Students discuss racial climate

When asked to describe race relations at Duke, a small group of students emphasized a campus environment characterized by a lack of communication, interaction and understanding between different racial groups. Does the perception reflect Duke as it exists today, or as it was over a decade ago? A forum Monday night found the answer to be both.

In a small group discussion in the Bryan Center's Multicultural Center, sophomore Katherine Young used a decade-old segment of the popular television news-magazine 60 Minutes to facilitate debate on race relations at Duke, past and present. Student participants quickly identified issues that they said have consistently served as racial barriers at Duke, and shared perspectives on causes and possible solutions.

The segment, taped at Duke in 1993, depicted a omnipresent divide between black and white students on campus.

"People who are similar naturally come together," said a black student on the tape. "But the problem is larger here. The divide between whites and blacks is apparent everywhere you go."

Also in the segment, many minority students said they felt labeled as "quota fillers," admitted as a result of affirmative action. Others emphasized the lack of interaction between predominantly white and black greek organizations, and the perception of Main West Campus as "white" and Central Campus as "black," as major problems. Current students from a variety of racial backgrounds concluded Monday that the issues raised on the tape remain the hot-button issues today.

"I have been told to my face that I am a statistic, here to meet a quota," said sophomore Traci Bethea, who is black. "But if you lash out in response, you play into the stereotype. If you keep quiet you justify the person who said it."

Lydia Watts, a freshman who is also black, said certain norms make interracial friendships more difficult than others.

"Forming and maintaining friendships with members of different racial groups often proves challenging. My [white] friends didn't see me as black. My white friends think, you're not black, you're different. It's like being stuck between a rock and a hard place," Watts said.

Several participants countered that efforts made on behalf of groups to make minority students more comfortable-such as a weekend targeting incoming black students-may contribute to the racial divide by fostering an "us-versus-them" mentality.

"I disagree with that sentiment," Bethea said. "[Black student recruitment] weekend serves a important purpose for black students."

"For many of us, coming to Duke means that people at home no longer see us as 'black,'" she added.

As the debate progressed, the students concluded that the key to overcoming barriers and stereotypes lies in seeing people as individuals first, and group members second.

"When you really try to get to know someone, you see their personality, not their skin color," said sophomore Katie McNabb.

The participants emphasized that although racial issues have continued to be a problem at Duke and on college campuses across the nation, progress is not out of reach.

"I don't think that most individuals feel negatively toward other groups, but enough people who disagree don't speak up," Bethea said.

Young, who organized the discussion as a part of a course in Women As Leaders, made clear that her intention was to provide students with a chance to learn from each another, so that more individuals would have the information and experience to speak their minds.

"I was at a conference on race last week, and a black woman told me that I would never understand how she felt, or understand what she and her family had been put through," said Young, who is white. "To a large extent, that may be the case, but organizing this forum allowed me to address the issue as best I could. This is something about Duke that has bothered me for a long time, and it needs to be improved."


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