Looking beyond skin color to the individual beneath

As a transfer student who is now in his second and final year at Grinnell, observing the social climate here has been quite an intriguing experience to say the least. Let’s hearken back to this year for one of the many examples of my observations which in turn will be a particular focus of this piece.

One random day, as I walked this prospie, we’ll call this kid “Prospie X,” through the main dining hall while introducing the student to a number of my acquaintances and friends, he stopped and asked me, “Que, why are all the Black kids sitting together?”, in a sort of jestful but naïve manner. My response: “Prospie X, if you want to ask why are the Black kids sitting together, you probably should ask why are all the white kids sitting together, why are the Korean kids sitting together, and even why all the Chinese kids are sitting together.” Prospie X seemed a little perplexed and taken aback by my quick response. “I never really thought about it like that,” he stated.

Well, this column isn’t about Prospie X’s choice to not come to Grinnell. You see, Prospie X’s comment was not the first time I had heard this “issue” come up. I myself have had a few candid conversations with people from various backgrounds and ethnicities all on this topic of so-called “dining hall segregation.” As I understand, it was even a subject of discussion at last year’s Posse Retreat, entitled “Do we still need to talk about race?” If you still don’t believe me that this is a topic of discussion at Grinnell, you might talk to a recent graduate and Anthropology major, who wrote a senior thesis project titled “Landscapes of Affect Exploring the Concept of Safe Space and Identity Formation at Grinnell College.” The project discusses self-segregation including how one interviewee highlighted the segregation that occurs inside the dining hall and stated that non-white and international students regularly eat their meals in the “Intimate Dining” section in the back area of the dining hall.

It seems a number of individuals are fixed on this idea of racially segregation, and while I can’t completely address this topic I would like to unpack the idea in order to possibly bring a different perspective to the topic. My first concern is of course viewing groups of people who may share the same ethnicity as homogenous. When an individual views a table and notes that the group of people sitting together “seems” to be all the same ethnicity, they are simplifying a group. This is very dangerous for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that you are denying the multiplicity and disjointedness in experiences that make group categories problematic to begin with. To gloss this over because of similar physical appearances is a mistake. It is even a bigger mistake to point out groups because of their numerical representation. In an implicit sense, there are assumptions made that won’t hold true.

I myself, who identify as a person of color, can honestly state that despite sitting at a table composed mainly of people of color, we (people of color) could not be more different from each other in our geography, socio-economic backgrounds, and upbringing. There are so many issues at play, and one simple example is geography. There are very few students here from the South and my own upbringing can be very different from the students of color who have lived in California or New York.

I want my point to be clear. Beyond what meaning you attach to skin color, there are so many more social forces and experience factors at work. At Grinnell, as one first-year told me, “here at Grinnell we accept culture, but we don’t do enough to celebrate it.” I think this statement rings true especially when individuals construct culture along “racial” lines, even when it is obviously problematic and there is a multiplicity and constructivist framework to identity.

People may sit at a table with people who share similar experiences as their own. Diluting the conversations and seating choices down to a racial frame is a very dangerous and distorted misconception to hold. Don’t deny the breadth of diversity in lives and backgrounds of minority peoples. Consider the variance that exists within any individual’s experience. Then maybe some will not be so quick to jump to narrow-minded assumptions when giving meaning to their visual observance. Lastly, I would also like to make myself available for constructive conversation concerning any and or all of the topics and views I discussed in this column, just hit me up or come to Tea Time! Peace and love always.