To hell with the belle: UGA bans hoop skirts

Under pressure from University of Georgia administrators, fraternity and sorority leaders have banned hoop skirts for Kappa Alpha’s Old South Week and Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Magnolia Ball.

Victor Wilson, UGA’s vice president for student affairs, equated hoop skirts with Confederate uniforms, which KA dropped years ago.  “We’ve made a lot of progress,” Wilson said. “This is just one more step.”

It’s time to boot the Southern belle from campus, writes Elizabeth Boyd, who works at University of Maryland, in the Washington Post.

The Southern belle performances routinely staged on campuses across the South constitute choreography of exclusion. And most do not even require a hoop skirt. In campus productions — sorority rush, beauty revues and pageants, sporting traditions — young white women serve as signs of nostalgia for a bygone, segregated South and all its attendant privileges.

It sounds like universities would have to ban young white women. Or perhaps only the good-looking ones.

In response, one reader noted that the hoop skirt was worn by Northern abolitionists of all colors.

In another letter, Hans Bader brings up the First Amendment, noting a 1993 ruling that “even racist fraternity skits with offensive costumes are protected” as free speech. Banning hoop skirts “makes as little sense as banning powdered wigs or mint juleps,” he writes.

A hazy shade of pledging

Michael Winerip had a fairly long article in the NY Times yesterday about collegiate fraternity hazing.  The article is structured as if it were written by committee, but it’s worth reading anyway.  It centers on the death of a Cornell student, George Desdunes, and uses a detailed discussion of that tragedy as an indirect way of raising larger questions about fraternity hazing and collegiate alcohol policy generally.

There was one vexing sentence (vexing for me, anyway) in his article, though, which I think needs to be flagged, if for no other reason that it makes for interesting discussion:

ALCOHOL is often the not-so-secret ingredient that turns pledging into hazing.

Does alcohol really turn pledging into hazing?  Or does it turn hazing into something dangerous?  Does Winerip mean to say that when pledging is dangerous, as it might be when alcohol is involved, it then becomes hazing?  That would be a fairly narrow view of hazing, something more akin to the legal definitions that are commonly used which rely on concepts such as “substantial risk of physical injury”.  Many anti-hazing advocates and several universities, however, use much broader definitions that include as hazing things like risks of “emotional harm”, “humiliation”, or “degradation”.  That’s a very, very different set of behaviors.

Winerip never actually tells us exactly what he means by hazing, but his discussion seems to indicate that he’s primarily concerned with the narrower, more dangerous phenomenon.  That’s probably a good thing, though I think that there are probably some further lines that can and should be drawn across that particular territory — rugby, for instance, creates a “substantial risk of physical injury” by most actuarial definitions, but no one seems to think that the Chi Psi pledges shouldn’t have to play the brothers in a few games as part of their initiation.

In any case, I think we always should be careful to be very specific about what we’re talking about when we discuss things like hazing, harassment, bullying, or other behaviors that we want to inhibit, prohibit, or punish in our schools and colleges (or anywhere else, for that matter).