"Voluntary Segregation:" It's Not So Simple

By Starling, Kelly | Diversity Employers, February 1995 | Go to article overview

"Voluntary Segregation:" It's Not So Simple


Starling, Kelly, Diversity Employers


As a student at Syracuse University, I have faced many instances of racism and ignorance. In one of my classes, we read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and the teacher asked for comments. No one answered her request. Instead, everyone looked at me, the only Black student in the room. Since it was a book by an African-American author, they assumed I had some special insight. I was the telescope on the Black experience for students and professors who viewed the world through a European lens.

It angered me that students could spout names like Ishmael from Moby Dick and Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, but did not know of Celie from The Color Purple or Blake from Martin Delany's novel of the same name. To be considered educated, I had to know the names of White literary figures, but White students did not have to know about Black literature.

When I entered other English classes and saw Black students, I smiled and sat next to them. I didn't always know them, but I immediately felt supported and understood. Their mere presence gave me strength and reassurance. With them beside me, I no longer stood alone.

Similar feelings lead Black college students across the nation to sit next to each other in class, engage in their own activities, and live in common housing. Some journalists and scholars have labeled this behavior "voluntary segregation." But that term provides a simple analysis of a complex problem. When Black students group together, it is not only a choice to remain apart, but a response to the many slights they face through campus-wide oppression.

Jennifer Braxton, 21, a senior from Philadelphia, also confronts racism in her classes. "My professor knows many of the White students by name and will call on them in class, she says. "I can have my hand up for five minutes or longer and when he finally calls on me, he says, 'OK, you in the back, what do you have to say.' Even though he addresses White students by their name, I become 'you.' I have no name, no voice and no opinion. I become the ... invisible student at Syracuse University."

Many students share this feeling of being silenced and devalued in the classroom. As a Black Latina woman, Veronica Rosario, a 22-year-old graduate student from Brooklyn, echoes this sentiment.

"I am in the Newhouse School [of Public Communications] and my professor made an announcement about a forum on the 'Changing Face of the Media.' When he mentioned one of the panelists, who had a Spanish-sounding name, one of the students burst out laughing. It's still foreign for White students to hear about people with different-sounding names and different-colored skin in positions of authority. It made me feel disrespected and mad ..."

This type of ignorance is a common aspect of attending a predominantly White university. People come to college from all different backgrounds and many bring their biases with them. James Carter, a junior, says he can never escape the feeling of being judged on the basis of his race.

"I can't go into classes and not think about it. Out of five classes, I am the only Black student in three of them." Carter says, "There is a greater weight on my shoulders. You feel like you're representative of Black students everywhere. I don't have anything to prove to them, but I know if I don't perform well it will reinforce their stereotypes about Black students."

When Black students sit near one another, they gain moral support and understanding in an atmosphere where Black culture is still not appreciated and valued. But the media do not document this fact. Instead they focus on how Black students separate themselves inside and outside class. Dinesh D'Souza, author of Illiberal Education, writes that the "separatist minority organizations [exist] on virtually every college campus." But Carter says that Black students need these organizations so they can have a place to be themselves.

"I look for an environment where I don't have to worry about breaking down stereotypes," he says.

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