Last Thursday I went to a well-attended lecture by Dr. Beverly Tatum from Mt. Holyoke College on the issue of race. The lecture was on an issue so charged for the student body that the lecture had to move to Bronfman Auditorium. In the jam-packed auditorium, Professor Tatum began her lecture, titled “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
As I was sitting there, something greatly ironic about the entire experience hit me like a bolt of lighting– the 300-some students in the auditorium had pre-segregated themselves on roughly racial lines. The majority of the African-American students were sitting in the front of the auditorium; the majority of the white students were sitting in rows further up. After this, I’ve been trying to figure out how something so dramatically ironic could take place and so few realize it.
As I looked around campus during my first semester, I began to realize that my views toward race and racism are far different than those of most Williams students. This is a fact that I am still trying to come to grips with. Where I grew up, there was practically no such thing as race. All the groups – white, black, Asian, Latino – were roughly from the same socioeconomic bracket as my family. Everyone wore the same style of clothing, everyone spoke the same way, but we all had different shades of brown pigment on our skin.
In working class Los Angeles, there was no reason to differentiate between races. Everyone was striving for the same goal: the American Dream.
When I was in high school, I began to think about and recognize the issues of race and culture – about the time Tatum said that most people begin to think about these complex issues. A few times over the course of my high school career, I began to count just how many different groups were represented in my courses. Over and over, I realized that white students were a minority in my classes, and no ethnic group constituted more than one-third of the entire class.
The comment on race and ethnicity that warms my heart the most was when my AP English teacher, a fifty-something woman from Central Ohio, said that I had one of the easiest names to pronounce in her class. This was astounding – that my surname, the name of Mexican and Spanish immigrants – had become more “American” than those of most of my peers.
Ultimately, I am very confused as to why white students and black students, Asians and Latinos, do not interact more with each other. White students and black students blame each other for being exclusive. I have friends who say they would like to come to Rice, Hardy or Jenness Houses, but do not because they fear they would look very awkward, being the only white kids in a minority house.
I just do not understand this self-segregation. I would think and hope that everyone here would want to take advantage of all the different cultures about which they could learn. How just by talking to each other we can learn so much more about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us. And yet only a small minority decides to do so. There is nothing wrong with African-Americans sitting with each other at the lunch table. However, what is disturbing is when it is only other African-Americans with whom they associate. The exact same can be said football players, whose cliquish nature and fraternity-like parties alienate many on campus. The blame for social stratification can be passed out to everyone, even to those of us who think we are immune to such social workings.
I do not know if Williams is a microcosm of our country or just an exaggeration of our racial problems. The vast majority of our differences – whether one wears Banana Republic khakis or Wrangler jeans, whether one comes from the South Bronx or Westchester County, whether one listens to Dave Matthews or Snoop Doggy Dog – all of these differences can be bridged with some communication and some ounce of energy to care about the welfare of the student body.
You, I, we are all members of Williams family. We will see each other for many more semesters and years afterwards as alumni, so let’s take this time to end the rift and pass out the love.