Opinion - January 28, 1998

Improving race relations
A senior ponders the divides of Princeton's multicultural landscape


Last September, members of the Class of 2001 trooped into Alexander Hall for a series of freshman gatherings. Along with Convocation, the Honor Assembly, and a discussion of academics, they heard the annual lecture "Reflections on Diversity," a laudable effort to explain how the tenets of multiculturalism fit within the ideal of a liberal education. The message is clear: part of your Princeton education will involve learning and thinking outside the social context in which you've been raised.

When it comes to issues of race and ethnicity, Princeton tries especially hard to move beyond rhetoric. The university runs a myriad of support and awareness programs for students of color, places minority-affairs advisers in the residential colleges, funds the Third World Center and many student groups, and actively recruits black, Latino, and Native-American applicants.

The goal is to make Princeton more attractive to nonwhites. Many minority students, however, feel that the university falls short in such efforts. "The perceived norm is the legacy child," admits Janina Montero, dean of student life. "A fair number [of minority students] see Princeton as inhospitable rather than hostile." As junior Denise Doig '99, who is black, puts it, "People here are indifferent to my identity. I feel like I'm invisible on this campus. People don't see you."

Because many minority students feel alienated, self-segregation at Princeton remains widespread. But racial segregation resists institutional efforts to combat it because it is not, at heart, an institutional problem. The highest hurdles to cross-cultural encounter are a product of Princeton's insular and fragmented social fabric, which is beyond the purview of the administration.

Part of the problem is that campus social life revolves around the alcohol culture of the eating clubs. Prospect Avenue's drunken frat-boy atmosphere is often foreign to students of color. "Drinking is not the center of [black students'] activities," says Doig, the president of the Organization of Black Unity (OBU). Minority students who do attempt to take part in the club scene may find themselves treated differently -- for example, being stopped at the door for identification, while whites are waved past. And some of those few minority students who bicker claim they still face prejudice once they join a club. Says Vanessa Tyson '98, a former member of Cottage Club who is now an independent, "I have more respect for the kitchen workers in Cottage than I have for most of the members there."

Drinking isn't the only problem. For some minority students (not to mention many majority students) the eating clubs evoke too much of the old stereotype of Princeton as a place of privilege and prejudice. "From what I understand," says TWC director Heddye Ducree, "the eating clubs represent something of an 'Old South' mentality."

Ducree echoes a perception of eating clubs that is widely held among minority students: in their view, the clubs are places where only whites can feel truly comfortable. Members of clubs are likely to disagree. It's true that the clubs are not institutionally racist, and every club has at least a few nonwhite members. But consider how the clubs must look to those on the outside: well-kept mansions where affluent white kids are served by mostly black and Hispanic kitchen workers. Club events of questionable taste, such as "Forties and Eightball Night" at Cap and Gown -- at which the club's mostly white members mock black stereotypes by wearing baggy jeans and bandannas, playing gangsta rap, and drinking malt liquor -- don't help.


Partly because of minority perceptions, the clubs tend to be even more homogenous than Princeton as a whole. While about 80 percent of the Class of 1999 joined an eating club last spring, fewer than 40 percent of black and Latino students did so. Asian students are only slightly more likely to join; you can tally the minority memberships of a few clubs on one hand. Instead of joining a club, many minority juniors and seniors elect to remain in the residential colleges or draw into Spelman Hall, a dormitory with cooking facilities.

On the other side of this issue are the approximately 40 student organizations that cater to ethnic and racial groups. There is a student organization for almost every ethnic group or racial minority at Princeton -- and sometimes more than one. An ethnic Thai, for instance, can join the Thai-American Students Organization, the Thai-American Students Association, the Southeast Asia Society, or the Asian-American Student Association.

Most such groups say they exist to promote awareness or celebrate a given culture or heritage. Undoubtedly, many provide a place where their members can feel at home with others of similar backgrounds. Efforts by these organizations to reach out to the larger community, however, are hampered by a belief among majority students that they aren't welcome. Even the Third World Center, which has made significant gains in providing a neutral setting for cross-cultural contact, experiences this problem. "Majority students tend to view these programs as having a principal function not related to them," says Montero. "Many sense that if they took a more affirmative approach to these institutions they would not be welcome." Any organization that exists to affirm a specific identity is by nature exclusive, and ill-equipped to provide a bridge between cultures.
Some ethnic organizations are markedly segregationist. Black sororities on campus have initiation rituals that are explicitly intended to isolate pledges. According to one sorority member, "during your pledge period, you're only allowed to speak to other line sisters and sisters in the sorority. Pledges have to stick together, and have a partner at all times except for classes. It's supposed to put you back into slavery, to teach you discipline and obedience. The idea behind it is that only your sisters, people who have gone through it, will be able to understand you." Although not a fraternity, Chicano Caucus runs less severe initiation ceremonies for Latino students, and holds a separate graduation ceremony at the end of the year.

The resulting physical and psychological isolation only aggravates segregation, a concern to which some organizations have responded by trying to make their organizations more inclusive. Doig says that in the past, the OBU "was mainly a social organization for black students. This year we're trying to involve the whole campus, and participate in an umbrella organization to coordinate activities." Accion Puertorrequena y Amigos sponsors salsa parties and study breaks, open to all. There is also the Multi-Ethnic Student Alliance, an organization that, in the words of cofounder Vanessa Tyson, aims "not only to strengthen the minority community as a whole but to increase interaction between all groups." Yet the question remains: how do you diversify Princeton's social landscape while providing support for students of color? Umbrella organizations can only do so much.

De facto segregation exists because so many of the campus's social boundaries follow racial lines -- whether those lines are drawn explicitly, as with some ethnic organizations, or implicitly, as in the case of the eating clubs. Minority students say majority students aren't interested in making them feel like a part of Princeton, and majority students argue that minority students are wrong about the clubs. But ethnic organizations and eating clubs contribute to segregation in essentially the same way, by basing social interaction on a shared cultural background. Neither setting is capable of providing neutral space, a prerequisite for true social integration.


The problem has no quick fix. Ultimately, bridging Princeton's racial divides depends on the curiosity and courage of individuals. Institutional efforts, whether by the administration or by minority organizations seeking to reach out to the larger community, can accomplish little unless we all do our part. Minority students must have the patience to listen to someone put their foot in their mouth, while majority students need to recognize how they, too, benefit from a heterogeneous social fabric. We should avoid taking refuge in any cultural identity. Segregation -- the quickest killer of cross-cultural contact -- threatens the uni-versity's pedagogical promise, undermines the ideal of a liberal education, and makes the Princeton experience that much more narrow.

Nicholas Confessore '98, a politics major from New York City, is a contributing editor of the Nassau Weekly.