participation in hazing culture and take ownership of your actions. And to take that extra step of apologizing and working toward healing, I think, takes compassion. It takes moving beyond your ego to say “I’m sorry” to someone that you’ve caused harm to.