My university campus in Philadelphia was diverse and it was evident that the school made a conscious effort to bring diversity to the campus. ‘Diversity’ was considered a cherished value and the benefit of diversity as an 'enrichment' was being much talked about by educational institutions around the country as something to be proud of.
The irony of having diversity on campus, however, was that there was hardly any interaction across the racial lines. — as if I were to draw a conceptual diagram of social life on campus, it would be divided into the circles of Whites, Blacks, Asians, Indians, Latinos, who stuck together and hardly crossed the ethnic boundaries.
Everyone surely walked down the main artery of the campus everyday, brushing shoulders alongside one another and sat in the mixed lecture halls, but when it came to eat in the dining hall or socializing on evenings and weekends, most retreated into the comfort of their own tribal bases.
In fact, this wasn't the first time I witnessed the phenomenon of self-segregation in America. Over my high school years in the New Jersey suburbs, the second generation Korean-Americans, who were seamlessly integrated into lunch tables with other Americans to my envy, started forming a separate lunch table exclusively with other Korean-Americans. They started dressing alike in all black, listening to K-pop and speaking English with Korean words mixed in.
'Why would they stick to themselves if the language were not the issue?,' I wondered. Here I was, the first generation, trying to shed any mark of difference in my self and mould myself into an ‘American’, and here they were trying to take on the mark of difference to their fully Americanized selves to assert and claim their difference.
I wouldn't understand until later that the second generation growing up in America didn't have a tangible contact with their heritage — something I took for granted growing up Korean in Korea. At the onset of their adolescence and search for identity, it was only natural that they had the curiosity to seek out and connect more with their roots. If I had been born in America and were a second or third generation, I too would have tried to connect more with my heritage.
Now, in college, all Asian cultures — that I grew up perceiving distinctively different between Korean, Chinese, Japanese in Asia — were collapsed into one to form an 'Asian-American' subculture and ‘Pan-Asian’ identity. Asians on campus stuck together and were expected to join the subculture of going to the Asian church and following pragmatic career tracks like investment banking, engineering or medicine.
One day, in my third year of college, there was a lunchtime debate on ‘Self-Segregation on Campus’ in the student union. Glad to find that I was not the only person fascinated by this phenomenon, I decided to check it out.
A girl at the debate said that she grew up in an all black neighborhood and needed the security and comfort of having an all black housing and all black society on campus. She added that she couldn't have adjusted well into college life if such options weren't available to her. Another girl countered: she understood the need, but the real world was not like that and the college was supposed be a transition into the real world, so wouldn't it be better that she confronted the reality sooner than later? Another boy intervened: he didn't see why self-segregation was a problem. 'It was a ‘free choice’ whom you choose to associate with, and it was only ‘natural,' he added, 'that you stuck with those who were alike yourself.'
It was true that it was a free choice, I thought, to claim and express one's heritage in whatever form one wanted. And even self-segregation — with whom you felt connected to and chose to hang out — was to be respected as an individual choice. But I wondered whether subscribing to a race-based identity — in the form that it was given, with the set of norms that defined the subculture, in how one dressed, what music one listened to and how one spoke — was truly a choice or a prescription. If the choice was driven by one’s desire and need to connect with one’ roots, did hanging out exclusively with one's own kin and taking on a race-based subculture with prescribed norms of its own truly fulfill this need?
I wondered too how much of this need to seek out one's roots in fact was driven by one's own volition or by feeling marginalized, consciously or unconsciously felt, growing up being ‘different’ in America. Their need to claim and assert their race-based identity seemed different from, for example, a third generation Irish-American's desire to take a heritage trip to Ireland to trace and connect with their roots.
Either way, the 'benefit' of diversity cherished by educators who consciously tried to create a diverse student body was clearly not being harnessed. It was one thing for the first generation immigrants to have to stick with their own kin, given their language barrier and lack of access to people from different backgrounds and they didn't have a choice but to stick to themselves for their own survival. But the subsequent generations did have a choice — without any language barrier and access to people from different backgrounds — to actively make connections across cultural and racial boundaries, and choosing to stick to their own kin seemed like a missed opportunity and a loss on their own part.
I wondered if the dynamics of racial interaction on campus represented the racial dynamics of larger America. If what America meant by a 'multicultural' society was a society where there was diversity, but with hardly any interaction across the racial lines — in the name of free choice and assertion of one's identity, then it clearly missed the point of diversity and was a missed opportunity for everyone involved.
It was as if diversity was something to be 'tolerated' and 'managed' because we had no other option but to live together and the best we could hope for was to harmoniously 'coexist' side by side. No wonder at the brink of any upheaval, groups become so easily polarized along the racial lines. In the American psyche, the racial lines still hadn’t been blurred and the ‘comfort’ of sticking to one’s own kin was pervasive under the banner of ‘multicultural society’.
In this sense, America still hadn't become truly multicultural — diversity was there, but the benefit of diversity wasn’t being fully harnessed — by proactive effort of individuals who take a conscious positioning to break through the false security of tribalism and choose to make meaningful connections across racial and cultural boundaries.