Why Does Violent Hazing Plague Asian-American Fraternities?

Katherine Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 12, 2015

When Minh Tran joined an Asian-American fraternity at the University of Michigan, in 1997, his brothers were struggling to fill a house. Back then, they were more likely to beg for a prospective pledge than to beat him.

As a member of a Midwest chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon, he said, there were none of the machismo-fueled rituals that have since spiraled out of control in Asian-American fraternities, some of the nation’s least-recognized and least-understood corners of Greek life. Over the past decade, Mr. Tran has been shocked by the violent acts of hazing–including one in his own fraternity–that often fly under the radar.

The latest such act resulted in the 2013 death of a 19-year-old pledge from Baruch College, in New York, during a fraternity retreat in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania. It was a stark example, he said, of the lengths to which some Asian-American men will go to fit in. It was also a sobering reminder of the potential dangers that exist alongside the friendship, support, and community-service opportunities that the fraternities provide.

Four years ago Mr. Tran, who is now director of curriculum and academic enrichment at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Dentistry, co-directed a study that set out to answer the question that had been bothering him: Why would well-educated, seemingly well-adjusted men willingly participate in violent forms of hazing?

Mr. Tran spoke to many of those men, and their answers went beyond the usual explanation that hazing was a tradition no one dared to question.

“A lot of them said that, as Asian men, they felt that they were usually portrayed as nerds who played video games a lot and weren’t very social or physically strong,” Mr. Tran said. “It felt good to be part of a group that broke that stereotype.”

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But considering how small their portion of the overall Greek-life population is, the number of deaths and serious injuries at Asian-American fraternities is surprising, said Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, who is an expert on ethnic fraternities. “Many people don’t even know these fraternities exist, and when they hear about them, it’s usually bad news.”

Another expert agreed. “We’re sadly, anecdotally, seeing much more physical abuse, particularly within historically Asian fraternities in the Northeast and West Coast,” said Gentry R. McCreary, chief executive officer of Dyad Strategies, a research-and-assessment firm that helps fraternities and sororities develop antihazing policies. “When we travel and talk to students, there’s a tremendous concern about this rite of passage that’s supposedly preparing one for manhood.”

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Mr. Tran’s co-author on the 2012 study, Mitchell J. Chang, agreed that many Asian-American fraternities lack supervision. While campus administrators are keeping their eyes on traditional, mostly white fraternities, they might not think to question what’s going on in in a chapter where students of Chinese, Korean, or Japanese heritage live, said Mr. Chang, who is a professor of education and of Asian-American studies at UCLA.

“If you apply the stereotype and assume these kids aren’t going to go crazy–that they’re busy studying–there’s more chance of overlooking problems,” he said.

The study he conducted with Mr. Tran–“To Be Mice or Men: Gender Identity and the Development of Masculinity Through Participation in Asian-American Interest Fraternities”–included several fraternities that, like Pi Delta Psi at Baruch, had been banned by their universities because of hazing abuses. Instead of disappearing, those chapters often go underground, where they may be even less monitored and more dangerous, Mr. Chang said. That’s especially true when they feel they need to toughen up their members.

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