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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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