Are Ethnic Dorms Insensitive?


Since its inception, the Review has vehemently opposed ethnic housing primarily on the basis that it supports racial separatism. Not, however, until listening to my peers’ diverse views on the issue in the ResEd program “Crossing the Line” did I begin to apprehend how truly flawed and prejudiced ethnic housing is.

While ethnic housing may help some minorities express their identities and learn about their cultures, it also propagates pseudo-culture. For example, many ethnic houses rely predominantly on the superficial aspect of food to share culture. I say “superficial” because many of the dishes served are Americanized and only ethnic in name. For example, Asians often complain that Wilbur’s Asian cuisine is merely Stanford’s rendition of Panda Express. Stern’s idea of Mexican food is a taco bar, some kind of beans, and chips with salsa.

Furthermore, many films featured by the ethnic houses perpetuate stereotypes of a “marginalized minority.” Blacks appear as enslaved or impoverished; Mexicans as ignorant or unassimilated; Asians as reclusive and inarticulate. In how many featured films do blacks play scientists or Asians social butterflies? Most films that ethnic houses choose to feature are hackneyed stories about the difficulties of overcoming prejudice and poverty. While these tales can be inspiring, event planners neglect that these are not the obstacles most minorities at Stanford face. Most minorities at Stanford have already overcome such obstacles and now confront new ones, such as how to assimilate into a diverse community while maintaining cultural authenticity. Most films and guest lecturers the houses present do not reflect the struggles of most Stanford students; they reflect the struggles of stereotyped minorities.

Moreover, ethnic houses often isolate students who do not fit such stereotypes – those who have not battled poverty, prejudice, or oppression. What cultural values does a wealthy black who attended prep schools share with an inner-city black? What does a South African have in common with either besides skin color? Not much besides that all three get preference into the Ujamaa dorm. Ethnic housing oversimplifies the issue of race. It doesn’t take into account students’ origins or the fact that most students are not “pure-bloods.” Many are of mixed race: a quarter of this, an eighth of that, a sixteenth of this. But here lies the paradox: If a student is one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, is he white or black? According to the university’s admissions and housing policies, he is black. If a student is one-eighth white and seven-eighths black, is he white or black? Likewise, black. No wonder many minorities feel confused about their identities.

Amalgamating students of the same race but of different nationalities only intensifies this confusion. For example, the Latino/Chicano house Casa Zapata, which focuses primarily on Mexican culture, often alienates other Latino groups like Puerto Ricans and South Americans. To suggest that Puerto Ricans, Argentineans, and Mexicans can all be incorporated into Casa Zapata is just as preposterous as suggesting that Australians, Irish, and Scottish could be integrated into an “English” house. But while a common language at least unites Latinos, there is no common language to unite Asians who are all clumped together in Okada. For this reason, amalgamating Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese is even more insensitive of deep-seated cultural differences than amalgamating all Latinos.

Not only are ethnic houses culturally insensitive, but they also promote a white inferiority complex. Without minority status, many students feel they have nothing to add to campus diversity. Some lament the dearth of language and cultural theme houses. For example, there are currently no Irish, English, or Scottish houses for those who wish to explore their so-called “WASP” heritage. Neither is there a “Tejano” house for students who have deep-seated ties to Texas, which like any sovereign country has a distinct culture and history.

This also begs the question of why there are no religiously or politically themed houses to allow students to express their beliefs. Generally, people with the same religious and political ideology share more similar values than those of the same race. For example, a black Muslim probably has more in common with a middle-eastern Muslim than with a black Baptist.

Likewise, a Hispanic conservative probably has more in common with a white conservative than with a Hispanic liberal. So why not form Jewish and Islamic houses or liberal and conservative houses?

Despite Stanford’s huge endowment, ResEd cannot possibly create a separate house for every cultural or ethnic group. If anything, the difficulty of representing all groups demonstrates the absurdity of the whole concept of housing based on certain identities. The only way to achieve racial harmony and avoid discriminating is by eliminating these houses altogether.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review