When he came to the University three years ago from his hometown of Coral Springs, Fla., LSA junior Brad Kline looked forward to experiencing all of the things promised to him by the University – including interacting with and befriending members of the diverse student body.
Kline said he found what he was looking for – but only in part. Although his classes provide many opportunities to interact with students from different backgrounds and races, he said his group of friends is similar to those he has always had – upper-middle class white students who share his interests and ideas.
“My groups of friends aren’t really diverse, but people in my classes are really diverse, there are people from all over the place,” Kline said, adding that he believes the self-segregation many students experience is only natural. “Once students find a group of people who they are comfortable with, students might not feel the sense of urgency to go out and meet new people. … I think it’s a problem. You’re in college and it’s really important to meet people from other cultures. It’s almost as if you will be missing out on something in life if you see things as being uni-dimensional.”
While Kline wishes he had interacted more with students of different races, LSA junior Ruben Duran, a Hispanic from Arizona, said his race does not adequately characterize his personality. “The University, by their own telling, sees me strictly as a Hispanic student. And they think because of that, and not where I’m from, I bring a unique experience,” said Duran.
Many factors besides race contribute to a student’s way of thinking, Duran said, adding that a person’s religion, family background, economic class and political opinions add to the diversity of the student body.
Diversity has been a hot topic on campus since day one of college for current students, but the definition of the word and the characteristics of a diverse student body remain contested. Some students feel the University’s definition of diversity relies too heavily on race.
“Diversity is just people coming together from all different cultures and social backgrounds, from places all over the world, with different values and ways of living,” Kline said.
But Kline added that racial diversity is the most visible form of diversity, making it a big part of the concept.
Engineering senior Clarence Wardell said although students tend to naturally segregate themselves, the University promotes interaction between students of different races by encouraging every student to live in a residence hall freshman year. “Living in a dormitory freshman year helped a lot to promote that. I was forced to interact with that different faction of the student body,” said Wardell, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity. “A lot of times it takes something to throw people out of that comfort zone. … If people weren’t thrown into these environments, I don’t think they would seek that on their own.”
LSA senior and Michigan Review Editor in Chief James Justin Wilson said beneficial interaction between minority and non-minority students cannot exist as long as some student groups target only minority membership. “Most white students regard (minority student organizations) as being not for them. If something has the word multicultural, it means ‘not for whites,'” he said. “Whenever the University tries to racialize something that should have no racial component, people feel uncomfortable.”
But Wardell said minorities have historically tried to reach out and interact with non-minority students but began to rely more on their own communities due to the racism and discrimination they encountered. He added that white students have not made a sufficient effort to reach out to minority student groups. “How often are (non-minority students) going out and actively seeking to socialize and fraternize with these minorities?”
Duran said minority and non-minority students should do more to interact with each other, but separate groups for students of different races encourage students to segregate themselves.
For some students, the number of multicultural or minority student groups and the wide variance of political opinions found on campus mean that racial tension is exemplified.
“I definitely feel that there is a lot of racial tension around here. You can definitely feel the tension if you go to the rallies on the Diag,” Kline said.
Although the tension on campus is unfortunate, it is the result of having such a diverse student body, Kline said. The tension could not exist if the University was not as diverse, he added. “I think it’s the result of different cultures coming together. It’s a culture clash,” he said. “I think it’s due to a lot of ignorance on the part of students.”
LSA junior Julie Sprunk said she feels it is the clashes and the conflicts that help her gain the most from the University’s diverse student body.
“I think I would probably learn more about the world if I had a more diverse group of friends,” Sprunk said. “If you don’t have any conflict, you don’t grow from it.”
Sprunk added that although she recognizes the importance of diversity, she is disappointed that the reality of race in society forces the definition of diversity to center on a person’s skin color.
“I just think race shouldn’t matter. It’s a social reality but it’s not a biological reality. It’s a false reality,” she said.