This past summer the University of Connecticut made headlines when it announced that it would establish a separate housing section particularly for black male students. Immediately, this decision sparked outrage and criticism, with detractors accusing the administration of encouraging a separatist atmosphere. The magazine The National Review went so far as to say that the new policy encouraged “racial isolation and stereotyping, along with a sense of grievance and a victim mentality”. It reopened a larger conversation about the role that race-specific spaces play on college campuses; the term “self-segregation” began to fly around. Certain sources like the NPR and Fox News paralleled Uconn’s new project with the racist policies of the 1960s. “Self-segregation” almost always has a certain ‘tsk-tsk’ connotation, as if minorities were doing themselves a disservice by primarily associating with those that belong to the same race and/or culture as them.
I can’t help but notice that whenever this topic is discussed, debated, or analyzed it’s in a negative way. Having attended racially diverse schools for most of my life, the first time I really encountered this phenomenon was in high school. Predominately white, with a socio-economic spectrum that mostly ranged from upper-middle class to extremely wealthy, there were hardly enough black kids to even form a group. My school did however, have a lot of international students from China. These kids consorted almost exclusively with each other. They sat together in classes, at lunch, and only joined clubs that already had a significant number of Asian international members. I remember at the time, I too, looked upon this behavior with disapproval. Didn’t they know what they’re missing? I thought. What’s the point of coming to a different country only to befriend others of the same race and background as you?
Cultural organizations on college campuses are often accused of fostering this mentality. That by creating social groups along racial and ethnic lines, members of these groups are isolating themselves from the greater community. Supposedly, the whole point of college is to experience diversity at its fullest and to be placed in a situation where you are forced to interact with people different from yourself. Those in favor of these associations say that their purpose is to create safe spaces for minorities on campus, where they can feel welcome and comfortable. ‘But college should make you uncomfortable’, detractors say, ‘that is its purpose’.
To me, these types of comments always sound incredibly tone-deaf. Chances are, unless you are one of the few white Americans who decides to enroll in a historically black college/university, you will always be the majority. The entire college campus is a safe space for white Americans by default. It’s not just reasonable, but healthy for ethnic minorities to carve out cultural spaces for themselves in these predominantly white institutions. Usually in the context of this debate, college campuses are made out to be this hypothetical “utopia” free from prejudice and tension. In reality, however, this is obviously not the case. Speaking from my personal experience as a black woman, I can say that attending a predominately white university such as Princeton as a minority is difficult, to say the least. Even taking out the possibility of experiencing outright racism, one still is forced to operate in the smothering, eurocentrically-oriented, racially-biased atmosphere that is inherent at these elite institutions. Thankfully, I have never experienced any direct racially-motivated aggression from my peers. I have, however, had to sit through Near Eastern studies classes that only talk about the Middle East in the context of its interactions with the US and Europe. I have experienced the constant tug-of-war between cultural pride and assimilation, that is part and parcel of existing in a majority white community. I have had to live and learn in a place where white is the default, the exemplar, and the standard. Therefore, I appreciate the fact that there are places where I can be free of that, even if only for a few hours. My desire to hang out with other black people doesn’t discourage me from making friends of other races as well, and I’ve never felt that the Black Student Union’s presence was so demanding or restrictive that I felt pressured to only socialize with people of the same race.
We should also keep in mind that the topic of self-segregation is not a cut-and-dry issue. It raises the question of what exactly the purpose of diversity on college campuses is. By nature of being a minority, one is usually forced to interact with others of a different race—that race being the majority race. The opposite is true for those in the majority race, for whom it is wholly possible to never have to mingle with minority races. Data released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that 75% of white Americans have completely white social circles, while less than two thirds of African-Americans can say the same. Statistically, if anyone is guilty of unconscious self-segregation, it’s white people.
I feel a twinge of guilt now, when I think back on my criticism of the Asian international students at my high school. When I think about it, it’s human nature to want to associate with those with whom I have something in common, whether that thing is athleticism, socio-economic class, a passion for a particular hobby or activity, or even gender in the case of sororities and fraternities. However, often that unifying factor is less visible than something as obvious as race, such as in the above examples, and therefore is subject to less criticism. Despite the statistics quoted in the last paragraph, because white is the default in America, seeing groups of white Americans is not just considered normal, but expected. When we see a social circle made up completely of a certain minority race, it seems unusual, conspicuous. We automatically get the impression that the people in question are trying to sequester themselves and avoid interacting with other people, rather than that they may just feel more comfortable around people with whom they share race and/or culture.
Is there not a space for individual communities within the broader one? It is entirely possible to be a part of multiple social circles, one that is made up members of one’s own race, and others that are not. The existence of cultural organizations or spaces set aside for minorities does not demand isolation of its members. If we put this in the context of Princeton as an example, it is obviously possible for one to be an active and involved member of Princeton Latinos y Amigos and still have the opportunity to interact with people of a different heritage through classes, clubs, and residential colleges. Whether or not one wants a homogenous social circle is an individual choice–so the existence of an all-black dorm, or an organization specifically for Hispanic people cannot be blamed for these decisions. These spaces provide us with that option, give us the ability to have that choice. And I for one, value it.