The independent news organization of Duke University

Students see racial divisions

Students of color are frustrated.

By the numbers, Duke is diverse: 10 percent black, 14 percent Asian-American and almost 7 percent Hispanic. But many undergraduates see two different Dukes: a weekday Duke and a weekend Duke. The first, they say, displays the diversity the University’s brochures tout, but the second devolves into a social scene some say is racially segregated.

Sophomore Brandon White, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity—a historically black greek organization—has seen these two Dukes.

At a barbeque his fraternity held for the residents of Edens Quadrangle earlier this semester, White saw a group of white students and an older woman observing the gathering.

“So one guy says, ‘What's happening over there?,’ White recalled. “Another guy answered, ‘Oh, the Alphas are having a barbeque.’ Then the first guy says, ‘I have one guess as to what they're cooking: fried chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aid.’”

After confronting the bystanders, White told two of his fraternity brothers about the incident, and t hey shared his indignation.

“Every race was there, we were trying to have fun,” White said later. “They say they try to cater to minorities—it's all bullshit.”

Senior Kareem Khoury, one of White's fraternity brothers, said he was shocked that the incident occurred, especially given recent student-driven efforts like programs at the Center for Race Relations.

“The event was for everyone—it wasn’t just a ‘black’ event,” he said. “It makes me feel like all the things CRR does—when stuff like this happens—it’s all pointless.”

White and his fraternity brothers were vocal in their outrage about the incident they recalled, but other students said instances of racial stereotyping were so common they no longer elicit such reactions.

Junior Thomas Stratton said he found a profile picture on thefacebook.com in which a white Duke student put on blackface—dark brown makeup worn over the whole face with a kinked, dark wig. Other students were distressed by the picture, Stratton said, but he was not as bothered as some of his friends.

“It's not surprising to me that people exist who aren't as culturally sensitive as they should be,” he said. “There are people here who will smile in your face when they see you walking down the [Bryan Center] walkway and don’t think you should be here.”

The student allegedly pictured in the photo denied ever appearing in blackface, and the photo is no longer available on thefacebook.com.

 

Mapping the social scene

A wide range of students interviewed by The Chronicle said they rarely attend social gatherings where they are among the racial minority. Usually the students said they are left wondering why their group of close friends does not include many people from other races—and they identify a variety of causes.

“My friends tell me, ‘A lot of the white students here at Duke are close-minded,’ but then I have white friends who say ‘minorities are segregating amongst themselves,’” said senior Jurgen Fernandez. “Some white people feel like the minorities need to assimilate to them, and if they don’t, they see it as the minority trying to display themselves to be different. I think sometimes they feel put off.”

Outgoing Duke Student Government President Pasha Majdi, a senior, believes students group together by race because they are polarized by social outlets, such as specific cultural groups. It is an unconscious decision, he said.

For many minority students, college is the first time they are in constant contact with other people of the same racial background. “It’s a great chance to befriend them and learn your history,” said Majdi.

Majdi added that in many situations, students will see a group of people of the same race spending time together and make assumptions about group members’ social preferences. “It's really important that... you don't write them off as someone that doesn't want to have any other friends,” he said.

Many students, however, said they cannot ignore the fact that they keep seeing the same groups of people at the same events.

“All of these events—Awaaz, the step show, Mezcla, Lunar New Year—it’s open to the public and most of them are free, but I only see minorities going to that, I don’t really see white students going to that,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said he does not believe minority students are excluding themselves. In fact, he thinks minorities are more open than the majority to creating more dialogue. The experience of being a member of a minority group shapes those students’ perspectives in ways that white students never see, he said.

“A minority has to deal with being one of the very few—white people are not,” he said. “Maybe white students aren’t comfortable being in a position of being a minority themselves—not just around black people, but with just being a minority in general.”

Junior Lanie Compton said that although she would not feel uncomfortable going to a party where she was racially a minority, she has not attended one so far in her Duke career.

“It's probably mostly because I was never invited,” she said. “It definitely wouldn’t be a problem [if I did go]. I don’t think I’d feel that weird—a party is a party.”

Sarah Schnee, a sophomore, echoed Compton’s sentiments of feeling like she would need an invitation to attend a social event thrown by a group comprised predominantly of a different race.

“If I saw a flyer for [Black Student Alliance] or Asian Students Association, just being white, I probably would not go on my own,” Schnee said. “If I’ve gone to a party sponsored by a black fraternity, it’s usually because I already have a friend in it who had invited me. If I didn’t know someone in any organization I probably would not end up going, but especially not in a situation like that.”

 

Causes of the divide

Shirin Neyzi, a sophomore, said that although weekend parties are never advertised as exclusive to one race or another, such exclusivity is implied. Although the University does not keep statistics about the racial makeup of greek organizations, Neyzi and others said those organizations contribute to the divide.

“It’s greek life that perpetuates segregation, but it’s people’s mentalities that push them to do what they want to do,” she said. “If people wanted to, they would find a way to get away from segregating themselves.”

Todd Adams, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, oversees the predominantly white Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association, the predominantly black National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Inter-Greek Council. He said that although greek organizations aim to foster a healthy campus environment through social events and cross-collaboration, they do not always accomplish that goal.

“Groups don’t want to be told with whom they should socialize,” Adams said. “We are working to create an environment where social interaction among [every greek organization] can and does occur, in both formal and informal settings.”

Many students said parties play an important role in perpetuating the social segregation they see, but they said the lack of integration extends beyond that.

“If there wasn’t one more party held on Duke's campus ever again in history, you would still see the same separation,” senior Rasul Miller said.

Some pointed to campus housing as another reason behind social fragmentation. Most IFC fraternities have housing on West Campus, but only one NPHC fraternity has housing. And although Adams said official statistics are not available, many students said minorities were underrepresented in IFC and Panhel, which represent most greek students.

 

The next step

While some students see a problem that needs to be fixed, others see a situation that mirrors the real world—and responses vary just as widely.

“People talk about social segregation at Duke, but I feel like it’s no more than the world at large,” Stratton said. “Duke is a microcosm of the world—it’s not a place where people come here and all of a sudden black people don’t want to hang with white people. People always find something to divide themselves over, and race just happens to be the most easily distinguishable thing.”

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said nobody—not even the administration—can dictate the social atmosphere on campus.

“The role of the administration will and has been to create conditions where students will create change,” Moneta said. “What we don’t do is simply force ‘hand-holding’ experiences.”

Some of the students seeking social change founded the Center for Race Relations, which aims to address race relations through education, social interaction and dialogue.

“I think social segregation isn’t so much of a problem as an issue that needs to be addressed,” said sophomore Felix Li, co-president of CRR, noting that he has seen a change in campus climate since the organization was founded. “There is more of an awareness and willingness to talk about identity—willingness for the silence to be broken.

Although many people see the same social divisions on campus, not everyone thinks a solution is necessary.

“Too much attention is given to trying to make everyone feel like they’re the same here. We’re not all the same,” Stratton said. “There are differences in our cultures that are there, and will be there. But we can coexist in these different cultures.”

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