One Latina girl said she felt like she had to seek out “whitewashed” friends. A black student joked that looking for friends was like an extracurricular. Another girl said it was just natural for people to surround themselves with friends of the same race.
The discussion during the first meeting of Race Alliance at Northwestern touched on these topics as participants considered diversity on campus. RAN, a new student group founded by SESP freshman Halle Bauer, is trying to promote diversity and cross-race interaction. Seventeen people attended its first meeting Feb. 26 at the Multicultural Center.
Bauer came up with the idea for the group during the fall after a discussion with some of her friends. She said she envisioned an open space for Northwestern students to talk.
“I really wanted to raise awareness and embrace the diversity that we do have,” she said.
Bauer was able to put her plan into action with the help of Weinberg freshman Ryan Whalen, Weinberg freshman Carla Argueta and Nitasha Sharma, an assistant professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies. Whalen clarified that the group wasn’t designed to fight racism, but to promote discussion and friendship.
“[It’s there] because there’s a problem of interaction, not necessarily racism,” he said.
Bauer envisions a typical meeting as a student-facilitated discussion, with hopes that a different member would lead each talk. Argueta said that even though it seems like inaction, the discussions are a good first step for the group.
“If you’re talking about a problem, you’re already more aware of it,” she said.
The first meeting focused on Rob Jackman’s column “Mocking diversity’s promise,” published in The Daily Northwestern on Jan. 31. Jackman’s article discussed self-segregation among ethnic groups, but criticized clubs and ethnically-based Greek houses for contributing to it. The column prompted a good deal of outrage, including the 125-student “March for Unity” on Feb. 16.
The discussion revealed the tendency of different ethnic groups to interact mainly with people in the same group, and the difficulties of breaking that pattern. A black freshman said she purposefully surrounded herself with mostly white friends, but that it sometimes presented problems. For example, she would go with them to events with few minority students, but found her friends reluctant to go to an event with mostly black students.
“To an extent, some people do feel uncomfortable if they’re the only person [of their race] at an event,” she said.
The general consensus of the discussion was that people were inclined to seek out friends of their own race and had to make a conscious effort to find diverse friends.
“There’s a preconceived notion that people aren’t supposed to mix,” said one student. “You can sometimes see the group polarity.”
In discussing possible solutions, one student proposed holding a diversity conference, where the campus could act together and participate in discussions to highlight diversity. However, others said the solution had to be on a smaller, individual scale.
“The groups are there because they’re comfortable,” one student said. “Just the fact that you’re fighting the norm means you’re doing something.”
Argueta said RAN’s goals so far are simply to advertise the meetings better and to attract more people to the discussions. Whalen confirmed the goals, but said the group of people who came to the first meeting was a good start.
“I was excited with the different mix of people who came,” he said. “Everyone had similar ideas and goals and were really committed to helping.”
Bauer said plans were in the works for a second meeting after spring break, to be followed by meetings every two weeks thereafter. She doesn’t have any special events planned, although she had contacted Evanston Township High School about sponsoring a diversity day. She also didn’t anticipate any large-scale action, at least not in the next few years.
“We want to first get an idea of what people are interested in,” she said. “The idea is to get a feel for cultures we don’t really know about.”