I never had trouble making friends. Coming into college, the least of my concerns was being able to connect with others and form new relationships. However, looking back at my first semester, I realize I neglected to acknowledge a certain tension I felt while trying to socialize with other freshmen. Something continuously made me uncomfortable, and it took me time to realize this discomfort signified a problem I never experienced before. 

There were consistent, subtle comments of disgust from my peers about the types of food I liked, such as raw fish and soy-sauce based dishes. There was also a dislike for the way I ate in regard to sounds my mouth made. This divide in palate and food shouldn’t have discouraged me from opening up to others — but it did. It made me ashamed of my eating habits and my cultural background as a whole, causing me to feel isolated and resulted in me shying away from communities I bonded with at U-M. 

I was a little disheartened but remained determined to branch out and meet more people. A group of my friends I just met decided to get poke bowls, and I was excited to explore the variety of restaurants in Ann Arbor. But throughout the meal, I had stereotypical questions directed toward me regarding eastern Asia. A girl asked me whether or not Japan experienced daylight, because all the images she saw of the country were at night. Another asked if I ate poke often, even though I never mentioned anything about my heritage.

Refusing to be discouraged, I went out on a Friday night with a new group of people, and at a party one guy asked one of the girls I was with to dance, and she said no. When I later asked her why, she replied that “she had already hooked up with one Black guy” earlier that week. Even though I don’t identify as Black, it was clear that race was salient to them when considering a hook-up, which meant they filter people by race, including me. 

This disconnect or feeling of alienation stemmed from the fact that, in all these cases, I was the only person in the group who identified as a person of East Asian descent. 

It would be grossly inaccurate to say I haven’t met people who are open-minded, compassionate and kind people. That being said, what I underestimated was the extent that microaggressions would upset me. This is not because of prejudice or ignorance, but because they created racially-charged barriers that prevented me from making friends outside my race.  

My closest friends back home don’t identify as my race, and until now, I surrounded myself with people who didn’t look like me. I planned to create the same communities in college. However, the past few months have highlighted the significance of race at U-M. Students recognize each other’s race and use it to create barriers in their personal communities, with or without intention. It seems to me that friend groups are often created along the lines of skin color and force people to stay in their comfort zones. 

I understand that diverse groups exist at the University, but I have noticed as a freshman that friend groups within the class of 2023 are often divided by race. And this isn’t uncommon. It makes logical sense that people create friendships based on similarities, and commonalities tend to not cut across race.

Given this observation, I want to emphasize how crucial it is for students — especially freshmen — to create diverse relationships and how integral and beneficial interracial friend groups can be to individuals. Researchers Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp conducted the “Meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory”, which found that intergroup contact typically reduces intergroup prejudice. These prejudices and fear of prejudice from peers convey that students expect interracial encounters to go badly, according to another study done by Elizabeth Page-Gould, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Linda Tropp at UMass Amherst. The study also defines the solution to this dilemma as “guided relationship-building,” which rectifies the anxiety people have interacting with groups of different races. 

My desire to reach out to people from different backgrounds, along with the prejudice I have encountered, could both be virtually resolved by students becoming mindful of who they are surrounding themselves with. According to Professor Miles Hewstone at the University of Oxford, behavior sociologists warn that the idea of homophily — the tendency for people to create relationships with people who are socially similar to themselves — fortifies stereotypes about both ourselves and other groups. This leads us to believe our own groups are superior, and consequently portray other groups as lesser, which can even result in a dislike of these “lesser groups.” 

I don’t take the comments I mentioned before to heart. I realize that, in part, what makes freshman year so difficult is the fact that we are encountering people from a multitude of different communities. University students need to take advantage of the sheer number of undergraduates in school here and create not only racially diverse communities, but communities with variation in socioeconomic background and cultural heritage. 

Cheryn Hong can be reached at cherynh@umich.edu.

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