Self-segregation, as alleged by Friday’s News’ View editorial (“Self-segregation thwarts campus unity”), is a myth.
Let me put my biases up front: I am one of about 430 black students at Yale, I work at the Afro-American Cultural Center and last summer I was an aide for Cultural Connections. I also will admit that black people often eat lunch together, most of the people who go to Afro-American Cultural Center events are black and most of the attendees of Cultural Connections are students of color. Still, I think it is wrong to call these examples of “self-segregation.”
If, for example, the Af-Am House had a sign on its door saying “Blacks Only” or an alternate rear entrance for white students, then I would have no difficulty using the term “self-segregation.” But this is not the reality that exists on campus. Rather, the racial separation in Commons, Cultural Connections and the Afro-American Cultural Center seems to be caused less by the students of color participating than the white students who choose not to attend.
Last week’s editorial argued that as students of color make cultural activities “their niche,” the amount of time they can dedicate to “non-culture-specific groups” declines. I guess that’s true, as there is only so much time in the week, but the implication of that argument is that groups united by a cultural background, like the Yale Gospel Choir or the Yale Bhangra Team, are in a less valid “niche” than groups united by a political or other background, like the Dramat or the Party of the Left. Both the Gospel Choir and the Bhangra Team have students of various ethnicities, including white students, just as I am sure the Party of the Left includes a few conservatives. Why then are there no claims that the Yale Political Union self-segregates?
The problem seems to lie less in the exclusivity of the organizations and more in the interests of Yale students. I imagine as few white students are willing to join the Black Student Alliance as there are liberals who are willing to join the College Republicans. One of the reasons for this could be that people who might consider joining worry about being a minority among people with different ethnicities or political beliefs. I can also understand if it is difficult for white students to attend Cultural Connections or a La Casa event out of fear of being the lone white student. Being in the minority can be awkward.
Yet as a black student at Yale, I am confronted with the same awkwardness every time I look around and see only one or two other black people in my sections and seminars. In fact, one of my first inclinations when I’m shopping a small class is to see if I am the only student of color. I appreciate learning from other people’s differences, and it is not as though I think sometimes being in the minority is a bad thing. Nevertheless, whenever I am in the minority, as a sophomore in a junior seminar, as a man in the Women’s Center, as a black student in a Liberty in North Korea event, or as a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium, I am forced to think about the element of my identity that sets me apart. This happens often at this university, and it is refreshing for me to be able to enter the Afro-American Cultural Center and not be a tokenized exception.
The term of self-segregation should not only apply to students of color; contentions that black students in dining halls self-segregate are no more valid than claims that the white students sitting around them self-segregate, or that the lacrosse team or Yale Dems run exclusive eating clubs. Always being in a minority can be tiresome, and spending time with people with shared interests is enjoyable. Diversity is important because it allows students to experience other cultures, but diversifying the campus must go two ways. If white students want more students of color to join non-cultural groups, they should be willing to join — or at least be familiar with — the cultural groups that they claim self-segregate.
I agree with the News’ editorial that students should not approach discussions about race with hostility. It may also be worthwhile for white students, and the News, to explore alternative terms to describe race relations on campus than those that presume that students of color are doing something wrong. It is unfortunate that the myth of self-segregation implicates only cultural groups. As always, white students are welcome to join.
Nikolas Bowie is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College and the publicity chair for the Afro-American Cultural Center.