A little empathy can go a long way
Kevin M. Huie
Two years ago, I began my first year working in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. I sat in the front hallway of the Center for Social Concerns, greeting the students arriving at our office-sponsored Welcome Back Dance. As we expected, the back room was filled with a diverse group of students, and admittedly there were very few Caucasian students. At some point in the night, two first-year students, apparently roommates, walked in, full of energy. One was African-American, one was Caucasian. After introductions, the two followed the music to the back. I turned to a colleague and said, "Let's see how long he stays. I give him 15 minutes." Not less than two minutes went by before the Caucasian student made a bee line for the front door.
I think I know why it happened. You might gander an educated guess as well. After all, a first-year Caucasian student at the University of Notre Dame finds himself in an unfamiliar setting, and he decides to get out of it. I may not necessarily blame him. Sounds logical. Even sounds familiar. How many people do the exact same thing? Not that I or anyone else knows the exact reason why he left. But I think we do. And we think it's logical.
So, is this really a problem? You find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, and you decide to get out of it. OK, no problem. I encourage people to expand their comfort zones, try new things, and expand their circles, but in the end, if you are uncomfortable in a particular situation, why go through the agony? And especially a first-year student, who is trying to adjust to college.
Funny how that is ... a Caucasian student finds himself or herself of the minority somewhere on campus and has that choice to get out. I may just consider it a luxury. Because if you are of the minority, it is that much harder to get out. As a minority student, you can't walk into class, into a dormitory, into the dining hall, and "get out of the situation" just by walking out the door. What would you do? Maybe you would look for a friend in the hall who understands, who is like you, and feels the same way. Or maybe you would go to dinner at the dining hall and sit down together. Or maybe you might even stop by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Of course, someone somewhere thinks you are segregating yourself, separating from the Notre Dame community. Is this really segregation? I prefer to call it group cohesion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hanging out with people like yourself.
Traditionally, students of color on campus face many challenges at a predominately white institution like Notre Dame. Traditionally, many students just don't understand. African Americans, Latinos/as and Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans account for less than 16 percent of the student body population and often face the more difficult challenge of adjusting to the Notre Dame culture and the racial prejudices that have permeated through American education in the past half century. Although the projected panacea is to diversify the student body and the faculty, current conditions reveal the need for initiatives that address the alienation under-represented students often feel.
For all those who have trouble grasping the potential challenges of students of color at Notre Dame, I have a suggestion. If you are of the majority population or even feel comfortable at a predominately white institution like Notre Dame, imagine yourself at another school where the majority of students are African-American, Asian American, Latino, Native American ... How would you feel? How comfortable are you knowing that when you go to class, walk into your residence hall, or eat at the dining hall, you might be different than most of the people there? Honestly, how would you feel?
However it is you think you might feel, it's OK. It's OK to be apprehensive or anxious, uneasy or unaccepted. It's OK to look for people like you and hang out with them. And if it is hard, you may need someone to understand, someone to empathize. Not that you need to be treated as a basketcase, but things might be a little more challenging for you.
For some students, it's not so easy to be at Notre Dame because it is not what they know, not what they might even have expected. Hopefully, we recognize this unfortunate possibility in others, and understand why some students are having a difficult time at Notre Dame, why they choose to be around others like them, and even a reason why the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs exists. Try to understand. Then maybe, just maybe, things can get a little better for those students who find Notre Dame a little more difficult than you do.
What's Your Shade is a bi-weekly column sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. It appears every other Wednesday in The Observer. Kevin M. Huie is the Assistant Director of OMSA.
The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, September 22, 1999