Back in the idyllic days of my youth—Fall Quarter—I was skipping about my merry Freshman way when my curious eye landed upon a striking editorial. It revealed to me that those who run Student Housing were sexists of the highest degree! They’ve secretly, maliciously fixed random housing assignments, such that every roomer’s roommate is of the same sex, boys with boys, girls with girls! Segregation! Sexism! Maoist China, all over again!
The article I read as a doe-eyed fall-quarter freshman presented two interlocking ideas: taking sex into account when making decisions is sexist, and anything sexist is wrong and should be discouraged. There’s some room for dispute there. Is taking sex into consideration always sexist? What if you’re marketing underwear? What if you’re doing surgery? I think we can agree that, for something to be the kind of “sexist” that we don’t like, there has to be evidence of harmful discrimination.
Is the current system discriminatory? (With regards to sex—the other weird stuff that housing does is not pertinent to the issue at hand.) If, by being placed with someone of your own sex, you were subjected to a worse experience than would otherwise be the case, you have sexism. If the boys floor were haunted, or the girls floor were flooded with shark-infested water, that would be sexist. But this is not the case, there is no substantial difference between the housing available to men and the housing available to women.
Furthermore, there are problems with gender-blind housing that make it a dangerous program for the Student Housing department to adopt. It is a cold, hard fact of life that, for the most part (we’ll talk about the other part later), men and women are attracted to each other. The naïve can dream of pure, intellectual Platonic relationships, where mutual attraction is swept under the rug, but friendships such as these are difficult when living together. Instead, it would be a hornet’s nest of anxiety and emotional glue, damaging to academic and psychological health. Not in all cases, but the added friction would make it worse than standard-issue sexist housing.
But attraction is not universal. Some boys are attracted to boys, and some girls are attracted to girls. If attraction to one’s roommate is a bad thing, gender-blind housing would serve them well.
What’s more, the effect of rooming with someone that you were attracted would be less pronounced if you had been living in that context most of your life.
“Gender-blind” housing seems geared at tearing down social mores, however, social mores are really handy when it comes to getting along with people around you. You never know if you’re going to like your roommate, and blindly leaping in to an unfamiliar context of living with someone you have never met (or even someone you know well), though it may lead to positive experiences of understanding and mutual respect, will more often than not result in more anxiety, more pressure, and a worse experience with living arrangements. The current system may be inconsistent in allowing same-sex couples to live together, but the price of consistency, chaos and confusion among the 90% of the population that is heterosexual, may be too high to bear.
But let’s pull back from this argument a bit, and explore the issues that come up when ‘ism’s are recklessly applied to housing experiences. I think you know what I’m talking about. That’s right. Botulism—wait, no. Sorry. Racism, a charge often leveled at ethnic them dorms. Some people pride themselves on being “color-blind”, on being completely oblivious to racial differences. I myself am color-blind. If you look around, you’ll notice that I don’t mention any specific races in my editorial. That’s because I don’t know how to spell them. I see a bunch of blank spaces in textbooks and pamphlets where, people tell me, ‘race’ is mentioned. I’m also color-deaf, so talking about it doesn’t really help.
But simply considering race does not make ethnic theme dorms a bad thing. Whether we like it or not, race is still an issue in our world, and we can’t be blind to it. Fostering ethnic communities is not necessarily a racist activity, and there is much that is good that results from it. Blanket condemnations with accusations of racism are bad because they are charged, simplistic, and unhelpful. While there may be troubling instances of exclusion in ethnic theme dorms, debate about their existence must consider the good they bring—the community provided to students who may not feel comfortable in, or may just want something different than, a standard dorm.
Now that we have come to the end of our article, let’s soothe our wounds and say our sorries. It’s been a bumpy ride. I shouldn’t have said that thing I did about the sharks; I know how you feel about them. No, no… most people skip the middle paragraphs, they tend to be the boring ones.
What? You didn’t like it? You filthy racist.