“Why do all the black people on campus know each other?”
This in an unnerving question, because I feel that not everyone is equally subject to this interrogation. I wonder what the person is really asking, and why he or she seems so interested in my friend group and their racial background. The rest of this piece is dedicated to explaining why I have ultimately concluded that I have no obligation to answer this question.
First, most friend groups can be identified by a specific demographic. Around campus you can see friend groups made up of mainly athletes, international students, people from a specific socioeconomic background, and even broad range of people who happen live in the same residential college. Yet people tend to focus on the fact that a friend group may be primarily made up of black people. I imagine what intrigues people is not the fact that we belong to just any demographic, but to a specific race. It becomes an issue primarily about race because people cannot necessarily point out when people of similar socioeconomic, extracurricular or even other ethnic groups, like Caucasians, hang out together. Instead the attention is disproportionally focused on groups of black people. I do observe that many people notice when a group of Asians hang out, but I note that there is a different thought process used between seeing a group of black people and a group of people of Asian heritage. More people seem to sympathize when Asians group together because they feel that Asians have a different culture; they sometimes even speak a different language while conversing, representing a conversation of an esoteric nature. But people can’t seem to understand why black people hang out together. Maybe because of how black people are presumed to be a part of the American identity, many may find it strange that black Americans may mainly interact with other black people. Society doesn’t see a distinct cultural connection between black people, overlooks how being black continues to make people’s experiences distinct from their nonblack peers, and therefore targets black people as being “self-segregating.”
Contrary to popular belief, however, most black people don’t go out and intentionally find black people to become their friends. Growing up, our parents always tell us to choose our friends wisely, but from what I’ve observed, many people in a friend group do not choose each other completely by choice. The process of friendship is not as self-selective as people assume. Think of the Princeton experience. We can’t choose the other Princeton students that are accepted to the school, nor can we choose our randomly assigned roommates and zee groups. Think of the random schedules that cause you to hang out with one particular friend as opposed to another. Ultimately you interact with the people you are most comfortable with and have the most opportunity to hang out with. In fact, I bet most people could not explicitly explain why they are friends with their friends. By that same logic, how could you expect me to explain the reasons for my association with certain people? Why must there be some sort of validation for a person hanging out with somebody else?
Furthermore, people are not aware of the negative effects this question can have on the black community. The arbitrary judgment on black people who congregate causes some black people to avoid hanging out with other black people at all, for fear of being judged. I know this is true because I used to be one of those people. In high school, the things some of my nonblack friends would say when black people were seen together made me hesitant about associating with other black people. It’s not fair that an association with other black people should attract that much attention, to the point that it may make other black people insecure about hanging out with each other. I have realized is that there is nothing wrong with black people hanging out together, but there is a fault in passing judgment when they do. People have the freedom to associate with whom they want. Integration gives freedom to associate with people of other races, but it is also about being able to tolerate when people decide to hang out together, regardless of their race, creed or wealth. Everyone in my friend group associates with a good number of nonblack friends, but because we are closer to each other, people tend to see us together more often than with our other friends. Just by virtue of us being black (a small demographic in Princeton), people may have the tendency to notice us more than when other groups decide to hang out with each other. Yet, this does not excuse the levels of attention and criticism that cause some blacks to avoid association with other black people all together.
Ultimately, when people ask me about my interactions with other black people, I don’t think they are asking me a question at all. In my eyes, they are accusing me of not diversifying my friend group enough. People never ask me questions regarding the composition of my friend group when I hang out with my nonblack friends; the question is only relevant when I am with my black friends. There is no reason why I have to justify to other people the diversity of my friend group, because at the end of the day I am just friends with the people who I like and who I care about. The irony is I do have a diverse friend group. You just have to look beyond their blackness.
Dedicated to the Goon Squad.