Tonight is the first night of Passover, and I’m with the Hirschhorn family in Philadelphia. My mother’s brother, Larry, is an alumnus of Brandeis University; he now works as a high-priced business consultant here in Philly. I’m spending a few nights here before moving onto New York with Liza. My cousin Dan Hirschhorn, Larry’s son, is also an alumnus of this fine institution.
Unlike Larry, who went here in the 1960s, Dan graduated just last year. In his junior year, he was the editor-in-chief of the Newspaper of Record at Brandeis University, The Justice.
At dinner tonight, we discussed, at length, Brandeis politics and future careers. He mentioned in passing that while at The Justice he did a story on race relations at Brandeis that had gotten him fascinated in the issue of discrimination. I decided to snoop through The Justice‘s records to see what I could find.
The thesis of the set of articles is that Brandeis’ institutions designed to promote diversity and inclusivity are partly responsible – along with racism – for the segregation and racial tensions at the University.
Dan argues that as minority students feel unwelcome by the majority white community at Brandeis, they turn to people who have similar experiences in institutions like the Intercultural Center, the Posse program and TYP. It creates an environment of self-segregation.
“‘The way our campus is, people that are not of the majority feel like they need to find their own community because they don’t fit in,’ said Christina Khemraj ’09, the Student Union’s senator for racial-minority students.”“Like many racial minorities, David largely sticks with other minorities. Not that he wanted it that way, he said. As a former president of the Brandeis Black Students Organization, he tried reaching out to other student groups made up of his white peers. But those attempts, he said, were largely spurned.”
“Adriani Leon ’08 considered herself very talkative growing up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. But she felt the subtle looks from white students that many minorities describe-“What are you doing here?” is how she interpreted them-and being the only student of color in a classroom full of “private school kids” made raising her hand out of the question.”
Despite the feelings of many of my white friends, self-segregation is a two-fold problem. It’s not just that minorities aren’t hanging out with white kids; it’s also that white kids, for the most part, aren’t making a strong attempt to reach out. The article mentions this in a discussion over why events hosted by the Intercultural Center tend to be attended almost entirely by students of color.
Though the reasons that white students give for not attending such events vary-busy scheduling is the most common-some white students avoid the events for the very same reasons that minority students avoid clubs that are predominantly white: Just like no one wants to be the only black person at a club meeting, no one wants to be the only white student at an ICC event.
“I don’t really know anyone” in those groups, said one white student who did not want to be identified, explaining why she never goes to ICC events.
But on deeper probing, these complaints seem to be a symptom of a greater fear on the part of minority students that their community is going largely unacknowledged.
And hearing that white students don’t attend events because they feel uncomfortable doesn’t leave everyone satisfied.
“That you have a choice is evidence of your privilege,” Martinez said of white students. “I walked around this campus being uncomfortable for three years, and I never had a choice. Because you have that choice, that choice reflects privilege, and I think privilege is another word for responsibility.”
The point made by Claudia Martinez ‘07 in this last paragraph is really excellent. Being a racial minority in America means you have to be ingrained in white culture. You might live in an all black community, or everyone you know might speak Spanish, but you’re still going to be exposed to idea of ‘whiteness’ as ‘the norm’ (for more information, see Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack). However, white people who grow in all-white communities might never be exposed to other cultures in a way that will truly give them an appreciation of ‘the other.’ To these white people, being black, or being Latino, will always be considered ‘not normal.’ Martinez sees this, and argues that it is the responsibility of white students to reach out and expand their world-view, because minorities are already forced to do that by society.
Of course the situation at Brandeis is radically different than any other college. The reality is that Brandeis is a school where the majority of the student body is Jewish. In the article, Rabbi Allan Lehmann, the former Jewish chaplain at Brandeis, addressed this issue:
“For many people, Brandeis University is the most Jewish place they’ve ever been. People who are used to living as a minority, who find themselves in a majority, it may not be easy or obvious to figure out what kind of adjustments to make.”
For years Jews never fully integrated in with the white power structure in America. Like the Irish, the Polish and the Italians, Jews faced extreme discrimination in America; in fact, that’s why Brandeis was created. While I’m not suggesting that anti-Semitism no longer a problem in America, the reality is that since World War II, white Jews have been treated as ‘white’ by the media and by government policy. (ed. – see Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. ~Loki) When suburbs were constructed across America in the post-war era, Jews were allowed to move in, blacks were not. Here at Brandeis we see the grandchildren of the generation that moved into suburbia. They come from suburbs where Jews really do identify themselves as a minority, because they are the most visible group around that is not in the majority. These kids come to Brandeis because they want to experience being around people like them, and have the privilege of being in the majority. Dan talks about this a bit in the article:
Many Jewish students come to Brandeis, at least in part, precisely because they want to be around others like them who share their religious and cultural experiences. That, some say, sets the se for a campus more segregated than one with a heterogeneous population of white students.
And, it seems, any attempt to make white Jewish students more cognizant of the minority population on campus is complicated by the fact that they rarely think of themselves as a majority.
Essentially, many of the students coming here to Brandeis come because they want to be with people like them, and not with people who are different. That’s not to say that its necessarily a bad thing, certainly that was one of the reasons why I chose Brandeis. I think many Jewish kids experience anti-Semitism and like the idea of coming to a place like Brandeis so they can avoid it (mostly). Much in the same way that people who experience racism at Brandeis go to the Intercultural Center to avoid it.
The [Intercultural] Center lies in East residence quad, which is something of a deep basin on Brandeis’ hilly campus. The building’s physical isolation underscores its potential to further separate students of color from the greater campus.
But that isolation also can hide how the ICC and other resources serve as invaluable beacons of peer support for minorities.
The ICC is essentially a meeting place for the many cultural clubs under its umbrella. With the support of each other and an administrative director, the clubs provide programming to educate one another and the greater campus about the different cultures at Brandeis. But psychologically, it can be much more than that: As one Indian student described it, it is “a safe haven.”
Interestingly enough, Hirschhorn notes that Brandeis is actually one of the most successful schools at bridging the academic gap between students of color and white students:
…84 percent of [racial minorities at Brandeis] graduate within six years… The University’s overall six-year graduation rate is just over 88 percent, making for less than a 5-percent gap between minorities and the greater campus. In contrast, the graduation rate for minority students at Tufts University is almost 10 percent lower than that of its general student population…
He suggests that one of the main reasons for Brandeis’ success comes from the large variety of programs it has to promote success among minorities; programs like the Transitional Year Program, the Posse Program, and of course, the ICC:
Take Posse, for example. A central purpose of the program is to create a small group of friends who know they can depend on one another, and every year, entering Posse scholars form what seems, at least from an outsider’s perspective, to be a very close-knit clique. It is precisely that exclusivity that led several scholars to describe the comfort they draw from their “posse.”
“If I didn’t have Posse freshman year, it would have been rough,” said Engy Lamour ’07, a scholar from Haiti who grew up in Brooklyn. “I don’t know if I would have made it.”
Which of course brings us back to self-segregation.
In my experience, white students tend to think that self-segregation is primarily the ‘fault’ of the minority students who ‘just won’t make friends with white people.’ They refuse to think of their own shortcomings and their failure to make friends with people from entirely different backgrounds (and maybe they’re prepared to use the ‘some of my best friends’ line). Rarely do we ask the question ‘why are all the white kids sitting together?’ (For more information, see Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria)
As a white Jew, I don’t know what to do about it. Most of my friends are white, most of the clubs I’m involved with have mostly white membership, and I don’t go to many cultural events on campus. There’s a part of me that feels guilty for this, but I need motivation to accept my responsibility as someone who wants to actively fight racism.
My cousin’s article provides an interesting look into the racial dynamics at Brandeis. It ultimately suggests that despite Brandeis’ successes at bridging the academic gap between white students and students of color, it has come at the expense of diversity and integration.
What can Brandeis, and the students of Brandeis, do to maintain the academic success of racial minorities, while simultaneously improving the racial dynamics in the dorms and dining halls?