In the process of writing my last article, I realized how important it is to cherish the diverse community I have been able to surround myself with. I went through high school associating myself with white friends to try and combat personal biases. Growing up in a town with large Black and Latinx populations, my new interactions with privileged white groups at high school created a naive and unexplainable need for acceptance. Instead of embracing my Mexican identity and peers, I wanted to be friends with those outside of the community for reasons none other than social validation. It is unfortunate to think that I wanted to create friendships that, at the time, I thought made me superior and included, even though I really wasn’t.
At the University of Michigan, the Comprehensive Studies Program was an amazing experience that completely changed my perspective regarding what communities I belonged to and why. CSP is a summer bridge program that helps ensure students of an academic, racial and/or socioeconomic minority status have successful transitions to the University’s academics. After transitioning to CSP, my friend group became extremely diverse as I began creating a community with people from all types of backgrounds and identities. I finally realized this reflected a change in the perception of myself and who I needed to be surrounded by. This social transformation was marked by a stronger appreciation for interacting with others unlike me — others whom I could learn from and engage in meaningful conversations. I was finally done with trying, or needing, to gain acceptance from a white community who didn’t share any of my personal experiences as a person of color in America. Entering my fall semester with the rest of my incoming freshman class, however, I realized that not everyone shared the same approach in meeting people different from themselves.
At the start of the fall semester, I entered the regular academic year alongside thousands of my peers. I decided to join the Michigan Community Scholars Program, a learning community dedicated to community service and diversity. Considering my experiences in high school and in the CSP program, this community was an obvious choice for me to continue my pride surrounding being Mexican. Living in a space that accepted students who especially cherished diversity and serving others seemed like the perfect fit for me.
As I settled into my residence hall, I went out, met new people and started to notice that other students’ posts, stories and friends looked a lot more homogenous than I expected. My game-day tailgates, posts and pictures were with people who both did and didn’t look like me. Even within my own hall — which is the most diverse learning community on campus — I realized that there were many homogenous groups sticking together; mainly, all-white friend groups.
I first noticed the red flags with these groups by scrolling through Instagram. At first, I didn’t think anything of it — it was just my peers having fun with other freshmen they met during welcome week. I mean, I was surrounded by mainly white people too. I couldn’t blame them for surrounding themselves with the majority, right? Every freshman clings to the first group of people they feel the slightest connection to.
That’s where I was wrong. Over my freshman year, I started to notice how these cliques seemed to run the University. As a minority on campus, I felt inferior to these groups who had strong senses of privilege, entitlement and belonging. Even though I was more than satisfied with my social circles, it started to bother me that other students weren’t seeking interactions with other types of people. I was surrounded by South Quad Dining Hall tables filled with the same looking people. Some had brown or blonde hair, others had brown or blue eyes, but these variables of difference are insignificant compared to actual racial diversity within these groups (which was disappointing yet not surprising). I was used to growing up in a diverse environment with many different races peacefully coexisting. But at the University, it wasn’t a coexistence, it was an “us versus them.”
Looking for an explanation for this homogeneity I reverted to thinking that most students at the University are white. Statistically speaking, it would make sense that a majority of your friends here would be white. The experience for students of color, however, is totally different. Though a true experience, the mainstream assumption is that people of color stick together in spite of avoiding emotional labor-intensive interactions or conversations riddled with microaggressions. This notion, however, fails to account for a white person’s unwillingness to confront their privilege. Living in a race heavy society, white people can be reluctant to acknowledge their whiteness and the role it has in every aspect of life, forcing them to hold onto the comfort offered by white peers, and often challenged by non-white individuals.
Students of color, however, can relate to being the only brown kid in classrooms and even residence hall floors. For me as a Latino, attempting to create a diverse friend group proved to be difficult. One thing I continue to struggle with is creating new Latinx friendships. Being surrounded by a lack of Latinx students and regretfully failing to join related student organizations has me feeling socially lost at times. Especially with the segregated environments in dining halls, classes, parties and anywhere else on campus, the ease for white students to cling together angered me.
Shared bonds over our salient, and often discriminated against, identities are intimately built over similar cultures, experiences and oppressions, something most white people can’t understand. Friend groups made of communities of color cannot, however, be seen with the same isolating lens through which exclusive white friend groups are perceived. As a white person, one is born with many inalienable privileges that can go unacknowledged your entire life. The only way to begin to understand the struggles of different races is to surround oneself with people from those communities, learn from them (in a way that does not require labor from them) and actively educate oneself. An individual’s lack of awareness, appreciation and interaction with cultures outside of one’s own is simply racist.
Because of my hometown, I had never interacted with other races and religions outside of Black, Latino and white populations, all of which were Catholic or Christian. I also understand that most white students at this University have had similarly limited exposure to other cultures and communities but it is still not the same as a person of color living in a predominantly white setting. When I analyze my community of friends, it looks very different compared to those I’ve interacted with in the past. I’m part of communities with a wide variety of races, ethnicities, religions and cultures. When I see how I’ve been able to build connections with other identities, I’ve realized there’s no excuse for seeing social circles of entirely white people.
I’m not trying to say that having white friends is bad — that’s perfectly fine. The message I want to direct this towards is for those who surround themselves with similarly privileged people. Being incognizant of the fact that your entire friend group is white is a problem. It’s a problem that you don’t understand the value that diversity can bring to your life. This issue, though, is larger than the University’s social scenes. A 2014 study found that 75% of white people don’t have any friends of color, revealing how irrelevant interracial friendships are to the average white American.
Diversity in professional and social settings has proven beneficial means to expanding one’s global perspective and consequently engaging with society in a more conscious and sympathetic manner. If at the end of your day, you leave your sociology class acting as a champion for social issues and go out with a homogeneously white group, then you’re not valuing what others can bring into your life. It’s not the job of a person of color to be your friend, nor is it your job to actively seek out diverse friends in the sake of tokenism.
By living in a world through a conscious manner, one can better understand their privilege overall and how within society one can uplift those who are traditionally marginalized to a greater degree. Being aware of your implicit biases is fundamental to being a true ally. To the freshmen currently creating lifelong friendships, and anyone with predominantly white friend groups, all I ask is to evaluate who you surround yourself with and ask, “Why?”
MiC Columnist Hugo Quintana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.