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Shades of Gray: The Mosaic: the reality of race in social life

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: News, Top Stories


In 2007, 94.5 percent of student respondents to a university diversity survey said Brandeis had exposed them to a group different than their own. In the same survey, 51 percent of students responded “not at all” to the question: “To what extent does the culture of Brandeis support people in getting to know people of different backgrounds?”

This discrepancy is still seen today.

“Have you seen the lunch room on a daily basis?” JV Souffrant ’14 asked. “You have white students sitting with white students, Asian students sitting with Asian students and black students sitting with black students.”

“It’s like, hey, I thought we were diverse,” he said. “It looks diverse but nobody is coming together.”

Indeed, student interviews and surveys have revealed one basic truth to race and social life at Brandeis: No matter the school’s mission statement or racial makeup, cross-racial student interaction only occurs when students will it.

Everyday interactions

In a survey of 8 percent of the undergraduate population, many students were quick to give non-traditional responses to the question: “What does the word ‘race’ mean to you?” Many responses echoed the response of one student: “I don’t believe in race.”

More than 20 respondents stated that race was “a social construct.” One went so far as to say that race was “basically meaningless.”

Yet racial disparities and barriers to social advancement continue to persist.

In the same survey, 27 percent of students surveyed said they are more likely to hang out with their own race or ethnic group, with 8 percent strongly agreeing with the statement. Forty-five percent of respondents said they felt more comfortable in a social setting when there were more members of their own race present.

Maya Grant ’13 said that self-segregation of students in their daily interactions is not intentional but merely a symptom of students’ comfort levels.

“At lunch you sit with your friends who you relate with,” she said. “If those people happen to be your race then I feel like [people assume] races want to sit together.

“It gets put [into] this social identity but really, when you think about it, lunch is an hour and if I want to sit with someone of my race who I am comfortable with, and the rest of the day I will be in classes with people I don’t know then why does it matter?” she asked.

Ipyani Grant ’12 agreed that daily interactions are not so much influenced by race as they are by one’s group of friends. Still, he thinks race does impede people from stepping out of their comfort zones.

“Often times I don’t think people are comfortable enough to speak to someone they are used to seeing and, in particular, someone of a different race,” he said.

Nathan Hakimi ’11 explained Brandeis’ social interactions by comparing the university to Brooklyn, NY.

“On the one hand you have a lot of Jews, some of whom are really religious, and then you have racial minorities and black people, but they don’t interact,” Hakimi said.

While Hakimi said he has a very eclectic group of friends made up of students of different backgrounds, he said he does not have any close black or African-American friends.

“I don’t have any reason not to—I have a desire to [befriend people],” he said. “But there is the question of: How do you become friends with people who are so different from you?”

Bethlehem Solomon ’14 said her friends from high school were racially diverse so she “didn’t initially come [to Brandeis] and say ‘All right, all the black people will be my friends,’ but when I look at my friends now, they are very heavily one race.

“I guess that’s just the way it is here,” she said. “It’s diverse but we don’t use it to gain new perspectives from our peers.”

While students agreed that, for the most part, the racial stratification of Brandeis’ social life is not caused by any animosity between the races, there have still been instances where minority students feel stereotyped.

Souffrant said, while he has “not experienced blatant racism,” he has “seen small signals of it.

“It’s the kind of thing where I have been walking back to my dorm at night and a student walking towards you looks at you and then starts walking a little faster,” he said.

Zakaria Hussein (TYP) said he has been met with “ignorant questions” about his personal background, which he attributes to his race.

“I had a girl come up to me and ask ‘So you’re from Roxbury, isn’t that where all the people get shot?’” he said. “It’s not her fault; it’s the fault of the media and society. But that shit still pisses me off.”

The danger of assumptions

More prevalent than overt racism on campus are the incorrect and offensive assumptions many minorities face.

Ipyani Grant said, “It is hard to communicate with people that don’t really understand you, and often times there’s a question of: Do they really want to understand you?

“Do people really care or do people already have their minds made up?”

A common assumption faced by students of color is that they all belong to scholarship programs like Posse, TYP, MLK or the newly inaugurated Gateway Scholars program.

“I think people look down on TYP and think it’s just an opportunity for Brandeis to incorporate minorities,” Maya Grant said. “They see Posse as an elite scholarship program; at the same time, sometimes people are confused by why minorities would be in an elite scholarship program and assume it to be financial. And MLK is just something in between.”

Beneva Davies ’13, an African-American regular admit, meaning she is not a scholarship student, is often assumed to be on scholarship. She commented that upon first coming to Brandeis, it can be harder to relate within minority groups: “[Minority students] automatically assume you come from the same background as them, but when you’re a regular admit, have a different background and come from a different state as them, it is a little harder to make friends.”

Some assumptions are more pernicious than others. In addition to being mistakenly typecast as a basketball player on countless occasions, Napoleon Lherisson ’11 described an experience when he “was speaking with a Brandeis police officer and he said, ‘I didn’t realize how smart you are.’

“I thought, ‘who do you think I am, or better yet, who do you assume I am?’”

Many assumptions take root in the variety of ways in which students choose to define their identity.

Hussein, who is originally from Somalia, identifies himself as “African, not black,” a distinction many students disregard, instead choosing to look at him through their own racial lens.

Hakimi, who is “technically white,” feels a similar pressure to define.

“On a census, I am Caucasian, but the fact that I look ethnic in some way signifies me as different from white,” Hakimi, whose mother is white and father is Iranian, said. “So what does that make me? Am I white? Half-white?

“Technically the part of the Middle East my family is from is still Caucasian but, if you look at my skin, it’s not white.”

Judaism as a race

Hakimi’s struggle to define his race is mirrored by some Jews on campus who believe Judaism is not only a religion and ethnicity, but a race as well.

At least 10 respondents to The Hoot’s survey felt strongly that Judaism constitutes a race, with one outright rejecting the conflation of Jewish and white, saying “I’m not white, but Ashkenazi.”

On the fraught nature of self-identifying as Jewish, Miriam Goldman ’14 wrote, “People, especially other Jewish people, tend to disagree with my race and refer to me as white, which I find very offensive.”

The struggle to define Judaism is not unique to Brandeis and scholars have grappled with how to encapsulate the complex identity, which, depending on the person, can mean anything from religion, to culture, to nationality, to race.

One student said they considered Judaism to be their race because being white made them “simply feel boring.

“It may be obnoxious to say that I am bored to simply check white, but there is no white culture and that is sad to me.”

Vu Truong ’11 expressed frustration with whites who disavow their whiteness in order to identify as Jewish, Polish, Irish and Italian because in doing so they often forget the discrimination their people historically faced but with which they are no longer confronted.

“Some students kid themselves into believing that they are not white because they come from these [historically discriminated] backgrounds and feel culturally disintegrated that others see them as white,” he said. “The fact of the matter is all these identities have been absorbed into the white mainstream, so people from these backgrounds have traded ‘culture’ for the social advantages that come from being the default.”

On another front, Gila Heller ’13 said she will not live with students who are not Orthodox Jews because of different customs but admits “being Orthodox sometimes limits how much I am able to interact with other races.”

Hakimi, a Persian Jew, said the Orthodox community can feel alienating even to less observant Jews.

“Who wants to sit with the Shomer Negiah kids and try and figure out how that all works?” he asked about Orthodox Jewish students who choose not to have any physical contact with members of the opposite gender until marriage. “People don’t see the Jews in Sherman as a deserving group of our outreach.”

Race relations 101

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “In general, my race significantly affects my social life,” 30 percent of respondents to The Hoot’s survey said they disagreed, and 28 percent said they “strongly” disagreed.

Still, nearly all survey respondents and interviewees agree that race plays a significant role in social life at Brandeis. While Brandeis students, on the whole, report satisfaction with the level of campus diversity (with 32 percent agreeing that they were satisfied), 10 percent of respondents report never having been in a close interracial friendship with a student during their time at Brandeis. Forty percent report never having attended a party where most attendees are racial minorities, something Davies finds outrageous.

“There are full minority parties and if you deny that fact then I don’t know where you’ve been,” she said.

One student was in the minority saying, “When I tried to answer questions about who I’m friends with, I had to stop to think about what race people were because it’s not generally something I consider.” Others noted the human tendency to group together by similarity, and that students in racially, ethnically or culturally homogeneous groups can benefit from shared experiences.

One respondent describes her experience with having a roommate who is an international student.

“She explained to me that, as a Chinese student, she felt she could only be friends with other Chinese students. I asked her if it would be possible for me to be friends with her friends and she thought not. She told me that the Chinese, along with other minorities on campus, have their own private communities that are inaccessible to others.”

Indeed, according to The Hoot’s survey, Asians and South-Asians are more likely to have race affect their choice of friends, with 89.6 percent saying they believed race had a significant influence on their social lives, the highest percentile of any other minority category.

Other students, however, distinguished a difference in functionality of their friends within heterogeneous friend groups.

“Being able to understand and console someone when they are going through something [is a big part of friendship]. My minority and non-minority friends do that all the same,” Davies said, adding that having race in common does sometimes mean friends could better relate in certain situations. “When I am dealing with something that is specifically about race, no matter how much my non-minority friend wants to understand and how much they love and care for me, the fact is that, unless you are a part of that group, you can’t really understand the struggles.”

Ipyani Grant echoes that sentiment.

“I don’t believe there is a difference in trust but a difference in understanding,” he said.

Race within the hook-up culture

While many friendships may cross race lines, sex and romantic relationships rarely do.

Daniel Gutman ’12 regrets the low prevalence of interracial sex which he relates to the low integration of social groups at Brandeis.

Lherisson thinks black women on campus have a false perception of black men, saying, “Black girls perceive black guys to hook up with anything.”

He believes black male promiscuity is exaggerated in the media and also receives unwarranted attention from white women.

Davies reiterated this sort of special attention to black males.

“I’ve had white girlfriends who say, ‘Oh my god, I just want to hook up with a black guy!’”

Questions of whether people are seen as individuals or as sexual novelties surfaces often when students have sex with members of other races.

Ipyani Grant wonders if this is just an imagined issue and if people just have innocent curiosities. “I’ve heard girls say ‘that guy’s really hot’ and he’s black but I don’t know if it’s because she thinks he’s more sexually adequate than someone else or if it’s because she sincerely thinks he’s hot,” he said.

Others who have engaged in interracial relations think that experiences between the races result in different sexual experiences.

Gutman said that his own experiences lead him to believe that “chicks of different races act differently.

“Sometimes the black chicks are a little wilder; the Asians do their own thing, they kind of like it to be brought to them; Spanish chicks are kind of a little bit wild but more conservative; white chicks can go either way—sometimes they can be boring.”

Ipyani Grant doesn’t see his sexual experiences as racially distinctive and said race is never part of his preferences. “I don’t really associate race with who I like; I never considered someone’s race before I started to advance that relationship or tell them how I felt about them,” he said.

Truong is skeptical that attraction can be colorblind.

“A lot of straight Brandeis students talk a good game about how miscegenation laws are outdated and that love is love, but even students who are willing to hook-up or date interracially are doing so within the bounds of their socialization,” he said.

He continued to say that sometimes interracial “hook-ups” are considered more acceptable based on the gender of the racial minority, saying, “I feel like students on this campus are more OK with a black guy and a white girl than they are with a black girl and a white guy.”

As a white male within the queer community, Chase Hiller ’12 says, “Although on a societal level I may seem to be underprivileged, within the queer community gay men are actually considered privileged,” pointing to the fact that sexual orientation can often add further layers to the complexity of race relations within sexual relationships.

Interracial relationships

Racial differences become more apparent in interracial relationships, and 65 percent of respondents to The Hoot’s survey said they have not been in an interracial relationship while at Brandeis.

Marisa Tashman ’12 is Jewish and has been dating an African-American since her first year.

“Dating outside of my race at Brandeis is particularly interesting because it is very rare to find here,” she said. “I am Jewish and I know that it is important in many Jewish families to date other Jews, which leads many Jewish students to not give those underrepresented minorities a chance.”

Tashman thinks her relationship gets special attention because her boyfriend is not just a minority but black. “I’ve gotten some looks and reactions that are very surprised when I say who I am dating,” she said. “I think it would be different if I was dating an Asian man or even someone who is white but not Jewish.”

The emphasis of dating within one’s culture is not limited to Jews.

“Seeing two black people who are committed to each other is beautiful because not enough people see black love. A lot of people think that a black guy is just going to bang her, knock her up and leave her,” Lherisson said, attributing this assumption to media stereotypes.

But Tashman also believes there is a transformative aspect to interracial dating. “I’ve just become more aware of things and see things differently—like I will notice if a TV show only has white people in it.”

Ipyani Grant said the only difference he sees in dating outside of his race is his ability to relate to his partner

“When you date someone within your race there is already that foundation in which you both basically understand each other culturally,” he said.

It’s not easy being Greek

Fraternity life, a place where many “hook-ups” occur on campus, is often viewed as a place devoid of diversity.

But, according to Gutman, president of Zeta Beta Tau, things began to change in 2005 when his ZBT brothers realized black students were not joining fraternities and made an effort to “try to break down that barrier.”

“We’ve had African-Americans in every class after,” he said.

Ipyani Grant, one of the first African-Americans to join, speaks of his experiences of rushing an all-white and Jewish fraternity.

“Even for myself, it was kind of shocking and surreal to be in an environment where I [was] around all-Jewish people and in an environment where they’re more comfortable,” he said. “I hear sometimes that I am the first black person they ever met and, although that is odd to me being that I’m from New York City, I think it is a positive thing.”

He added that being in ZBT has been a very inclusive experience for him where he has made real friendships. “They honestly care about each brother as an individual and not by race.”

Gutman said integration into the fraternity is not always perfect because many of the brothers have never been exposed to people of a different culture than theirs and so misunderstandings do arise. When that happens, a brother not involved in the incident serves as the mediator until the issue is resolved.

Gutman said this mediation might come as a surprise to people who stereotype fraternities as being insensitive.

Last month, ZBT and the sorority Delta Phi Epsilon coordinated a Diversity Summit. Seeing the growing trends of diversity in their respective organizations, Tashman, who is president of DphiE, and Gutman saw the need for cultural education.

The summit, facilitated by Jamele Adams, the associate dean of student life, aimed to break down stereotypes.

“One of the most interesting topics [we discussed] was whether racial comedy is funny,” Ipyani Grant said. “Some people sided with yes, because it addressed issues that we should be talking about and that people don’t want to talk about using [comedy] as a channel, and some people thought it was negative in that it further ingrained the stereotypes people already had.”

This increase of diversity in Greek life comes from a bigger interest from minorities, Hakimi, who is a member of Alpha Delta Phi, said.

“We like it if there are diverse rushes—that’s awesome, that’s an affirmative attitude. We are not going to give minorities preference, like affirmative action, but [we will] if we like you and want to be your friend.”

Taking safety measures

Director of Public Safety at Brandeis Ed Callahan said the police force has diversified along with the student body during recent years, with an Asian officer, a black female officer and a Hispanic officer.

“Its best that we kind of mirror the community as far as diversity, try to hire what is reflective of the community.”

Additionally, every year the officers undergo diversity training which incorporates lessons taught by student groups like the South Asian Student Association and the Brandeis Black Student Organization to make sure racial profiling does not occur.

“In a criminal or a judicial situation, race doesn’t really play any part of it. It’s the situation itself. Obviously coupled with that is, if there are any services we can provide the person from a cultural perspective, then we reach out to that, but [a person’s race] is not the be-all and end-all,” Callahan said.

Ipyani Grant said he was satisfied with Public Safety’s training.

“I haven’t had any issues with the Brandeis Police; I think the Brandeis Police definitely approach each situation individually.”

Lherisson, however, thinks issues of discrimination still arise around crime at Brandeis.

“They want us to do those things and it’s easy to put blame on us because of the social condition of African-American men in this country.”

Dean Adams said that, while relations between racial minorities and the police may have had issues in the past, it has greatly improved in recent years.

“There was a kind of crazy relationship between police and males of color but now for the past two years [Callahan] and Waltham police come together and have a very authentic conversation.”

Callahan said he tries to have an interactive approach to public safety precisely in order to avoid making any group feel alienated.

“Through the years, there have been students that have had negative interactions with the police … and we try to reach out to that group or that student,” he said. “That’s why we reach out to International Cultural Center or the Men of Color Association, not just because they are people of color, but they might have concerns about police from different districts.”

“It takes time for there to be trust, especially if experiences are bad with white police officers—[it] makes it difficult for me to regain trust,” Lherisson pointed out.

Callahan also sees this mistrust as an issue that comes from the reality of the civil injustices perpetrated by police forces in some students’ home communities.

“It’s common that you pick up the paper every day and unfortunately you see that the police did this, shot this person, beat this person and I think that I can’t sit here and say those things don’t happen, they do,” Callahan said.

In order for Public Safety to have a beneficial relationship with the community, everyone has to take steps to come together, Callahan said.

But he said, in order to do so, it may require more patience and less force: “Education is good but being part of the community is equally important. You could be the smartest person on the block but not have the slightest sense of social skills or how to interact with somebody who is different than you.”

Reasons for racial discourse

Lisa Purdy ’14 said there is an absence of honest discourse about race on campus.

“I think we are at a midway point. There is definitely segregation, but it’s nothing intentional and I think that’s something,” she said. “There is a boundary between not understanding and wanting to know but not knowing exactly what questions to ask. Is it more polite not to say anything?”

Hakimi said he hasn’t made an effort “to relate with black people” in part because “a lot of times I feel like when you go in the forest and you see the wolf and you go, ‘Oh, my God, the wolf is going to eat me,’ and your mom goes, ‘It’s more afraid of you than you are of it.’

“It’s a mutual inhibition that you won’t be accepted—because you don’t know the customs,” he said.

This semester Hakimi was afforded the rare opportunity to make connections with minority students by going on the Posse Plus retreat.

“I don’t get that usually,” he said.

When the conversation about race does happen, Lherisson said it happens in academic settings where students are asked to discuss racial strife abroad. There are few similar opportunities to discuss race relations on campus.

“It’s so easy [to discuss] racism in South Africa, but not here in America, here in Boston, here at Brandeis,” he said. “It is so weird to me how these same issues are happening around the world and a student can write a 20-page paper on [race in South Africa], but when they are asked about those same issues here, they have nothing to say.”

Dean Adams believes that, over time, more people will be more willing to talk about race relations—pointing out that the conversation is not one that has been around for very long.

“1964—that was the first time that anyone in this country tried to do anything about living together, with affirmative action,” he said. “That was [President John F.] Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and both of those people got assassinated.

“It’s only 47 years after that. The whole conversation about living together is not that old.”