Ethnic Dorms: A Double-Edged Sword

It’s unexpected, but inevitable. A recurring anachronism every year in Lakeside Dining: segregated seating. In the main hall, you could draw a line separating a large body of black students from tables of mixed students.

Although on the surface, this split may seem racial, in fact dining is not split black and white. On one side of the divide are the West Lag dorms, and on the other side is Ujamaa, the African-themed dorm (one of Stanford’s four ethnic themed houses). Each sits on its own side, simply as a matter of convenience.

The debate on the cultural themed dorms is nothing new at Stanford. One side points to the hypocrisy of a university that prides itself on diversity but separates students based on ethnic background, creating islands of culture that limit cross cultural interaction on campus as a whole. The other side emphasizes the cross-cultural experiences within the dorms themselves, pointing out that these houses offer places on campus for these backgrounds to thrive, provide a necessary comfort zone for some incoming minority students, and that a certain percentage of their populations come from outside the ethnic background of the houses.

The truth–and the challenge–lies somewhere in between. Culture and integration exist in a precarious balance. The very systems that lead to cultural preservation and development hinder integration. In a fully integrated dorm system, where each dorm had exactly the same racial makeup as Stanford as a whole, it would be difficult for any single cultural group to thrive. This would be a dilution. There would still be some cross cultural interaction in the daily lives of students in the context of academics and other activities, but they would hardly be the celebrations we see coming from our ethnic theme dorms. The world described in John Lennon’s “Imagine” always seemed quite bland to me.

On the other hand, maintaining these centers of cultural heritage and pride comes at a price. There are walls around our ethnic communities. Although the culture within them may be thriving, that culture is hidden from other students. And to create these dorms, other dorms must become less diverse. Having 15% of black freshman, 7% of Asian freshman, 10% of Native American students, and 15% of Chicano and Latino freshman live in a separate dorm denies the significant benefits of a diverse residence to the rest of the Stanford community.

The basic social unit of Stanford is the freshman dorm. Hours of programming and social interaction go into creating and solidifying the bonds in each dorm. These dorms then subdivide into draw groups, which then carry that initial social coding through the remaining years. A change to the demographics of freshman dorms affects every other campus residence at Stanford. A less diverse freshman crew leads to a less diverse group of friends through all four years.

In short, the scales are too weighted on the side of the culture. We are focusing too much on preserving culture and too little on creating a thoroughly diverse campus, where cross-cultural interaction is the norm. We need to correct this.

First, we must recognize that the benefits of the ethnic themed dorms come at the expense of diversity in the rest of housing. These dorms are touted by the University for their successes, but this analysis overlooks the negative impact on all cultural groups at Stanford.

This starts at the student level. If we want a diverse campus, we have to make it If you notice a certain homogeny within your dorm or group of friends, go out of your way to expand your borders. If you don’t live in a theme house, go visit your friend living in one. If you live in a theme house, spend time in a cultural center that is not your own. Choose a different seat at lunch. Take your food and a small group of two or three friends and sit at the far side of the dining hall. Donner with Zapata, Rinc with Okada, and West Lag with Ujamaa. (Muwekma with Columbae?) Don’t expect any instant cultural display or force the issue. Go in, make friends, talk about IHUM, and in their own time matters of background and identity will come up.

Student action is only the beginning, however. Changes should be made at a dorm and university level. RAs can incorporate more cross-dorm programming between ethnic theme houses and their neighbors. Imagine the experiences that could come from a “Crossing the Line” event focusing on the two groups’ different identities and background. A joint ski trip would allow new groups of friends to form. (After writing this article, I discovered that the theme dorms had a joint barbecue last Thursday. This is a great step and hopefully the first of many such programs.)

The University itself needs to examine housing policy for ethnic theme dorms and consider how to increase diversity both within the ethnic theme dorms and in the rest of campus residences. One admittedly drastic change would be to disallow freshman from living in ethnic houses. Those who want that experience could then choose it after their first year. A more moderate recommendation would be to tweak the proportions of minority representation in each ethnic theme dorm or even just moderate the percentage of the freshman in the theme dorms of that minority.

With these changes, some of that diversity we’ve been hearing about so much about may just seep beyond the walls of the themed dorms that nourish it to the rest of Stanford.

Joe Gettinger ’11 is a Mechanical Engineering major. Email him at joegett@stanford.edu.

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