The Self-Segregation Choice

As Asian Americans and Asian Canadians have become more visible on university campuses, they have been accused of self-segregation, occasionally in negative or outrageous ways.   In this video, the Fung brothers talk about self-segregation on American college campuses and pros and cons of the choices that Asian American students can make.  While these choices are not available for all Asian Americans college (not every campus has sufficient numbers of Asian ethnic students), I think that question this video and articles like this one from Professor Julie Park raise is an important one – are college students (not just Asian American or Asian Canadian ones) missing out on valuable and increasingly rare inter-racial and inter-cultural interactions?

In their video, the Fung brothers cite some advantages of being in the bubble, like being more comfortable.  They also cite drawbacks to self-segregation, such as missing out a variety of campus activities and different kinds of friends.  They describe themselves as “floaters,” dropping into the “Asian” bubble but having friends and activities outside.    While I agree with many of their observations and on being a floater, I would also agree with a number of criticisms of the Fung Brothers – that they over-generalize too much their experiences as representative as Asian American.  My own experiences and that of my children have some significant differences.

The Fung brothers would classify my undergraduate self as a “natural” since my high school had a lot of Asians there and most of my friends there were Asians.  But attending college Asian American gatherings felt at awkward – most of the other Asian Americans were not from large Asian American communities.  Some other Asian American students from the West Coast or Hawaii, with similar backgrounds to me, felt the same.  While it could have been an East Coast/West Coast thing and I foundly remember road trips and other events with the campus Asian American organization, my closest friends ended up being black and Hispanic – I felt a lot more affinity to them than to many other Asian American students.

After a year working, I went to a UC for graduate school.   The Fung Brothers talk about the “Asian bubble,” but I saw it differently – there didn’t seem to be a single “Asian” bubble, but a “Chinese Bubble” and a “Filipino bubble” and so on.  That was a while ago, but it seems to be the case now, starting at the high school level.   I remember doing an admissions interview a few years ago with a local student from a diverse high school that had many Asian Americans go there.  When I mentioned joining an Asian American organization, she laughed, wondering why different kinds of Asian Americans would ever get together like that.  Many other Asian Americans also ask that question.

My children would seem to be “naturals” since they went to a mostly Asian K-8 school and went (and go) to high schools with lots of other Asians.  While they have lots of Asian friends, they don’t hang out in their high school’s “Asian bubble,” specifically with Asian American ethnic organizations.  In college, the Daughter had an experience as a little sister of an Asian American fraternity, and that ended up being a real turnoff for her.   She describes that Asian American frat as “Gran Torino without the guns.”  When she saw Akrypti’s post on Asian American Greeks, she delighted in sharing it with her friends who were in Asian American frats.  Her experience (and some of her Asian American friends also) with campus Asian cultural organizations is that they are clique-y and exclusive.

While Number One Son also has a lot of Asian American friends, he spends more time in high school doing sports and refuses join the high school Filipino club.  He seems to have some antipathy toward most Asian ethnic organizations, but he will go to their parties though, as he revealed in this conversation with me:

Me:  What does J. [Number One Son’s friend] do for extracurriculars?
Number One Son:  He does Interact as an extracurricular.
Me:  Isn’t that a heavily Asian organization?
Number One Son:  Yes.
Me:  Don’t you go to Interact dances?
Number One Son:  Yes.  It’s really Asian, but the girls know really know how to grind and twerk.

I guess teenage hormones overcome any reluctance about ethnic organizations!

How much of a problem is this really?   This study from Princeton says that as diversity increases on campuses, self-segregation also increases.  Park also cites work that sororities and fraternities membership increases self-segregation (The Daughter would agree).   On the other hand, while minority groups are often the targets of criticism regarding self-segregation, Thomas Espenshade, also from Princeton, finds that whites form the on-campus group with the greatest degree of self-segregation.  This Reuter poll finds that 40% of whites and 25% of non-whites do not have friends outside of their race.  Professor Anthony Antonio’s study of UCLA in the late 1990s says that while many students feel that the school is racially balkanized, only 1 in 6 students had friendships only within their ethnic group.

I would agree with Professor Park and others that diversity, whether on campus or elsewhere, is something to take advantage of while the opportunity is there.  While it’s okay to hangout with people of your same ethnicity and I can understand the comfort factor, growth can occur when you are challenged by and deal with people of different experiences and viewpoints.  I know from my own career, that some of my more creative moments have come from understanding and synthesizing the perspectives of others – indeed, research supports this way of boosting creative thought.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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