Deliberate decisions (Julius Alexander)

When Julius Alexander arrived at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity for a Rush Week event in January 2002, he assumed the dinner wouldn’t be any different from others he had attended at the house during the fall. He certainly didn’t expect the “total surprise” that members would throw at him by the night’s end.

“They sprang a bid on me — I wasn’t expecting it,” said Alexander, a Weinberg junior. “It wasn’t on my mind that I would join.”

Alexander had gotten to know fraternity members through attending house events with his friend Jawdat Sha’Sha’a, a Phi Psi member.

“I figured he would like it,” said Sha’Sha’a, a Weinberg junior. “He just kind of fit well.”

Before deciding to join, Alexander said he had to think about his own feelings about fraternities and how his friends and family would react.

“And of course there was the whole race issue,” he said. While Alexander found Phi Psi welcoming to a minority, he encountered unexpected resistance at home, where family roots run deep in the nation’s traditionally black fraternity system.

Alexander grew up in Oak Park, a western Chicago suburb. His relatives often told him about their experiences in the historically black Greek system, which is governed by the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Phi Psi was just a “traditionally white fraternity,” according to Alexander’s family.

Alexander said he accepted Phi Psi’s bid on the assumption that if he didn’t like the fraternity, he could just drop out.

In the frenzy of his first week as a pledge, Alexander didn’t have a chance to tell his family the news. When he finally told his mother he had accepted the bid, he could immediately tell from her voice she was disappointed.

He said his mother didn’t “go into a rage of fury” about the bid, but she did do something that caught him off guard: She threatened to stop paying his tuition.

“That was pretty much the end of the argument,” said Alexander, who then decided to depledge. “I’m a big mama’s boy.”

While in college at Illinois State University, Alexander’s mother had helped her friends establish a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically black fraternity, and her opinions about fraternities were well-known.

“From the stories that she kept telling us over the years, it was kind of implied that when you get to college, if you join a fraternity, it had better be the Alphas,” Alexander said.

Although he said there were no hard feelings when he told Phi Psi members he was depledging, he has not spent much time with the group since his decision.

“It would be cool if we were a little closer than what we are now because they’re a bunch of cool guys,” he said. “But stuff happens.”

Alexander said he thinks his mother was biased against Phi Psi because of “preconceived notions” about partying and racism in fraternities.

Daniel Williams, a close friend of Alexander’s who spoke with the family during the situation, said he didn’t think Alexander’s mother overreacted

“She used (the threat) just to show him how strongly she felt about it,” said the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student.

Alexander said his brother Jaris, now a sophomore at UIUC, shared his mother’s concerns.

“You can never be 100 percent sure being a black male in a traditionally white frat,” Alexander said his brother told him.

“To some extent there will always be a voice in the back of my mind as to whether (fraternity members) really want me here because I’m Julius or they want me here because I’m Julius and I’m black.”

Current Phi Psi President Paul Turner declined to comment on behalf of the fraternity.

Alexander said many of his black friends who questioned his initial choice were glad when he depledged.

“They were relieved, but it wasn’t like they were high-fiving each other and saying, ‘Yes! Julius is not joining a white frat!'” he said. “I think they didn’t want to see another black guy become a token in a fraternity.”

Family members also seemed relieved when Alexander decided not to remain in Phi Psi, he said. When he first told them about the bid, relatives started saying, “You don’t have to join my fraternity, but at least join a black frat instead of a white frat,” or even, “Join a black fraternity or nothing at all.”

Alexander said he sometimes discusses it with his family. Over the summer, his mother and she consented that he should be able to do what he wants with his time in college. Still, he said he probably would not look at the fraternity system again.

Despite strides in communication with his family members, Alexander said he did not want to ask them to speak with The Daily.

“This topic is still a touchy subject in the family,” he said.

Talking about the issue with his family made Alexander realize that race plays more of a role in life’s choices than people might assume, he said.

“I guess it’s kind of sad because on one hand you grow up in a household where your parents are telling you to be more diverse, to open yourself up to new things,” Alexander said, “but there are still certain subjects where race plays a role above being diverse, above learning new things.”