Gabriel Monteros ’09 was at a loss when it came to cooking the scallion pancakes that were to be sold at the Chinese American Student Association’s Lunar New Year Celebration, but he wasn’t the only one. CASA President Mitchell Ji ’09 said Monteros’ limited knowledge of Chinese cooking had nothing to do with the fact that he is half-white, half-Hispanic, as most of the Chinese members didn’t know how to cook the Chinese version of fried doughnuts either.
Some students say experiences like those of Monteros — who is CASA’s communications chair — prove that students don’t have to be members of a specific ethnicity in order to join a cultural group, they simply have to have an interest in the given culture. But others said joining the cultural group of an ethnicity they weren’t born into can at times be awkward and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, students who are not of the same ethnicity as ethnic cultural groups say that putting themselves in a situation where they are the minority makes them reevaluate their prejudices about race.
Students are attracted to joining cultural groups of different ethnicities for a variety of reasons. While some said they joined to learn about cultures different from their own, others said they already felt connected to the cultures of the groups they join.
“People in an athletic groups are interested in perfecting their skills through performing well and winning,” said Nicole Espy ’09, who is African-American and a member of the Japanese American Student Union. “It’s the same idea in cultural groups except … we are interested in people. We are interested in the food and practices of this culture.”
For Stuart Symington ’09, president of the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association, joining CAUSA was about meeting people of a similar Spanish-speaking background and culture — even if he wasn’t Cuban himself. Having spent the first 10 years of his life in Mexico, Ecuador and Honduras, Symington said he immediately felt comfortable joking around in Spanish with other CAUSA members as freshman.
But for some students the purpose of cultural groups is not entirely clear, and this may them to believe that students not of a given ethnicity are unwelcome in the corresponding cultural group. Some said if they wanted to learn about another culture, taking a class would be more useful than joining a cultural group.
Beth Johnson ’07, who is white, said she thinks cultural groups can have two purposes — uniting people of similar backgrounds and teaching other students about their culture.
“But if the sole purpose of a group is to bring people together on cultural commonality and support one another by providing a place of understanding, I have no place in that group,” Johnson said.
Former Taiwanese American Society Treasurer Chris Karas ’07, who is white, said as long as students have an interest in a group, they are welcome. He said he enjoys cultural groups because they are one of the few types of organizations on campus whose main purpose is socialization.
“What other club on campus, except for maybe fraternities, are just based on hanging out with people?” Karas said. “Yeah, we put on cultural events periodically, but we’re just hanging out with friends. So they all happen to be Taiwanese — no big deal.”
Like many of the students interviewed, Karas said he was initially introduced to the TAS by a Taiwanese friend. Karas said TAS is making a concerted effort to introduce more non-Taiwanese students to the organization by hosting events that have broad appeal, such as TAS Night Market, a carnival-like event.
Part of the group
Monteros said he has received a wide range of reactions from students who discover that he is part of CASA, from very hostile — “Why would you join a bunch of Chinese people, if you are not?” — to those he described as part of a joke — “Do you have yellow fever?”
When he first joined the group, Monteros wasn’t “totally comfortable” standing out as the half-white, half-Mexican student at CASA meetings, he said. But he said he stayed in CASA because of the friends he made in the group.
“I realized that discomfort was largely mine,” Monteros said. “It was with me, not with people.”
Like Monteros, students who have joined a cultural group of an ethnicity they were not born into said they generally felt welcomed by the organizations.
Karas said he could see why some students who do not know anyone in TAS or who are not Taiwanese would be nervous about fitting in, but that feeling would not be founded on fact. He said he did not feel any hostility as a white student joining TAS.
“They were all so welcoming, may even more welcoming because I wasn’t Taiwanese and because they were excited to have something new,” Karas said.
But some students said they would join ethnic cultural groups if they felt like the groups were more open to students who are not inherently of their ethnicity. Brady Bender ’10 said she has been to events hosted by cultural groups, but was dismayed by the fact that the students who were in cultural groups did not mingle with those who were not.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t want to identify [with the groups], it’s that I don’t think I would really feel welcomed,” Bender said. “But I don’t think I would feel uncomfortable because I am white. I think going into a situation — no matter what race I was — that is entirely dominated by another race would feel awkward.”
But Espy said just as any student who can play the clarinet can join a band, any student who has an interest can join a cultural group, regardless of his or her background. She said students often confuse their own doubts about joining with what they perceive as exclusion from a group.
“I feel like when people are reserved they feel more insecure about joining cultural groups,” Espy said. “It seems to be that a lot of the blame is being placed on the members of a specific cultural group or a specific culture, but it really is the other way around. Nobody is telling you that you can’t join.”
Non-minority members of cultural groups said reaching out to people of different ethnicities and cultures can lead to important self-realizations. But other students said focusing too much on diversity may divide more than it unites.
Monteros said he thinks students should step out of their “comfort zones” by joining ethnic cultural groups because it will force them to confront subconscious prejudices and think about what it feels like to be a minority.
“I think it is really important to becoming a full person and ridding yourself of prejudices,” Monteros said. “You can truly not be racist and hate racial prejudices, but still have them and still be significantly uncomfortable around a different group of people of different race or ethnicity.”
But Jay Schweikert ’08, who is not a member of a cultural group, said the choice not to join such groups should be respected, as long as there is not any racial intolerance. He said thinking too much about who is in the majority and who is in the minority can be harmful because it promotes an attitude that certain people belong and others do not.
“Most upper-middle-class white kids are probably not going to go out of their way to learn about other cultures and I don’t think that is necessarily a problem … if someone says ‘It’s not really my thing,’” Schweikert said. “I don’t think people have any positive obligation to go out there and learn about other cultures.”
But ethnic cultural groups are not the only organizations that have sparked students to reevaluate the meanings of race and ethnicity in society. Coming from a fairly racially homogenous high school, Tucker Rae-Grant ’09 said participating in Cultural Connections and hearing minority students talk about how race affects their daily lives forced him to think about how being white is perceived by society. Rae-Grant said he is frustrated by the fact that in recent campus debates about cultural groups, his comments supporting the organizations have been valued by fellow students more than the comments of minority students.
“It’s like some people would be more willing to listen to a white person say that, even though a minority person would say the same thing,” Grant said. “It’s like that makes my opinion matter more or something — I don’t think it does. It’s hard to have dialogue on campus when there is that sort of attitude.”