Kenneth Tam

A recent series of my works centers around the public rituals of Asian American fraternities, specifically the probate.

Pi Delta Psi at New York University

A probate is the final physical test/ceremony before a pledge is inducted into a fraternity as a full brother. They originated in African American Greek organizations within historically black colleges and universities. They are highly-rehearsed public performance where new members reveal themselves to their community. It culminates a long and grueling pledge process that demonstrates one’s commitment to their organization.

While probates can diverge widely in their elaborateness, they all contain the following components:
-a recitation of the history of the organization, including acknowledging their founding members
-greetings to their peer organizations in attendance
-comedic skits that parody themselves or the fraternity
-elements of dance in the form of step or stroll
-a finale that includes revealing each new member to their community by removing their masks, introducing their nickname, and making an oath to the fraternity

Lambda Phi Epsilon at Washington State University

Probates are attempts at creating something with the sacred force of an ancient rite of passage, while having the earnest yet naive charm of a high school musical. They stress both seriousness and play, and feel like a cross between boot camp, a Bar Mitzvah and community theater.   Unlike hazing, they are public-facing ceremonies that are meant to be witnessed by the community, and shared online in videos like these. They use collective effervescence to create bonds between not just the pledges, but with the community. Synchronized movements and spectacle fuse the bodies of these young men with the rest of the fraternity and the various audiences watching this, including you here today.

Lambda Phi Epsilon at the University of Texas, Austin

I’m interested in how probates very publicly express the desire for group identity and belonging, and how the body, movement and performance are combined to share some idea of what it means to be young Asian American men living in this country. These performances make legible certain tensions and anxieties that reveal how probates are more than just entertaining and goofy exercises required by fraternities. When I watch these, I see the different pressures being placed on these bodies, and the probate becomes a physical expression of those forces.

Pi Delta Psi at the University of Florida

While probates from Black fraternities are clear sources of inspiration, Asian American fraternities seem to use these ceremonies to promote the understanding of their identities as one defined by overcoming struggle and adversity. The overall message of the probate is to tell a story about sacrifice and struggle, about the challenges of finding a sense of place, and how only together as brothers with their new identities can they expect to succeed. As Kang made clear in his article, the entire initiation process culminating with the probate is meant as an allegory of the larger Asian American experience, where pledges are meant to draw parallels between their grueling initiation process with the collective traumas suffered by Asians in this country.

This parallels with the fraternity’s attempts to mobilize Asian American identity through a sense of shared trauma and masculine victimization. The overall message then of the probate is to produce something that can appeal most to students who have long wrestled with feelings of alienation and marginalization. Joining a fraternity can be a way to purge feelings of self-doubt and even shame. These videos and performances seem designed to not only draw people in, specifically attracting those who have most often been left out. Probates then can function as recruitment events for future members.

Pi Delta Psi at the University of South Carolina

A major component of probates are these emphatic gestures of membership. They occur constantly in the form of chants, taking of oaths and adopting new nicknames and identities. This performance of oath-taking is complicated by the way Asians have been historically denied citizenship in this country, and by how our loyalty as citizens has repeatedly been continually questioned, especially during times of war and conflict. These gestures of inclusion and allegiance for me are a reminder of how the perceived foreignness of Asians continues to frame the ways we participate in civic, cultural and political life. When pledges raise their rights hands, I see them perhaps unconsciously dramatizing the yearning for collective belonging in response to histories of exclusion and marginalization.

Certainly the Pledge of Allegiance comes to mind, and the way it functions as a performance of citizenship and indoctrinated patriotism. Then I reflect on how Asians historically have been denied the right to be full members of the nation state through citizenship, When these young men recite these invented declarations of loyalty and allegiance, they not only dramatize yearnings for collective belonging, but use the performative utterance to publicly mark a pledge’s entrance into a kind of sacred space highlight the way race and gender are exploited by fraternities to satisfy those desires.

Pi Delta Psi at the University of Massachusetts

Perhaps what I find most compelling and simultaneously distressing about these performances is that when I watch these young men, I feel how intensely the need to assimilate impacts them, the need to be a part of but also distinct from others around them. When these pledges go through their routines, I see a kind of masculine masquerade where an identity based on race and shared ethnicity is being regulated through a performance of gender. I see young men putting themselves out there in front of their peers, earnestly performing an inauthentic version of themselves. The overall affect can be awkward, and even painful to watch, and I’m torn between being sympathetic and being judgmental because I’ve felt those feelings myself.

Pi Delta Psi at University of Connecticut

Sometimes in these probates, I see fleeting moments of tenderness and vulnerability that starts to open up the performance in ways that resist the homogenizing pressures of fraternity culture. Even though they are scripted and rehearsed, these moments suggest a less guarded space of male affection and intimacy not hindered by self-conscious and excessive displays of bravado.

Pi Delta Psi at the University of Central Florida

At the same time, I see a doubling-down on racial identity without an accompanying critique of the things that gave rise to that identity in the first place. I see young men expressing pride in being Asian, but in a way that smothers any sense of difference or individuality. I feel the tensions from wanting to to be part of group identity that celebrates the diversity of Asian cultures, but then its done in a way that threatens to flatten those distinctions into an undifferentiated, screaming male chorus line.

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