Trojan Psyche: Someone had to call the professional frats out — so I did

A drawing of a person wearing a business jacket and shorts, ankle socks, and white socks. They are carrying a cup and walking through the park.
(Lyndzi Ramos | Daily Trojan)

For both cultural reasons  — as a Black woman — and financial reasons — my unfortunate lack of a Cartier bracelet — I always knew Greek life was not for me. Still, my freshman year self, stuck in a sea of fellow SCA-adjacent Annenberg majors, yearned for a micro-community.

The logical conclusion, in my mind, was joining a professional fraternity — USC’s cinema fraternity, Delta Kappa Alpha. I toyed with the idea, oscillating between enthusiastically attending recruitment events and resigning myself to the life of a lonely drifter after the cost of dues scared me off. 

After spending a few never-ending weeks schmoozing with USC’s quirkiest students, I received my decision via a telephone call while watching “Bad Girls Club” in a Birnkrant lounge. 

A familiar voice notified me of my acceptance and I feigned enthusiasm while burying my mixed feelings; mixed because I was happy that all of the time spent putting off French homework didn’t go to waste and nervous because I now had to figure out how to afford dues. I had zero thoughts on the organization itself.

My feelings then should have been more expansive because I spent the rest of that semester in an externally-induced state of myopia. On initiation night, I marched down West Jefferson with my fellow pledges, running into an acquaintance — one of those girls I faintly remembered from Welcome Week because I liked her lip gloss and she loved my hair so, of course, we had to form a thriving Instagram-mutual-ship. Unlike our usual encounters, her first words weren’t a high-pitched “Hi. How’ve you been!” Instead, she asked me why I was standing in a herd of people wearing berets.

For the first time, I had become aware, and then ashamed of the cringefest she was perceiving. Still, committed to the organization and “family” I had just joined thirty minutes prior, I gave her a childishly dismissive line.

“It’s a secret,” I said before continuing the march down Jefferson. I was fully converted.

I spent the following month or so mindlessly following orders. I wore and re-wore my beret which, consequently, became an itchy mess. I used my meal plan’s guest passes on seasoned DKA members during “activities” — outings they required me to facilitate as a pledge.  

I participated in a forced trauma dump with people who were strangers to me the week before. Given a 24-hour turnaround time, I stayed up until 5 a.m. making a film that tortured me more than anything else — one thing it definitely did not do was develop my cinematic capacities. DKA enforced all of these activities, and more, under the guise of upholding “professionalism.”

The defense for these standards of professionalism, hierarchy and secrecy? Others before me embraced them and went through the process, so my class had to as well. 

After a long-winded conflict — which I don’t care to share on the internet — and several aggressive texts delivered to my phone, I chose to advocate for myself and remind my pledge leader I was a fellow student and not, in fact, a puppet. I then vividly remember the then-vice president chastising me during a “mediation” meeting, where she noted my place in this manufactured hierarchy was bottom of the barrel.

Even as a naive freshman, I was perplexed that a so-called “progressive” organization couldn’t see the issue in weaponizing professionalism. Obviously, I understood I was joining a professional fraternity, but I assumed it was professional in the, “adding each other on LinkedIn and reading each other’s screenplay” way and less in the, “reinforcing a hierarchy and all the biases that come with it” way. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised, as DKA was founded by 10 white men in 1936 — a fact I still remember from one of my pledge quizzes. I must admit though: The demographics of the club look much different now.

“On our board, last year, both our president and vice president were non-binary people of color,” said Bebe Katsenes, a DKA general member. “And most of our [executive board] are people of color or members of the LGBTQIA [community].”

Katsenes values the fraternity’s professional emphasis because of its national reach and ability to provide students with reliable collaborators. While she also believes this historically “exclusionary” space can be reclaimed with the help of constant “self-evaluation” and critique, my and others’ experiences point toward an issue running much deeper.

A post on the @black_at_usc Instagram page highlights these structurally supported biases.

“Last semester DKA voted to reject one of our most impressive, thoughtful applicants, and the main reason people said no to her was because she was “unprofessional” (and yes she was Black),” said an anonymous member of DKA on the page. “Other non-Black applicants who were far more unprofessional [in my opinion] got in that semester.”

While it’s wonderful to think that populating previously white-male-dominated professional fraternities with marginalized people will rid an organization of its most problematic tendencies, the core values of professionalism are inherently racist, sexist and every other -ist.

These values manufacture the power hierarchies that pushed me to drop out of DKA during my freshman year. It’s one thing to have every arena of ones’ life invaded while being paid six figures in corporate America; it’s entirely different, and a bit of a mind-fuck, when the takeover is instead being directed by some flop SDA student who was just partying with you the night before. These blurred lines give professional fraternities a scarily harmful quality.

I refused to join Greek life because I refused to be dehumanized, but I definitely can’t say I felt entirely human in my professional fraternity either. The same harmful impacts of Greek life can be found in professional fraternities, packaged within professional culture and presented to unsuspecting students who aren’t aware of what they’re in for. That, I believe, is easily as sinister as the presence of the Row.

Amina Niasse is a junior writing about USC stereotypes, archetypes and trends. She is also an A&E Editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Trojan Psyche,” runs every other Wednesday.