Build true community through conversations

To describe Yale to the incoming class, I am inclined to use my favorite quotation by Yale historian George Pierson: “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” Nevertheless, the description is too heavy on sentiment and too light on reality. Undoubtedly this neo-Gothic campus abounds in groups of friends, but a larger sense of friendship is absent.

Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard and the author of “Bowling Alone,” popularized the concept of social capital, or the idea that the social networks of a community are valuable. His latest paper, published this summer and based on a five-year study, argues that in the long run there are important cultural, economic, fiscal and developmental benefits from diversity but shows that in the short to medium run, diversity challenges social solidarity and inhibits social capital. Putnam says people in diverse communities tend “to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

This newspaper reported last week that the class of 2011 is the most diverse entering freshman class to date. Putnam’s findings seem shocking in the context of Yale, but surely ours is not a population entirely different from those elsewhere. Myriad examples here, both large and small, demonstrate the challenges a diverse community creates. Even the most innocent of remarks or jokes based on racial or regional stereotypes reflect the nervousness and inherent discomfort caused by the unfamiliar, and the pages of this paper have seen more than a few articles on related campus problems, including self-segregation and homophobia.

I present Putnam’s findings not to question Yale’s diversity efforts, but instead to emphasize the action we must undertake to forge a community from a heterogeneous student body. A guest column in Monday’s News (“Tatum talk need not end race discussions”) suggests ways Yale can improve institutionally and also a few ways students can get involved in diversity at Yale. My suggestion is simpler and, at the same time, more demanding.

The first step toward a strong and diverse community has already been accomplished, and you merely had to show up: Yale has assembled a remarkably diverse group of people and has forced you to live with students different from yourself. The next step is one that requires our collective action. While lectures and classes about gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race relations are not worthless in this endeavor, casual conversations about differences are far more important.

This may sound silly, but we all need to talk more about our feelings. It’s not atypical to feel uncomfortable around people who are different. Some people genuinely don’t see race or gender or sexuality, but many do and most have not always been so colorblind. Rather than harboring your discomfort, share it with those around you.

You don’t pick your roommates, and if Yale has done its job, you’ll find yourself with at least one who has a religion or ethnicity or sexuality that is new to you. If you’ve never known a gay guy before and now you have one as a roommate and you feel weird about it, discuss your thoughts with him. If you’ve never known a Catholic or a Muslim or a black person and now find one in your circle of friends, talk about things you find strange or different. It may sound cheesy and cliche, but such a discussion is likely to expose more similarities than differences.

Talking about differences and discomfort is not, however, a reasonable basis or refuge for bigotry and prejudice — if you don’t understand that other people are as human and worthy of respect as you are, keep those thoughts from your personal interactions and let your exploration of discomfort shape your beliefs. Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong in saying something as simple as, “You’re different from me, and that makes me uncomfortable.” While these topics can be challenging for all parties to discuss, it is only through such interaction that the fruits of diversity can be tasted.

Such discussions should be encouraged, and those who are genuinely exploring Yale’s diversity should not be silenced or labeled as prejudiced. It may be politically incorrect to say that Asians or lesbians make one uncomfortable, but doing so is not racist or homophobic. Such statements should not be said to reinforce one’s lack of familiarity with those who are different, but they are essential to an open dialogue that engages Yale’s diversity. In fostering this dialogue, campus groups would do well to focus not on labeling people and people’s statements but instead on encouraging thoughtful discussion about how people feel.

The tradition and the academics come with the Yale tuition bill, but the community is only what we make of it together. The research has shown that diversity impedes community building, but with many small interactions and discussions, its impediments are surmountable. As it is but the second day of the semester, surely we have time to effect Pierson’s society of friends.

Patrick Ward is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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