In the final scene of Spike Lee’s 1988 film, “School Daze,” there is an iconic moment when an alarm clock goes off as the two protagonists turn to the camera and tell the audience, “Wake up!”
I heard that alarm clock go off again a couple weeks ago, when I was sifting through Duke’s digital archive on Flickr searching for photos that captured the early days of racial integration at Duke. I paused dumbfounded as I came across a picture of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at our own Page Auditorium.
King spoke less than two years after Duke made official efforts to integrate its campus. The audience he spoke to then was entirely different in composition than the audience he would have spoken to today. The institution’s attitudes toward students of color have also changed significantly between then and now. But beyond the public relations hullabaloo that commends integration policies at Duke, I wonder whether socially, much has changed since the 1960s.
I look around and I can see diversity on campus, even more so than the picturesque admissions brochures initially led me to believe. But I also see something else. I see divisions in diversity: divisions of race, ethnicity and very often, social class. I myself was guilty of this tendency to associate predominantly with people of my race because, maybe subconsciously, I believed that it was easier to fit into a group for which I didn’t have to prove my compatibility. At least initially, my skin color did it for me.
Before I am flagged down as a ruthless integrationist, let me add that I believe it is reasonable to assume that students adjusting to college will first turn to people of their own cultural background to seek friends. This is natural, and it’s why groups like the Black Student Alliance or Asian Students Association should exist as vital campus organizations.
Instead, I am talking about the phase after adjusting to Duke, where some of us fall into a “social daze.” Happy in our homogenous groups because we feel accepted, some of us do not make the effort to reach out to make friends of different ethnicities or venture out of our safe social nets.
And this is dangerous to the project of racial equality that King preached nearly 50 years ago. It is dangerous because the less we interact with those of other backgrounds, the less we understand their grievances and triumphs. And without finding points of similarity or ways to empathize with others, we are less likely to recognize and take action against racism.
So the next item on my unofficial bucket list before graduation is: Snap out of the diversity daze! I thought I knew enough about other cultures on campus freshman year but it was not until I participated in programs like DukeEngage in Guatemala, took a few classes on Latin American politics and culture and made friends from different ethnic backgrounds that I got even a taste of what diversity at Duke looks like.
Officially, our policies and practices may encompass full integration, but we still have a long way to go before Duke’s social and cultural practices match our policies. No administrative action can do this. It’s an internal effort that must come from a desire on the part of the student body to break the barriers of public image and deeply-rooted segregationist mindsets that encourage homogeneous association.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should walk up to a table of unknown internationals and casually eat lunch with them so you can check diversity off your bucket list. Social customs don’t necessarily carry across cultures, but “awkward” surely does. Nor does this mean that we should peace out and leave our friends to seek a new, more diverse social group. All I ask is that before you graduate, you make an effort to get to know fellow students of other backgrounds, take a class or join a student organization that expands your knowledge of another culture and risk getting out of your blinded daze.
This week we celebrate many milestones on the path toward an integrated society: MLK day, the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president and “50 years of black students at Duke.” But the student body has yet to take steps to diversify our attitudes and our social practices. No matter where you are on the path to expanding your awareness of campus diversity or how far you have to go before you graduate, the alarm clock for this bucket list item goes off now.
Sony Rao is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Sony on Twitter @sony_rao.