“It’s not that I don’t want to go, I just don’t want to intrude.”
“It’s not that I don’t want friends of color, but what am I going to do, go up to a table of non-white people and say ‘hey, be my friend?’”
I lost count of how many times I have heard these two statements or some variation of them. On the surface, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw — you don’t want to impose on anyone, right? Looking at what results from it, what I see is an incredibly socially segregated school that touts its “40 percent BIPOC” badge.
A recent conversation with a friend of mine, another brown student at Carleton, prompted me to deeply consider the impact of social segregation, and the extent to which it isolates students of color. A current senior, she told me about her almost entirely white friend group in freshman and sophomore year that quickly transitioned to a new, almost entirely non-white one by her junior year. She did not speak ill of her old friends — they were neither racist nor did they express any overt prejudice towards her. The reality was far more subconscious than that. It was the little things like choosing not to go to a MOSAIC party or, more generally, choosing to avoid any space that would place them in the minority.
This story parallels the experiences of a number of students of color I’ve spoken with at Carleton. As someone who entered Carleton and formed an almost exclusively white friend group, I couldn’t help but notice the ways my experience at Carleton further feeds this narrative. As I look more closely at tables in the dining hall, parties, or even groups of people simply gathering in Anderson, the visibility of different racially-formed friend groups is impossible for me to ignore.
I can’t speak to the experiences of other students of color at Carleton, so I’ll stick with my own and how I feel. What really frustrates me is that I connect with my white friends on many levels, but the one way that I’m not able to connect with them is my culture. I love watching Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani with my family, or listening to Kala Chasma at a party. I love the MOSAIC diwali celebrations because it’s a time at Carleton in which I am reminded of home while eating Gulab Jamuns and wearing a lehenga and bangles all up my arms. While dancing and celebrating, I’m able to remember parties with family friends who I miss dearly. Most importantly, I feel like the truest and realest version of myself. Even if I know my white friends can never understand this, I want them to at least make an attempt to immerse themselves in the culture that makes me who I am. I want them to see a Bollywood dance party, to share a kaju katli with me, to celebrate South Asian events.
There’s a second, equally important disconnect that comes with knowing they will never have to exist at Carleton as a racial minority. They will never face the stress and anxiety attached to entering a party where there is not a single other person of color. Whether or not they intend to, white students control the dominant culture and the “social hierarchy,” or popularity, at Carleton. MOSAIC parties are distinctly separate from “normal” parties intended for all students at Carleton, and because these parties are not “their space,” they are able to excuse themselves from attending — even if I, or another student, had explicitly invited them. By contrast, there exist parties theoretically open to “everyone,” however, these parties are predominantly white. It’s somehow acceptable, almost my social responsibility to my friends, to show up at Dixon or Dow and be the only person of color. There’s no conception of that as really weird, as something to be changed. These spaces are not only less enjoyable but also present students of color with a social powerlessness. My decision becomes not when and where I want to party, but rather, whether I want to keep my friends or not. It’s not that I hate these parties, but more that I don’t make a true decision as to whether or not I go. It’s a social obligation, I have to go to these specific parties in order to maintain any sort of connection to my white friends.
And it’s easy to say that this social status is unimportant and in many ways it is. But, when we go to a 2,000 person school, it’s pretty easy to see who is “in” and who is “out,” and it’s almost exclusively determined by white students. Outside of this arbitrary social hierarchy, it’s about the fact that students of color don’t have spaces that they control that take up space in mainstream culture. It’s not a problem of being “popular” or not, it’s a cultural problem of having the avenue to “popularity” controlled by white students. Whether or not you care about the social hierarchy is one thing, but having a singular avenue that’s controlled by white students to get into it is a clear and definite problem.
These social burdens are ones that my white friends will never face nor understand. In some small way, being at a party, in a space that I control, with my white friends is a way of regaining power. It’s not about performing for white people or assimilating to a culture that I don’t feel any strong connection to. Instead, it’s about having the white people stand in the minority.
There’s a common perception of Carleton as a liberal and progressive campus environment. The number of students who have “Black Lives Matter” in their Instagram bios, donate to a fundraiser in Sayles and, of course, vote blue is high. But, from what I’ve seen, that does not translate to interpersonal relationships. It doesn’t translate to actually expanding friend groups to include students of color by making space for people who may be different from you and to make the campus truly accepting. It’s performative to pat yourself on the back because you voted for Biden and then exist within a white bubble at Carleton. Your “white allyship” means nothing if it only presents itself in monetary exchanges or the name you put on the ballot. You will never understand the experience of people of color on this campus if you don’t expand your social network.
I won’t pretend that I’m immune to all of these problems just because I’m a person of color. I’m highly conscious of the fact that my socioeconomic status and being, specifically, Indian-American gives me privilege and a level of proximity to whiteness that allows me to even have the option of existing in white spaces. Throughout my time at Carleton, I’ve noticed the idea of befriending “people like me,” where we seek out friends that are similar to us. But, the grounding for this is often in what we observe, the clothes people wear, the way they talk and the activities in which they choose to participate, all of which are often tied to our identities. Growing up with access to trendy clothing, traveling with my family and participating in after-school activities all have provided me with a greater understanding of white culture and my place within it. I grew up being one of the only people of color in my neighborhood, and learned to assimilate. I learned to talk about Slumdog Millionaire but not Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Pyasa, I learned to bring Indian food to school but never eat it with my hands and I learned to make my Indian identity appealing to white people. In the end, the choice to assimilate was one that I had.
These experiences further speak to the culture at Carleton. Even when students of color are accepted into white circles, it is with an understanding that we are somehow in line with them, that we fit into their palatable picture of people of color. To white students at Carleton ask yourselves the question: are you worried about making others uncomfortable or are you worried about making yourself uncomfortable? Make yourself the minority. Don’t show up somewhere uninvited, but support your friends and expose yourself to a new space. You’re not afraid of invading, you’re afraid of being in a space you can’t control. When we go to a school where you control the mainstream culture, the mainstream parties and the mainstream spaces, it is performative and unfair to avoid going to a party simply because you may be the only white person there.
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