Last month, Spectator posted two opinion articles regarding the phenomenon of racial self-segregation on campus. One asked why such a phenomenon exists in such a diverse place like Columbia, and the other argued that people of color deserve to have specialized safe spaces, formal or informal, and shouldn’t need to perform emotional labor to diversify the Columbia community. Both are valid perspectives. But for a while, I’ve been thinking about this self-segregation problem as it pertains to my own experience—about how I don’t want to self-segregate despite actively doing so.
I’m going to be frank: I can count the number of close non-Asian friends I have at Columbia on one hand. That’s not to say I don’t have friends of other ethnicities—I definitely do—but I primarily spend time with my Asian friends. I am painfully cognizant of this, because I came into college wanting to join a diverse friend group, and I’ve failed to do so.
Because I grew up in white suburbia, being Chinese was uncomfortable. I clearly remember having to put up with “ching chong” insults, stereotypes, and general cultural insensitivity starting from elementary school onward. I found solace in the Asian classmates that I met, bonding over the fact that we were a minority in a very white environment. In the intimate K-12 system of my city, those Asian classmates that I latched onto quickly became my best friends as we went through middle and high school together. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was limiting myself by making friends with only Asians; I wondered about the experiences that were different than mine, the cultural differences, and everything in between. So when I enrolled at Columbia, a school known for celebrating diversity, I made a silent promise to myself to branch out and try to become friends with as many different kinds of people as I could.
But as I went through my first year, I found myself steering away from the people I wished to get to know better, and stuck around with other Asians. A part of me hesitated whenever I got to know a white person, immediately reminded of the “ching-chong” insults and general cultural insensitivity that I grew up with. And when I looked to other non-Asian minorities who had also self-segregated, I felt like I was intruding on their space, and them on mine, feeling that on some level maybe they also wouldn’t understand me, and would pass the same judgements that I was so used to.
Herein lies my own self-segregation problem.
The thing is, I don’t want to self-segregate, but my wariness of people with different ethnicities is deeply ingrained in me because in the past, their comments have only meant harm. For me, self-segregation was a form of protection. How do I break through my reluctance to open up to people outside my own race?
I want to have more “diverse” friends, but I’m afraid that we won’t be able to connect on the basic level that I do with my friends who are Asian American. We talk about some experiences I have found common to the Asian American experience—parental pressures, societal expectations, internalized racism, and more. I can’t necessarily talk about those things to the white guy from Beta in my Macro class. I can, however, post one of my articles on Asian American issues on Facebook and instantly bond with other Asian Americans that I may have never met in person. These connections can’t exist with people outside my own race, which makes it easier for me to self-segregate.
For me, personally, I have to solve my own internalized self-segregation problem before I can think to address the greater self-segregation problem here at Columbia. If I want to make friends with people who are outside my own race, I need to force myself to branch out from the comfortable relationships I have with Asians. I think about the close friends that I do have that aren’t Asian, and I remember how we got to this point: through genuine conversations and honest, careful exchanges about our cultural differences. I want to keep doing that, and I’m going to keep trying putting myself in a position where I am able to do so.
At the same time, I don’t expect everyone else to want to do the same. That’s okay. Self-segregation isn’t necessarily a bad thing—like Eileen said in her letter to the editor, it can provide safe spaces for minorities. But I know I want to be able to learn and grow by befriending people from all types of backgrounds—and only by doing this can I begin to solve my own self-segregation problem.
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