Jake was born in South Korea. Adopted by a lesbian couple when he was ten months old, he has lived in North Carolina ever since. He is gay, right-handed, a baseball player, and eighteen-years old. He just started college at Stonewall Jackson University, a small liberal arts college in South Carolina. General Stonewall Jackson was known for eating lemons as a way to relieve chronic upset stomach, so the school’s mascot is a “Lemonhead.”
In last week’s Grey Matters, Jake had just been interrogated by his resident advisor, Robert. Robert had asked Jake a series of question, each more offensive than the last, and had insulted everything from Jake’s two mothers to Jake’s ability to speak English. We pick up the story with Jake’s response.
“Robert, an hour ago, I was told that your purpose is to make me feel a part of the Lemonhead community, but the only thing you’ve done is question not only my right to be here at this school, but also my right to be in this country.”
Robert was visibly shaken. “I’m so sorry, Jake. I just wanted to get to know you better. We’ll be living just a few doors down from each other for this school year, and I was just trying to learn more about what diversity you brought to the school.”
Jake could see that Robert was being sincere, even though his questions were off base. “I appreciate your efforts to get to know me better, but I want to be seen and treated as a whole person and not just the parts.”
“Could I get a do-over?” Robert asked. “I want to be a good resident advisor. It’s just that I came from a very small town, and we didn’t have much diversity. One of the reasons that I came to SJU was to be able to be around students who are different from me. I see that as being valuable for my education.”
“So you don’t think that I’m here just because I bring diversity to the campus?”
“I don’t know that it matters to me. I’m sure that the university had good reasons to admit both of us. I’m the tenth person in my family to come to school here. From what I’ve been told you’re a pretty good baseball player.
Jake felt better after confronting Robert on the comments he’d made. He finished unpacking his clothes and then realized that he needed to run across campus or he’d be late for his appointment with his math tutor. He grabbed his book bag and raced the half mile to the science building.
When he got there, a tall, attractive black guy was pacing the room.
“Are you here for math tutoring?” Jake asked him.
“Yes,” the guy said. “I’m Noah.”
Jake extended his hand. Noah was tall and lean, and very much Jake’s type. “Do you play basketball?” he asked.
“No,” Noah said and left Jake hanging on the handshake. “I’m not very athletic.”
“That’s surprising,” Jake said.
“Why do you say that?” Noah asked and took a step back.
“You look like you’d play,” Jake said. “You’re tall and just. I don’t know.”
“So you need extra help with math?” Noah asked him.
“What is that so hard to believe?” Jake said. “Just because I’m Asian, I have to be good at math.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just thought we could get started.”
“Are we not gonna wait for the tutor?” Jake asked.
“So you’re assuming that I’m here to be tutored also?” Noah asked. Jake noticed that Noah had a stack of materials on the desk behind him. Noah pulled out a syllabus and handed it to Jake. “I’m your tutor for this semester.”
“I’m sorry,” Jake said. “I just thought. . .”
“You assumed that because I’m black and tall that I’m a basketball player and wouldn’t be a math tutor?” Noah asked.
Jake tried to laugh, but he was so embarrassed he couldn’t even bring himself to smile. “Could we maybe start over? I’ll shut up and put my future in your very capable hands. And then maybe after this meeting, I can take you to the student center and buy you lunch.”
Noah smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Noah. Nice to meet you.”
Jake shook his hand. “I’m Jake. The pleasure is mine.”
Jake noticed that when they shook hands, Noah’s hand lingered for a moment longer than would be expected. He wasn’t about to assume that Noah was gay also, but his gaydar was going off a little bit.
“So let’s get started on our plan of attack for this semester, and then I’ll take you up on your lunch offer.” Noah smiled, and for the first time that day, Jake felt like he’d made the right choice in selecting SJU.
COMMENTARY: Jake has had a rough first day at college. He got a blitzkrieg of questions from Robert, seeming to attack not only Jake’s right to be at SJU but also seeming to invalidate his being in the United States. But Jake didn’t over-react and allow himself to be victimized by the questions. He pressed Robert on the questions and then determined that Robert was at least coming from a decent place in asking them. Robert just wanted to get to know him better, so even if the way in which he tried to do that was somewhat offensive, Jake gave Robert the benefit of the doubt.
Jake committed his own mistakes in making assumptions about Noah based on physical attributes. The same way that Jake called out Robert, Noah called out Jake for the things he said. And like Robert, Jake apologized and offered to make amends for his mistake. These types of scenarios probably take place all over college campuses, but the solution to these problems can often exacerbate the situation.
I have a friend who was a resident advisor back in the early 1990s when the political correctness movement was just starting on college campuses. He was shy and didn’t make eye contact with a couple of students when they arrived at his dorm. The students thought that he was discriminating against him because of their skin color, and they complained about him. As a result, he had to undergo racial sensitivity training. This caused him to be even more self-conscious and led him to avoid social interactions with minority students for fear of offending them. This created a spiral where they felt more and more discriminated against because he didn’t interact with them as much as he did with other students.
The reality is that training people to look out for micro-aggressions and instances of subtle discrimination can create a victimhood culture where we divide people into aggressors and victims.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “PROMOTE” DIVERSITY? Universities have a valid reason to want to increase its diversity. In a dynamic and global marketplace, students will interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and it’s important for them to understand different cultures and be able to get along with others. But when a school sets out and champions that it seeks diversity, doesn’t this feed into the notion that some students are there specifically because they add diversity?
I went to a liberal arts college in South Carolina, and it was important for them to bring in students from other states and other areas of the country. My law school wanted to have people from outside Chicago and the Midwest. So if you were from North Dakota and applied to my college, you had an easier chance to get in than someone applying from North Carolina. If you were from Alaska, you probably had a better chance to get into Northwestern law school than someone from Indiana. Upon meeting a student from another area, I would know generally where that person was from because of accents; upstate South Carolinians have a very different accent from North Dakotans. But I knew that person wasn’t there solely because he was from a faraway state, and I didn’t treat that person differently. Even being from SC where we were raised not to like Yankees, I didn’t have a huge prejudice to overcome.
The university is picking Student A over Student B because Student A brings something different to the college community than Student B. That might be better grades, it might be better test scores, it might be some form of diversity, or it might be the fact that Student A’s last name is on half the buildings on campus. Is there anything wrong with that in the decision-making? I’d say no, but universities need to get better buy-in on the importance of diversity. They need the “majority” students to recognize that they’re the lucky ones because of the diversity. Too often people only look at the diverse student and think, “But for affirmative action, you wouldn’t be here.” I’d argue that the white students are the lucky ones. They get to attend a school with a diverse racial mix, learning how to be culturally sensitive and aware. They can then go out into the international job market and appreciate that business interactions in China are different from those in the Middle East.
Too much emphasis on diversity for the sake of diversity can too often lead to a culture where we focus on differences and not on similarities. Robert should have approached Jake from a place of commonality.
“Hey Jake. I’m your resident advisor. We’re gonna be living across the hall from each other this year. Anything you’re nervous about living in a dorm? I know that my freshman year I had some real concerns about having a roommate for the first time. It’s most important that you set some ground rules for quiet time.”
A better way to find out about someone is to share something about yourself. People will typically respond to this openness in kind and tell you something similar about themselves. For instance, Robert could have talked about growing up in rural North Carolina and how there were only 50 people in the graduating class at his high school. This creates an environment where you’re not putting someone on the defensive about being different.
I’m not arguing that we should act color-blind and only see people as people. But in our initial interaction, build a bridge not a wall and find something in common. Manners dictate that we make others feel welcome first and foremost. That means making them feel comfortable and inviting them into our world and into our space. Later on, once we’ve established a bond of friendship, we can examine and seek to understand differences.
First impressions matter. Will you make someone feel different? Or will you make someone feel welcome?