“Are You Paper?”
Here’s an experiment. If you have students who are members of Black fraternal organizations, find one you know reasonably well. And out of the blue, ask them, “Are you paper?” Make a note of their reaction. And if they ask you to clarify, keep it vague.
Some might wonder what I mean by “paper.” In essence, paper was the term created in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Black fraternities and sororities first began to shorten their pledge periods, subsequently abolishing pledging in 1990. Paper signified a person who completed the membership intake process without pledging. Essentially, they followed the rules of the national organization as prescribed. They completed the application and signed their name. Students also used the labels “sign-ons,” “microwave” and “skaters” to signify the same experience.
I began contemplating paper recently. I had a conversation with a student on my campus who was a recent initiate of an organization. The student discussed concerns about being viewed as paper by other students and wanted to know how to deal with it. Being paper was a real fear for the student, having witnessed a student on another campus beaten by members of his own fraternity because he was deemed to be paper.
Herein lies the problem. Paper has become a fighting word. It is similar to a gay student being labeled a “fag” and then facing taunts, slurs or even physical assault. In fact, one student told me that being called paper was just like a White person calling them a “nigger.”
In some cases, the student who is determined to be paper may have paraphernalia physically taken from (and even off of) them. Other times they are subject to open ridicule. A sorority chapter was recently reactivated at another school, and the graduate members selected the candidates and conducted the membership intake program as written. At the coming-out show for the new members, another sorority threw paper at the new members.
Students place such value on pledging, even though the rules prohibit it, that they punish students who actually follow the rules. While they say they value scholarship, leadership and community service, they really value how a person comes into the organization. This means they value lying, deception and breaking the rules — all to avoid being labeled paper. How many times have you heard of members beating a brother or sister, or taking their paraphernalia because they earned a 1.0 GPA the previous semester or because they didn’t attend any of the community-service projects?
There has to be a recommitted partnership among colleges and universities, graduate chapters and regional/national officials of Black fraternal organizations to address this problem. One step has to be removing the thug element that has infiltrated fraternities and sororities. This “gangsta” mentality holds promising students hostage, causing them to sacrifice their morals and values in order to be accepted.
Many chapters are small to begin with, but I think we should try raising standards for membership to eliminate hardcore hoodlums masquerading as borderline scholars.
We have to be tough to protect students. Since 1990, four students have died pledging Black fraternal organizations, and dozens are injured each year. They all shared a common goal — to avoid being paper.
My students are pledging illegally, even the best of them, all in order to avoid being paper. So my work is cut out for me, and I bet it is for you, too.
— Dr. Kimbrough is vice president for student affairs at Albany State University in Georgia and author of Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities.
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