University President-elect Peter Salovey wore two hats during Wednesday afternoon’s panel on the role of cultural centers on Yale’s campus, speaking both as Yale’s next president and as a social scientist.

The event, which was hosted by La Casa Cultural as part of a weeklong campaign to increase awareness of the center for Yale’s Latino community, included three panelists — Salovey, Trumbull College Dean Jasmina Besirevic-Regan and Student Affairs Fellow Hannah Peck DIV ’11 — who discussed self-segregation, social identity and affirmative action. Salovey said the criticism cultural houses receive for being self-segregating is inevitable because race has been a sensitive issue in U.S. history.

“Why does joining a cultural group feel like self-segregation, but spending all of your time practicing with one singing group doesn’t feel like self-segregation?” Salovey asked. “Well, a lot of it has to do with the challenging history this country has had around issues of ethnicity and race — people very quickly get anxious about it, so it’s hard to have a relaxed conversation.”

Salovey, a former psychology professor, said human nature tends to exaggerate the differences between racial groups and to understate the differences within ethnic categories such as “Eastern European,” “Native” or “Latino.” College years, he said, should be a time when students discover their social identity.

Not all students feel “pride, pleasure and a sense of purpose” when they think about their culture, Salovey said. He added that “we have to respect” that some students may not want to be identified as belonging to a cultural house and that there is no correct way to define social identity.

Still, Salovey said he is proud of the progress the University has made in developing cultural center programming. The purpose of cultural centers, he said, is not to segregate people but to provide students with a community of similar experiences so that they develop the confidence they need to interact with people from different backgrounds.

“A cultural house is a comfort zone, but it’s one that then allows you to put yourself in an uncomfortable zone,” he said.

Rosalinda Garcia, dean of La Casa, told the News that the perception that cultural groups are self-segregating has been a major obstacle in getting students involved with cultural centers.

Many students do not think they can participate in the center if they did not get involved freshman year or if they missed the fall open house, Garcia said. La Casa is making an effort to increase accessibility year-round and to demonstrate how people of all backgrounds can benefit from what the center offers, she added.

Four students interviewed said they enjoyed hearing that Salovey understood the purpose of a cultural center. George Ramirez ’15, a member of La Casa, said he was happy Salovey was “so outspoken about self-segregation being a false label for cultural centers.”

The students added that they think the weeklong campaign has been successful so far in making La Casa better known to the rest of campus.

Other La Casa events this week include a graduate and undergraduate student mixer and a showcase of La Casa’s performance groups.