Inclusion or Division? Why We Should Re-Think Ethnic Themed Dorms
By John Rice Cameron
Stanford’s four ethnic-themed dorms — Ujamaa, Casa Zapata, Okada, and Muwekma-Tah-Ruk — have been part of campus life since the 1970s. These dorms depict themselves as living spaces that encourage residents to explore the culture and heritage of the group associated with it. They are not exclusive: at least 50% of the residents must not belong to the ethnic group the house represents.
Given the history of marginalization of various minority groups, it is understandable why some view these ethnic-themed dorms as necessary features of Stanford’s residential life. Advocates maintain that the dorms enable minority residents to connect with peers over common experiences. They argue that these dorms also encourage students not belonging to the ethnic group to explore a culture to which they may have limited exposure.
These goals are noble. But there is a risk that in a quest to ensure students have a comfortable transitional experience, especially upon arriving at Stanford, themed dorms could inhibit residents in the long-run. While students may feel more comfortable living in Casa Zapata than in Twain, Casa Zapata could do them a disservice by potentially impeding their adjustment to and integration into Stanford.
Stanford attracts students from nearly every corner of our country and from nations across the globe. Some students come from diverse societies while others hail from racially homogenous ones. Some students may feel uneasy living in diverse dorms given the homogeneity of the communities in which they matured. Others may be daunted by the prospect of connecting to those with whom it may be difficult to find obvious commonalities. Finally, out of preference or a desire for familiarity , students may simply choose to live in ethnic-themed dorms that resemble the demographic makeup of the communities they grew up in.
However, those who are less comfortable around people of different backgrounds are arguably at a disadvantage when it comes to adjusting to Stanford. Rather than sheltering some students in ethnic-themed dorms, universities should encourage students to engage with the entirety of the school’s diversity, especially in residences; one way or another, graduates will have to face diversity beyond college and in the workplace. By allowing some students to dodge Stanford’s residential diversity, ethnic-themed dorms may impede their ability to forge relationships with people outside of their racial background.
In addition to these potentially adverse effects on students, by allowing self-selection into ethnic dorms, Stanford runs the risk of reducing the opportunities its diverse community could provide. Administrators at Stanford constantly speak of the importance of diversity. However, many of them neglect to articulate why diversity is an asset. Most seem to simply care about diversity for the sake of diversity itself. Pursuing diversity is only worthwhile if it can engender a positive outcome beyond that of diversity itself. So why should we care about diversity?
The value of diversity is as follows: in bringing together people from different backgrounds, an institution has the potential to prove to its members that characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation should not and are not what define a person. Diversity is a force for good when it brings us to see people as individuals, and in turn breaks the all too common tendency to simply perceive people as members of racial or ethnic groups.
Given our nation’s history, race continues to play an unfortunate role in American society. Nonetheless, I believe that race should not matter, and that universities — institutions with bold values at the pinnacle of social progress — should take a strong stance on opposing measures that calcify racial divides.
Strong and virtuous societies are built on principles, not identity. By amplifying characteristics that are exclusive to some, ethnic-themed dorms encourage a sort of racial and ethnic factionalism that undermines the strength of our campus community. When people feel more allegiance to a racial or ethnic group than they do to the principles of the society as a whole, the social fabric inevitably fractures. However, when one’s true identity is viewed as unique to oneself, ethnic divisions fade because exclusive identities are deemed irrelevant. Progress is realized when individuals unite behind what they believe, rather their ethnic or racial background.
Ethnic-themed dorms are home to wonderfully vibrant communities that contribute to Stanford’s rich social fabric. However, we should be cognizant of the impact of ethnic-themed dorms on our campus culture at large. Ultimately, by encouraging students to cling to their racial identities, ethnic-themed dorms instil a sort racial division that undermines both the individualism and the social cohesion that an enduring civil society requires.