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viewpoint

Poor structures lead to poor race relations

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In light of recent events on campus that have led to discussions on race relations, at Notre Dame, as well as insights I have gained this semester in my anthropology class, I would like to visit this topic again from a slightly different vantage point.

Although the University has made numerous efforts in recent years to increase its percentage of minority students as well as to create a sense of cultural community for them on campus, these efforts reap a series of adverse effects. Students are so often quick to blame other students and their perceived cultural ignorance for the poor race relations at this University. Though this may be true in some respects, I argue that programs and institutions in place by the University itself inadvertently promote these negative race relations, if not incite them. Programs such as minority retreats for incoming freshmen often set the stage for minority students experiencing exclusion and marginalization.

At the beginning of each school year, the University sponsors retreats for freshman students of various minority groups, specifically the African-American Freshman Retreat (The Plunge), Latino Freshman Retreat and Asian/Asian-American Freshman Retreat. The retreats present various positive opportunities — to make new friends with people that share a common characteristic, to bond over shared culture and experiences and to keep in touch with one’s roots. Minority students often praise the freshman retreats as wonderful reflective and social opportunities that connect them with their closest friends and help define their Notre Dame experience.

However, the fact that these retreats are firmly set apart from the “regular” Freshman Retreat “others” freshmen minority students from the beginning of their college experience. The students are defined primarily as students of color before they are defined as simply students. On the retreats, freshmen are also often introduced to the black, Latino and Asian social circles on campus. As the retreats take place in early September, only a few weeks into the school year, this occurs before most freshmen have firmly established other friendships and social circles.

By separating students by race so early on, the retreats encourage minority students to create their own social communities separate from that of the University at large. The trend and the social culture at Notre Dame, therefore, has become an unhealthy one in which a large percentage of minority students associate primarily with other students of their minority group. Each minority group has its own academic organizations and clubs as well as its own party houses and social events in which mostly only members of their group participate.

Cultural solidarity and organizations that support these principles are absolutely necessary at any university. However, institutions at Notre Dame seem to take a negative direction, promoting cultural exclusion in the social sphere.

Social separation of students by race creates a culture of symbolic violence, in which the norm and common understanding becomes that minority students, to a certain extent, are not and should not be as socially integrated into the University culture at large as Caucasian students are. This thought process normalizes the exclusion of minority students and makes any sort of alienation or discrimination against them almost invisible, since it is so ingrained in the culture. Freshmen minority retreats are only one example of a social structure that, while having various positive aspects and good intentions, contributes to a culture that is negative overall.

Common at Notre Dame is the isolation of minority communities and their creating of a counter-culture to the “mainstream” that characterizes the rest of the University. Though minority students often describe these communities as extremely supportive and enjoyable, it is troublesome that the University creates a culture in which minority students must find refuge from the rest of campus. Minority students are encouraged to exclude themselves socially and the rest of the campus, in turn, excludes them. This route is too often taken over the route of social integration among all races, in which people are treated as multi-faceted individuals and encouraged to share their experiences with everyone in a meaningful way.

The exclusion of minority communities from mainstream campus social life contributes to the sense of ignorance that many minority students believe Caucasian students possess towards minorities and the issues that are important to them. Since many minority students do not socially interact on a significant level with Caucasian students, an “us vs. them” mentality arises in which minority students feel misunderstood, ignored and politically targeted. Caucasian students have no incentive or desire to attend minority events because they may not be familiar with the students involved or have knowledge of the issues at hand, and do not wish to learn more.

The social structures at work at Notre Dame, one of which is the set-up of freshman minority retreats, result in the treatment of minority students as social outsiders. Notre Dame programs encourage them to exclude themselves from a full campus social life, casting them off and defining them by their race alone. This kind of enclave culture, unfortunately, only leads to racial tension and lack of communication about it on campus, while the potential of minority students to flourish at the University is stifled.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Bianca Almada

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  • Jskdndiujsldkjdjs

    “Since many minority students do not socially interact on a significant level with Caucasian students,…”

    Uh, why can’t we flip that sentence so it doesn’t sound like it’s blaming minority students for the problem.

    • mnr

      Her whole point in the article was to examine the issue from a different perspective. Pretty much every single viewpoint in the past has cast the burden (or the blame, as you put it) of the problem squarely on the shoulders of Caucasians on campus.

      Almada, in this particularly humble letter, is stepping away from that sort of blaming. She explicitly attributes an “us-vs-them” mentality as one of the leading reasons for the strained culture here on campus. So instead of launching into the tired old “blame the Caucasians” rhetoric, she digs deeper and finds further reasons for racial tension, imbedded in the way the University shapes our first moments at the school as freshman.

      Great article.

      • Marie

        So instead of blame the caucasian it’s blame racist retreats? The article is humble and well-written, but it is also simplistic.

        • Matt

          I think the author is trying to get back to the poor structure argument. Let’s be real–if you met a great group of people and made friends with them on some trip, do you think you’ll be out looking for more friends when you get back? Not likely, you’ll be spending time with your new BFF’s. Retreats aren’t racist, but the exclusivity of them is basically deciding who minorities’ friends will be.

  • Marie

    Exactly. Why blame minority students for not interacting with whites? Two important things. First, it is problematic to talk about students simply being identified as “students” here. That suggests some kind of colorblindness, which entails some normative, white post-racial situation. As if minority students are supposed to give up a part of their identity to “assimilate” to ND. Secondly, it is not clear to me that these retreats automatically segregate students. For one thing, many minority students will tell you that it can be difficult to find acceptance outside their minority group, even without ever attending these retreats. Students from different racial and ethnic groups already tend to seek each other out for solidarity and a sense of home. Many students here (both white and non-white) come from relatively sheltered and privileged backgrounds, not all of them are willing to venture outside what they know.

    • Johnny Whichard

      Then what is your solution?

  • Concerned student

    You really missed the mark with this viewpoint.

  • Student

    As a minority student that is in different clubs, you should know that none of these clubs are exclusive. It is completely up to every individual to attend events or join. The National Association of Black Accountants chapter has more Asians than blacks. You include no personal testimony or quotes. You also don’t cite any resources to support your opinions. Which leave this article exactly what it is one person’s opinion. I happen to disagree wholeheartedly but your opinion is your own. I will say that while the social structure at Notre Dame has never been the most inclusive you can be a part of any social circle you wish to be. Just be yourself if they are not mature enough to recognize and appreciate differences that is the fault of others no matter the race, ethnicity, or background of a person.

  • Student

    I arrived as a minority freshman with no affiliation with any of these cultural clubs and I haven’t attended any of these events or retreats ever. However, I felt the most marginalized and excluded during the regular Frosh-O. I had never been so conscious of my race before that. Also, during that time, I was hanging out with many other Caucasian students from my dorm and I had been hanging out with Caucasian students most of my life. Culturally, I identify much more with these “Caucasian students”(the term is ridiculous because I’m sure they are all still from different background) than my own race. I know that many minority students, especially female minority students, felt the same way. And I really cannot think of anything else to blame that other than the poor race relations here.
    I can see why someone would say that the cultural clubs and their retreats and such are exclusive. However, these clubs are open to everyone and in fact, there are many Caucasian or students from other races/cultures that join these clubs.
    Also it says that the minority students don’t interact with the Caucasian students so they don’t feel comfortable joining the minority groups. I also can see that’s probably true in some cases but not all cases. I am sure the minority student is most likely going to room with a Caucasian student, and mostly rooming near other Caucasians in the dorm. Just in that condition, there is a plenty of time for interaction and getting to know each other.
    I guess it could be a little different for some minority that are actually international students. Sometimes, they could feel more comfortable around people of their own culture and might not be as comfortable speaking English (Obviously, they still are competent in speaking English enough to take classes here). However, I think that is a totally different issue of culture and language, not about races. Some just do not have much experience interacting with Americans. But I also know that many international students are not like that and most of these students are also open to being friends with other races.

  • student

    I arrived as a minority freshman with no affiliation with any of these
    cultural clubs and I haven’t attended any of these events or retreats
    ever. However, I felt the most marginalized and excluded during the
    regular Frosh-O. I had never been so conscious of my race before that.
    Also, during that time, I was hanging out with many other Caucasian
    students from my dorm and I had been hanging out with Caucasian students
    most of my life. Culturally, I identify much more with these “Caucasian
    students”(the term is ridiculous because I’m sure they are all still
    from different background) than my own race. I know that many minority
    students, especially female minority students, felt the same way. And I
    really cannot think of anything else to blame that other than the poor
    race relations here.
    I can see why someone would say that the
    cultural clubs and their retreats and such are exclusive. However, these
    clubs are open to everyone and in fact, there are many Caucasian or
    students from other races/cultures that join these clubs.
    Also it
    says that the minority students don’t interact with the Caucasian
    students so they don’t feel comfortable joining the minority groups. I
    also can see that’s probably true in some cases but not all cases. I am
    sure the minority student is most likely going to room with a Caucasian
    student, and mostly rooming near other Caucasians in the dorm. Just in
    that condition, there is a plenty of time for interaction and getting to
    know each other.
    I guess it could be a little different for some
    minority that are actually international students. Sometimes, they could
    feel more comfortable around people of their own culture and might not
    be as comfortable speaking English (Obviously, they still are competent
    in speaking English enough to take classes here). However, I think that
    is a totally different issue of culture and language, not about races.
    Some just do not have much experience interacting with Americans. But I
    also know that many international students are not like that and most of
    these students are also open to being friends with other races.

  • student

    My closest friend group is the guys in my dorm. I don’t feel alienated 100% of the time here; this article makes it seem like minorities are always feeling attacked. I feel alienated when people make racist jokes at me or try to belittle me because of my ethnicity (not always caucasian students). The minority retreats are what you make them. You can make really great friends, but I found that you only make a couple really great friends. Your whole friend group does not come from the retreat. It also does not put you in touch with your roots. The retreats are religious–like a lot of the retreats here–and that is the focus. Yes, most people on the retreats are minorities, but not everyone has the same roots. A vietnamese person does not have the same roots as a japanese person. A mexican person does not have the same roots as a cuban person. There is no way one retreat can even begin to put you in touch with your roots; there are too many countries represented. I appreciate trying to look at the issue the other way because self segregation does happen. But, I do not think that is the main part of the problem here at Notre Dame.

  • anon

    so we get it, you like to whine. do you have any sort of constructive criticism to fix this issue, or are you just filling this website with your pseudo-intellectual anthropology 101 garbage?

    • phurry

      Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed…

  • Cavanaugh Girl 2012

    Thank you for this article.

    I am a female multiracial (Caucasian and African American) alumnus of Notre Dame; I graduated in 2012. This article illuminated an opinion and perception of race relations at Notre Dame that I struggled with while in school, but was afraid to voice due to fear of unwelcome backlash for expressing this feeling, both from “majority” students and racial minority communities and organizations on campus.

    Nevertheless, this is an important perspective, and one that should be heard. Thank you, Bianca, for putting it so intelligently and introspectively, and thank you to the Observer for publishing this article and allowing this viewpoint to be seen.

  • Johnny Whichard

    While I’d suggest you NEVER EVER again use a single anthropology course as a citation of your own expertise, I freaking agree with you. Here is an old Viewpoint I wrote that took a ton of flak for the same points you made. http://ndsmcobserver.com/2012/09/segregation-at-the-tabernacle/

  • Anonymous Student

    I feel like I was forced into the “minority bubble.” Coming from a high school whether there was a Caucasian majority, most of my friends were *surprise* Caucasian. I didn’t realize Notre Dame would be so different. The race relations here are so stifling….it’s difficult to go to a school where you don’t have very many friends because people automatically assume you’re different just because of the color of your skin. We are ND. But really…who is “we”?