It’s 12:45 p.m. on an average Tuesday, and lunch is in full swing at Commons Dining Hall. “There’s usually two or three black tables,” says one student. “They’re hard not to miss.” Sure enough, a quick stroll reveals several tables entirely of black students, others entirely of white students, another of mostly Asian students, and one comprised of students speaking Spanish.
As Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum writes in her 1997 book on racial identity, aptly titled “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, the prototypical mixed high school cafeteria features “an identifiable group of black students sitting together. Conversely, it could be pointed out that there are many groups of white students sitting together as well, though people rarely comment about that.” It appears that the segregation by racial group that was the high school archetype still stands (or rather, sits) in the Ivy League.
“At this point it’s almost like we’re doing it ironically,” says Natalie Paul ’07. “We know what people are thinking — I mean, it’s been written about — and we keep doing it.”
Considering Yale’s effort to diversify its student body, does visible ethnic segregation symbolize a failure? Are we seeing signs of self-segregation, and if so, does self-segregation undermine the positive effects of campus diversity?
Diversity is among Yale’s top administrative goals. Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg stresses the importance of a collegiate experience than exposes students to the unfamiliar.
“Anything that enhances student experience and education is something we have to strive for,” she says. “I don’t see any enhancements in having an entirely homogenous group. If it were homogenous, people would simply be learning more about themselves, but not about themselves in an atmosphere of others, which gives us a greater understanding of the world we live in.”
Increasing campus diversity is a goal close to the work of Steven Syverud ’06, Yale College Council president and director of Yale’s Student Ambassador Program, an undergraduate group dedicated to presenting information about Yale in low-income high schools. Syverud points out that the mission to diversify Yale requires an evaluation of the university’s motives. Admission into any top college is an act as political as it is academic, he says, and cites a 2002 comment to the Supreme Court authored by Lani Guinier, published in the Harvard Law Review. Guinier writes that “the campus community has now become the principal guardian of our traditional opportunitarian ideals,” that college education has become a prerequisite for American entrepreneurship, a link to prosperity, and that elitism in college admissions has a special political impact: “rationing access to societal influence and power.”
“We have to ask,” says Syverud, “whether the purpose of the Ambassadors Program is for Yale to find diamond-in-the-rough candidates, or are we trying to affect social change?”
“We do our best to recruit qualified candidates who represent different backgrounds: race, religion, region, and income status all play a part,” says Jamal Caesar, assistant director of undergraduate admissions. “If we find that a certain area is underrepresented, we will increase presentations there, or find a Yale representative from that demographic to go back on our behalf.”
With these underrepresented targets, Yale’s administration seeks candidates who might not have included Yale on their list of colleges to consider, students who, once admitted, may find themselves dealing with a greater level of culture shock than affects the average student, whether that shock is academic, social, or both.
Does Yale have the means to make everyone feel at home?
“I don’t want to fall into the whole stereotypical … oh he’s black and he want to this bad high school,” says Rhasaan Nichols ’08. “Even though it’s true … stuff goes on. I’m not going to lie.”
Nichols hails from Philadelphia’s Bodine William W. High School, an inner city public magnet school. In 2004-2005, 50 percent of Bodine students were eligible for a reduced price lunch program, compared to the Pennsylvania state average of 33 percent.
“We had metal detectors in our school, but you get used to them,” said Nichols. “And when I went back during the Thanksgiving break, I realized how ridiculous it was. I’m like, wow, I have to take everything out of my pockets? What is this, a federal building? It’s just a school.”
All things considered, the rough environment wasn’t what stuck with Nichols. He speaks with easy humor about his background. Like every high school, Bodine had its bad side, but it also held distinct advantages. In 2004, the student body was 53 percent black, with only 22 percent white students, and until he came to Yale, Nichols had never been in the obvious minority.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, arriving at Yale, it was not the rigor of the academics that most shocked Nichols.
“I’d never experienced so much racism ’til I came here,” he said. “This is probably the most unfamiliar environment that I can be thrown in as a Black person from the inner city.”
Certainly, Yale’s student makeup doesn’t reflect the national norm. With 7 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Asian students at the University in 2004, Nichols’ minority status is more pronounced.
But for Nichols, Yale’s basic lack of ethnic diversity wasn’t as surprising as some of the student attitudes he encountered.
“I get stared at a lot,” he explained. “I wasn’t prepared for that. And I went to Japan. I didn’t even get stared at that much in Japan.”
Nichols recounted daily instances of racism, such as having his ID checked by a gym attendant who let white students pass with only a wave.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I feel that people don’t think I could actually go here.”
“Right now I say if I didn’t have the AfAm house, I don’t know how much I would like this place.” Funmi Showole ’08 pauses to look out the window of Au Bon Pain with a thoughtful frown. “Like I wonder what Harvard kids are doing. If I were black and at Harvard …” And she trails off with a wry expression.
Living in a predominantly white neighborhood in Canada until sixth grade, Showole was used to being one of few black students in class. At Staten Island’s Port Richmond High School, she was placed in an honors program specifically geared toward minority students and came to appreciate the group identification the program allowed.
“Gateway was my first time immersed into a really heavily minority population,” says Showole. “And people were open with each other. You could tell childhood stories and other people would understand. People wanted to make sure everyone was going to graduate. Everyone in the program was like, we’re going to get the hell out of here; we’re going to make it.”
Showole was one of two students from the program admitted to Yale, and arrived on campus in the fall of 2004 for Cultural Connections, Yale’s pre-orientation program geared toward minority students. “I went to Cultural Connections the year that the one white student (Peter Nicewicz ’08) did it, so there were all these articles about it and debates about why Cultural Connections shouldn’t be at Yale. And it was interesting to hear everyone’s arguments against it because for me it was such a positive thing, something that I needed.”
Cultural Connections came under well-publicized scrutiny in 2004 after the discontinuation of a similar program without a minority focus, Fresh Person Conference (FPC). Critics feared that non-minority students looking for a less physically exertiing orientation program than FOOT or Harvest would have nowhere to turn. They also accused Cultural Connection of encouraging self-segregation among minority students. “People said it fosters exclusion,” Showole explains, “because you show up and all the minority students are already friends with each other and they don’t want to necessarily meet all these new white students.”
“I didn’t do Cultural Connections,” says a black female student who asked to remain anonymous. “If you’re trying to create diversity, I don’t think that’s the way to go. Think about it: When you’re on campus before everyone else meeting all these minority kids … it’s a good way for people from different minorities to meet, but not a way to meet white people.”
“I’ve never understood why the university feels the need to give minority kids a special label,” adds Jacob First ’07, a white student. “It’s alienating to the rest of the community–not just white kids but anyone who doesn’t relate. It encourages people to be more involved in that identity and less in campus life in general.”
Mario Conde ’06, ex-president of LASO, Yale’s Latin American Student Organization, acknowledges the importance of the introduction provided by Cultural Connections as part of a larger adaptation to life at Yale. “It’s important to get to know people before school starts because you will feel lost, and it’s important to recognize familiar faces,” he says. “But CC, those four days, doesn’t hinder adaptation in any larger sense, especially considering some of those early friendships don’t last as long as the friends you make later.”
“People often identify in a superficial way at the beginning of any transitional time,” Caesar explains. “Freshman year, you say, ‘I’m from New York,’ and someone from New York becomes your best friend, at least for the first two weeks. Minority students on campus may identify with each other initially based on their race, but I don’t think they will maintain those relationships unless they have formed meaningful connections.”
In the debate about self-segregation, Ethnic Counselors — senior advisors geared specifically toward freshmen by ethnic group — and minority cultural centers on campus are called into question as well. “It was like, oh why do we have an AfAm house if we don’t have a White house?” recounts Showole. Nichols, sitting nearby, laughs and answers, “You have your university! And you have your country.”
But for some students, the cultural houses are evidence of inequitable student activity funding, where certain groups are privileged over others. “I’m confused as to why ethnicity has a sacred place as being above other characteristics,” says First. “The university should support the study if it, but in terms of funding, it should be treated the same as other undergraduate activities.” He adds that, in a college setting, a strong emphasis on racial identification may undermine the goals of campus diversity. “There should be a spirit that, while at the university, your primary identity is as a student. We should seek common ground.”
“I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as self-segregation,” says Ameer El-Mallawani ’05, a former head ethnic counselor. “Yale as an institution is lily-white and intimidating, and hanging out with people who remind you of home — in any way — makes it much more bearable. You see that type of community formation all over Yale, especially with white people.”
In the discussion of diversity, one must acknowledge the fine line between self-segregating and identifying with a group.
Amit Mahadevia ’08 and Priya Kim Prasad ’08, co-moderators of Yale’s Asian American Student Organization (AASA), note in an e-mail that, considering the student group’s focus on Asian American culture, “it’s not very surprising that AASA attracts mostly Asian Americans who are interested in the common issues that people of Asian descent raised in the United States face on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps that’s where the perceptions of self-segregation begin. People in any group at Yale end up associating with the other members of that group — just because the members of AASA are predominantly of Asian descent doesn’t mean they’re subject to different rules of socialization.”
Indeed, as far as group identification is concerned, student associations are more likely based on shared interests than on race alone. “Truth is, black or white, rich or poor, sporty or artsy, no matter who you are or where you come from, you are most comfortable with what you know,” says Kyle Mitchell ’07. And at Yale, with a wide array of athletic, literary, and performing arts groups to choose from, “what you know,” what you like, and what you’re good at is easy to find.
But certain activity groups may be perceived as geared toward a specific racial subset in a way that other students find intimidating. Says Showole of the Black Church at Yale, “A lot of times the name will throw people off. ‘Why is it only for Black people?’ Obviously it’s not. It’s just in recognition of the culture around the Black Church.”
Conde points out that the idea of “self-segregation” is challenged by greater diversity developing within cultural centers such as La Casa, Yale’s center for Hispanic students. He cites the number of smaller student groups, such as MEChA (Yale’s Movimiento de Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán), Despierta Boriqua (an undergraduate Puerto Rican student group), as well as new groups for Dominican and Cuban students, including Yspaniola, a Dominican service organization. The increased number of organizations, he says, lessens the pressure placed on Hispanic students to conform to any one cultural group and also provides better opportunities for specific, familiar cultural identification.
“Personally I’m disappointed at people who make sweeping generalizations about programs being ‘self-segregating’,” says Suraiya Jetha ’06, Yale’s current head ethnic counselor. “I’ve worked at the Asian American Cultural Center and been a consistent visitor after my tenure on staff, and in the three years I have frequented the center, I can probably count the number of non-Asian American people I’ve seen attending events there on one hand. In the last two years, while Cultural Connections has been open to all incoming Yale students, fewer than five white students have participated in the program. Who’s self-segregating?”
It’s 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night and a dozen students have gathered in the basement game room of the Afro-American Cultural Center — the AfAm house — for an informal presentation of their poetry. It’s a weekly meeting of WORD, Yale’s performance poetry group, and Nichols and Showole sit among the assembly.
Nichols moves to the front of the group amid laughter and encouragement. His poem is a lightning-fast tirade about being black at Yale. With a spark in his eye, Nichols points out the paradox of the friend who flaunts his liberalism but “just can’t get behind affirmative action.” A friend of Nichols’ from Philadelphia who has come to observe shouts encouragement. Some Yale students may wish to ignore the divisions caused by race, but, as Nichols reads,
How could you not see the color line
That’s so blatant that it’s even obvious to the blind?
It locks us in and welts our skin like Constant stares and curious eyes wondering, “Does he go here??”
By the end of the poem, there’s energy in the air, an obvious appreciation for Nichols’ blunt identification of struggles to which many in the group can relate. WORD member Rashaud Hannah ’08 has a similar poem up his sleeve. “People need to give black men at Yale a break,” says Rashaud. “We have a lot on us, whole communities on our back that we want to give back to.”
Race, love and family are the predominant themes, and there’s plenty to be said. Showole presents a poignant work about her tenuous link to her Nigerian grandmother. There’s a poem that hearkens back to childhood and the poet’s growing awareness of the color barrier; another reads into the intoxication of a first advance.
In her book, Dr. Tatum stresses that minority students — in fact, any students — confronted with peers who do not or cannot validate and relate to personal feelings of stress “are more likely to turn to someone who will understand their perspective.” Especially when faced with incidences of casual racism in a high-pressure academic environment, students benefit from seeking an environment that allows them to “talk about the issues that hindered their performance — racial encounters, feelings of isolation, test anxiety, homework dilemmas — in the psychological safety of their own group.”
Though fostering an environment of social support is not the sole aim of the WORD poetry group, the atmosphere is genial, appreciative, marked by the presence of participants from a variety of racial backgrounds. The poets present with little self-consciousness, even with an outsider, a reporter, in the room. Immediate curiosity about who I am is backed by an urge to welcome me to the group, and when I explain I’m writing an article featuring Showole and Nichols, WORD president Crystal Paul-Laughinghouse ’08 smiles wryly and asks, “What? So the rest of us aren’t good enough?”
Group identification provides necessary support for any student, but many minority students who feel their groups are branded “self-segregating” wonder why the task of integration falls to them.
“They always encouraged us, bring all your friends to the cultural centers,” says Showole. “So the first couple of weeks I was inviting all my white friends, let’s go to the AfAm house, party at the AfAm house … and none of them came.”
Sensing a lack of cooperation from white students, Showole expresses frustration that her social life is subject to scrutiny. “The whole argument always comes up about the black table at Yale,” she says “But if you walk into Commons and you see like 50 tables that are almost completely white and then you see two or three tables that are mostly black students, I mean …” she pauses to look over at Nichols, “maybe I just want to sit down with Rhasaan and see how his day is going.”
It seems that black students are the minority most frequently criticized for self-segregation. One white student who asked to remain anonymous noted that the average white student at Yale is more likely to have several Asian or Hispanic friends than to have a black friend. In particular, she says, many Asian students, as the largest racial minority at Yale, don’t relate to Asian student groups, and have an almost entirely white friend group. “If enough members of a certain minority assimilate,” she says, “the rest aren’t under as much scrutiny.”
But surely “assimilation” of minority students cannot be Yale’s primary goal, especially in a world where conceptions of race grow more and more fragmented. Nor, notes Jetha, should we view the value of diversity as providing a cultural tour for the “average” — read white — student. “I’ve had people tell me they don’t care if Yale has a 100 percent retention rate for students of color,” says Jetha. “They argue ‘self-segregating’ hurts diversity. To me, this implies that students of color are only at the university to give white students a diverse experience. As a woman of color at Yale, I’d like to think that I’m here for more than just other people’s experience.”
“I’m in a classroom looking around for another black person,” says Nichols, “and I realize … I am the diversity. I am that guy.”
“It’s not my job or anyone’s job to make sure every activity is diverse,” adds Showole. “Sometimes they are diverse. Sometimes they’re not.”
Dean Trachtenberg seems to agree with Showole. “As long as what people are doing is legal and doesn’t betray the aims and goals of the university and society at large, people should do as they please. It’s not fair for any person to be held as a bastion of integration.”
Racial literacy, as defined by Lani Guinier, is “the ability to read race in conjunction with institutional and democratic structures.” It’s something that grows slowly, especially in a university with a relatively small proportion of non-white students. In examining campus responses to organization such as Cultural Connections and the cultural centers, one must acknowledge the important role of group identification in the lives of all students. Every student comes to Yale with a preconceived sense of his or her racial and ethnic identity — a sense of identification that can be broadened through time and effort.
Student organizations and attitudes reflect the home towns, home lives, and prior education of the participants. The integrative task of Yale students, then, is to bridge the gaps. “It’s important that people see programs such as the ethnic counselors for what they really are,” says Caesar, “progressive — not regressive — systems.”
Perhaps the first task of campus diversity is to see Yale’s ethnically-specific networks of support in terms of their own goals. After all, as Tre Borden ’06 says, “It’s really a question of personal vocabulary. If you’re a black person who’s never been around white people and you’re suddenly living with four lacrosse players from Deerfield … then yeah, you might need an ethnic counselor.”