Ernest Owens | Equal when separate

The Ernest Opinion | It's time to embrace our instinct to self-segregate

· September 13, 2012, 11:34 pm

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Ernest Owens
The Ernest Opinion

Some of my favorite moments at Penn have happened at 1920 Commons — most of them on a Saturday morning over brunch with friends.

We usually laugh loudly and take comical jabs at one another — each more intense than the last. But then comes a moment when our antics dim and someone in the group points out the fact that we’re the only black students in the room and shouldn’t be so loud about it.

Someone usually says, “I wonder what they think about us being so loud and black over here … we are being so self-segregating.”

For a long time, I felt the same way. Was I being culturally limiting by eating brunch every weekend with my black peers? Was this self-segregation?

Then I looked around the other tables at Commons and saw separate groups of white students and Asian students congregated over waffles and bacon. That made me wonder: do they ever have the same discussion that I just had with my friends?

I bet they don’t. Otherwise, we would all mingle over pancakes every weekend like they do at the United Nations cafeteria. Fantasy aside, minorities on campus shouldn’t feel a sense of guilt when they choose to hang out with friends from a similar background.

It didn’t take a UMOJA, Makuu or Black Student League event for me to get together with my friends. We just found each other as a group of black students looking to kick start the weekend together.

Debates about self-segregation are nothing new. W.E.B. Du Bois, Penn’s honorary emeritus professor of sociology and Africana studies, was a strong proponent of developing economic enterprises exclusive to blacks.

Coretta Scott King, however, spoke out vocally against the practice when she said that segregation “…is still wrong when it is requested by black people.”

This idea is also explored at length in one of my favorite novels, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, published in 1952.

While the media and politicians attempt to convince us that we live in a post-racial society, the truth is, self-segregation persists and is a natural instinct.

Not everyone is going to get along all the time. It is normal for people to gravitate toward those who are similar. It is necessary for each of us to find a “safe space” where we feel accepted and immune from misunderstandings.

Most Quakers devote a substantial amount of their time and energy to others. We’re always working on group projects with people we’d rather never see again. Or we’re involved in six different student groups where we have to interact with students from all walks of life.

While there is a lot to be learned from interacting with diverse people, the question arises: when can we take a step back from the face we strive so hard to display and be ourselves?

The fabric of Penn life is woven by strings of separate communities. While we work together to produce equality, especially in an academic setting, each community is distinct. Most of our successes have come from different groups that worked hard to achieve a goal.

There is something aesthetically and socially pleasing about seeing the internal workings of these individual groups. When I go to Hillel for lunch, it always amazes me to see a close-knit circle of Jewish students. I also appreciate the ability to see groups of exchange students from Germany, Israel and China occupy the floors of Du Bois College House every semester.

In essence, we should stop attempting to sacrifice our identities and embrace self-segregation.

By virtue of being members of the Penn community, we have already made strides to produce a more equal society. But in the words of Malcolm X, “We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves.”

Ernest Owens is a College junior from Chicago, Ill. His email address is owense@sas.upenn.edu. “The Ernest Opinion” appears every Friday. Toss him a tweet @MrErnestOwens.

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