These days, it seems like "frat" is used in a negative context almost everywhere we turn. Recently, I've heard these phrases on TV, in airplane conversations, and played out public. Every time I see or hear "frat" or "frat boy" or "frat house" used in a negative context, I get a little bit worked up. Depending on the situation, this sometimes freaks people who are with me or around me out a bit. I am totally OK with this.
A few weeks ago, I was on a plane headed home after a long weekend away. It was a fun flight, people were in a good mood, and I even shared some small talk with my seatmate. (I am usually a VERY anti-social flier...) The young man across the aisle from me was swapping stories about his weekend fun with his seatmate. I didn't eavesdrop on their whole conversation, but when I heard, "It was like a great frat party. My liver might not recover." I cringed a bit. Their conversation continued on, with several more negative references to fraternity life. When I had the chance, I jumped in, and asked if either of them were fraternity men. The young man with the potentially failing liver said he "was in a frat" when he was in college. More cringing. I explained what I do for a living and he looked at me like I had two heads. I didn't ask where he went to college, because I didn't want to know the answer. This young man (and presumably, most of his brothers) missed out on a lifetime of opportunity because they were members of a drinking club and not a values-based fraternity living out their ritual in daily life.
Fast forward a week or so. I had the chance to cheer on my favorite college football team when they played an institution not far from my new home. It was a late morning game on Halloween, and the culmination of Homecoming week for the host institution. I arrived on campus about an hour before the game, and headed toward the stadium with my friends. As we neared the gates, we passed a group of young men dressed in "togas" (they looked more like diapers to me, but I digress...) acting rowdy and openly sharing swigs from several large bottles of liquor. Their drunken babble could be heard over the voices of the hundreds of fans passing by on their way into the stadium. Because they were basically wearing diapers, their fraternity letter tattoos were on display for those who passed by to see. The middle aged woman in front of me commented to her husband that she was glad their son had decided not to join a frat. I can't blame her after that display. Seriously? It was roughly 10:45 in the morning. That behavior is not appropriate at any time, but was further magnified by the bright sunlight and relative sobriety of everyone else around these boys. I commented to my friends that at least these young men were providing me with some job security. You might wonder why I didn't stop and confront them (I wondered too) but I realized that they were so far gone that the scene that was sure to follow wouldn't be worth my time, and would draw even more attention to their drunken display. Somewhere, the founders of this organization are rolling over in their graves.
These are two perfect examples of why "frat", "frat boy", "frat house", etc will continue to be used in a negative way. Because we allow it. We allow our members to tattoo our letters on their arm and act ridiculous in front of hundreds of people. We allow our members to join a drinking club, and never hold them accountable for anything other than throwing a great party. We allow young men (and young women) to join organizations, go to great parties for four (or five) years, and then graduate without ever being able to articulate the values of their organization. We live up to the stereotypes that we like to complain about. We need to start expecting nothing short of "fraternity man" or "sorority woman". And it can't just be some of us. It needs to be all of us. The women are just as responsible. Until then, the rest of the world will just see us as frat boys living in frat houses. It doesn't matter how great your service project was, or how much money you raised for your philanthropy. Respecting your organization, your ritual, and your values matter. Don't do things to get noticed, do them because they are the right thing to do.