Ebony and Ivory = Perfect Harmony in the Dorm Room?

[Editor's note: When I read the recent NYT article on interracial college roomates, I knew it was an issue that Anti-Racist Parent should tackle. Like many who have commented on the piece, I found it facile, simplistic. As someone who attended a majority white Midwestern college as a student of color, I found that my presence in the dorm often shocked and surprised fellow students, as I did not fulfill their preconceived notions of blackness. I also found that meeting me did not neccessarily greatly change my floormates' views on black people or people of color. I was viewed as an exception that proved the racially biased rule. What long-term effects my presence had on my white roommates, I do not know. For me, my college experience proved both enjoyable and draining. I found myself too often the racial teacher, the voice of black America, the black girl to bring home for show-and-tell.

Below, columnist Margie Persheid and contributor Jennifer weigh in.]

The Ebony and Ivory Approach to Race Relations

written by Anti-Racist Parent contributor Jennifer; originally published at Mixed Race America

On Monday the New York Times had an article headline that declared “Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice.” There are, apparently, studies that show that if interracial roommates (and although the language in the article refers to “roommates of different races” there is an assumption that “interracial” refers to a white and black roommate) can tough it out beyond the 10 week mark, then what the study discovers is that the white roommate undergoes a type of transformation in which s/he has less bigoted beliefs towards black people.

So, of course, I have a couple of thoughts:

*I wish the article was more explicit and detailed and careful in their use of language. Although, as noted above, they refer to roommates of different races, the article only references specific white-black interracial roommate pairings. Which is fine. But then, the article should not conflate “interracial” with white-black or even majority-minority pairings. For instance, are Latino-Asian roommates reducing their levels of prejudice against each other? Against other non-white races? Or even against whites? What about white-American Indian roommates–in other words, does the improved view of race relations hold for other majority-minority pairings other than black-white?

*Actually, there is an oddly worded paragraph that suggests that the studies in question, by Ohio and Indiana, are specifically showing positive effects for black-white pairings and NOT other types because:

Several studies have shown that living with a roommate of a different race changes students’ attitudes. One, from the University of California at Los Angeles, generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.

WTF??? OK, so my first quibble is wording (because I taught grammar and composition for years while in grad school). The parenthetical phrase embedded in the last sentence, “the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice”–does that mean that Asian Americans ARE the most prejudiced of racial groups–that Asian Americans exhibit more bigotry and racist values than others? And are Asian Americans haters towards all other groups or specific races/ethnicities?

[Aside: This reminds me of the strangest interview question I've ever been asked. It was years ago, at a small liberal arts college somewhere...in the nation. An octogenerian white male professor asked me: "It's clear that you can teach Japanese students, but how do you feel about teaching Filipino and Korean students?" Generally baffled, I asked him to rephrase the question, assuming I misheard or misunderstood. The interviewer repeated the question, and I answered perfunctorily (I think my generic response was something like, "I will teach any student who walks through the door of my classroom") but what I REALLY wanted to say, assuming I was going to throw that job away, was "Well, Filipino students, sure I can teach them but don't get me near a Korean student because I will just EXPLODE." Guess this guy assumed Asian Americans were a pretty prejudiced group--against one another!]

*My other beef with that above quotation is the idea that living with an Asian American means you will develop into a more bigoted individual. Really? Asian Americans are such a viral group that we will infect others with our prejudice, passing it along like the swine flu?

And furthermore, it’s unclear who the target of the prejudice is. If a white guy has a Chinese American roommate, will the white guy become MORE racist towards all races or specifically towards Asian Americans?

*My other big thought about this study is the burden placed on the roommate of color; in the terms of the article, it’s specifically the burden placed on black college students paired with white students I want to address. Because the person they interview for the article, Sam Boakye, said that he worked HARDER as a freshman in his classes in order to prevent his white roommate from thinking bad things about black people:

“If you’re surrounded by whites, you have something to prove,” said Mr. Boakye, now a rising senior who was born in Ghana. “You’re pushed to do better, to challenge the stereotype that black people are not that smart.”

Now, it’s an interesting twist on the Claude Steel study about stereotype threat

. And in some ways there may be a spark of truth, at least I can relate, to Boakye’s sentiments–because I definitely felt that way in grad school. But even if it yields good results for Boakye personally (and academically) and yields potentially good results for his white roommate, who must now change his opinions about African Americans’ intelligence levels, it still puts the burden on the black roommate rather than the white roommate. In other words, it’s up to the black student to help the white student overcome his bigotry. And that’s just a lot of responsibility to put on the black student.

But the truth is, it’s always there–that pressure to “represent” and hence help change racial attitudes. And while I’m heartened to know that there are some studies that suggest that things do improve under the “Ebony & Ivory” approach to race relations in college dorms, I also want more. I want a more progressive and sustained effort on behalf of white Americans, especially WHITE ALLIES and by other people of color, cross racially and ethnically so that we’re not placing the burden, always, on the person who has to “represent” his/her race/gender/sexuality/religion/fill-in-the-blank identity marker.

Case Studies in Confusion

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Margie Perscheid

Have you read Tamar Lewin’s recent New York Times article Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice? If not, head over there, read the article, and come back to share your reactions.

I’m anxious to see what ARP’s readers think of it, and of the topics it raises. I’m frankly struggling with how to write about it, because my thoughts are all over the map. And from the online reactions I’ve been able to find to the piece, it appears I’m not alone.

The title gave me the impression that the article would be a generalization of a complicated topic, and it delivered in that regard. It references several academic studies on the effect of interracial roommate arrangements on a variety of behaviors and attitudes, but shares little of their specific content. As I’m no sociologist and was not aware that these studies existed, I appreciate hearing about them. But Lewin’s review hasn’t helped me understand them as I’d like to.

Most of them are only available for a fee, and as much as I’d like to study them all, my budget probably won’t allow it, at least not all at once. I did find the UCLA study, The effect of university roommate contact on ethnic attitudes and behavior, online, and I’m reading through it now. Lewin notes that this study “generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.” I haven’t fully digested the study yet, so I can’t say one way or another if this observation makes sense in the context of the research. But right off the bat something piqued my interest: the study’s setting. I wonder how UCLA’s student demographics (the white and Asian populations there are each over 30%, the Hispanic population is just under 13%, and the African American population is 3.5%) might have factored into this conclusion, but can find nothing in the study that talks to this. I’d like to know if this is the case. Actually, I’d also like to know I’m even on base suggesting that such a variable might factor into the outcomes.

Which raises a more general concern. Even if I can get my hands on them, do I, as someone without a background in the researchers’ disciplines, have the ability to understand how to use the data appropriately? I suspect not. Interpreting scholarly data for application in the real world can be dangerous, but Lewin’s article makes it seem a breeze. You could take any number of conclusions away from the article to serve your particular purpose. You might, for example, conclude that interracial roommate arrangements are largely successful for furthering understanding across races. You could also conclude that they are less successful than same-race rooming attangements because they tend to fail more frequently. Or, you might conclude that black students are more likely to succeed academically with the help of whites. And you might be wrong on all counts.

Given that I will have two kids in college this fall, both Asian and, coincidentally, one at UCLA, I’d really like to understand these studies better. Lewin’s article has only helped me by providing some sources of information. Whether or not I can get to that information, understand it, and learn how to interpret it is another matter. I’d like to see some articles that help me do that.

I’d also like to hear what you have to say about the article and the studies.

Margie Perscheid is the adoptive mother of two Korean teens. She is a co-founder of Korean Focus, an organization for families with children from Korea with chapters across the country. Margie is on the Board of Directors of the Korean American Coalition DC Chapter, a former board member of KAAN, the Korean YMCA of Greater Washington (now KAYA), and ASIA (Adoption Service Information Agency). Margie writes about her intercountry adoption experiences at Third Mom. She, her husband Ralf, and their two children live in Alexandria, Virginia.

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