I’ve noticed a pattern in my classes. I walk into a lecture hall, find an empty seat in an empty row, sit and wait. Almost infallibly, the seat beside me on either side remains forlorn and empty as the room around me swells to capacity — until, that is, another black student walks in.
The student sits beside me, throwing my working theory — that I was somehow emitting strong vibes of weirdo — into disarray. He or she most kindly rescues me from my lonely isolation, taking the seat beside me with a casual nonchalance.
I’ve observed similar patterns on campus too. Take a stroll down Locust Walk and watch. Chances are you’ll see a group of white students walking together, headed to class or lunch or wherever have you. Direct your gaze elsewhere and you’ll see a similarly clustered group of Asian students. Look elsewhere still and you will see small knots of black students.
What you will often not see is a mix of these students heading to these places together. Like oil and water, the many races and cultures that comprise Penn’s population seem to just naturally separate. Despite how frequently Penn touts its diversity (were you too a member of “the most diverse class in Penn’s history?”), students tend to cluster within their own racial groups and — as a result — interracial relations tend to remain superficial and insubstantial.
In a 2004 article published in the Du Bois Review, Kimberly Torres and Penn professor of sociology Camille Charles examined race on this campus. “We find that the Black students in our sample possess some clear and largely negative metastereotypes [(perceptions of existing stereotypes)] concerning how Whites generally think about Blacks, and these metastereotypes are quite accurate,” the article’s abstract read.
Why is that? Are we all a bunch of racists masquerading beneath a flag of false unity and token diversity?
It’s not as bad as all that. We’re just lazy. People gravitate naturally toward things they know and are comfortable with, even in matters as simple as choosing a seat in lecture. The familiar is soothing and requires little effort and self-extension.
Think about how much work there could potentially be in building a close friendship with someone of a different race. You’ll have to learn about their culture and practice fastidious political correctness and lots of other things that may make you uncomfortable.
But think about all the good you stand to gain from such a friendship. You’ll learn something new, and isn’t that what we’re all here to do? You’ll get an insider’s view of a culture. You may try new foods, go to new places and maybe even learn a new language.
When we’re not trying to transcend these implicit racial boundaries that structure our social lives, we’re not learning, and we’re therefore providing room for stereotypes and racial ignorance to flourish.
“There’s no opportunity for the kinds of interaction that would break down racial stereotyping,” Charles said. “What really tends to change people’s racial attitudes is to be involved in activities that members of both groups are interested in and committed to and to work toward a common goal or interest.”
We’ve all got to extend ourselves a bit more if we’re ever going to achieve true equality.
“That’s more likely to happen in social settings. These interactions have to happen on a regular basis in order for them to have effect; they can’t just be a one-time interaction,” Charles said.
We should all do our best to immerse ourselves in a culture we’ve never experienced before. Because how can you love what you don’t know?
So the next time you walk into your lecture, take a seat beside the black girl who’s sitting alone and start a conversation.
Together we can give some depth to Penn’s claims of diversity. It may just prove to be worth our while.Comments powered by Disqus
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