Thursday, July 9, 2009

The ebony & ivory approach to race relations

On Monday the New York Times had an article headline that declared "Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice." There are, apparently, studies that show that if interracial roommates (and although the language in the article refers to "roommates of different races" there is an assumption that "interracial" refers to a white and black roommate) can tough it out beyond the 10 week mark, then what the study discovers is that the white roommate undergoes a type of transformation in which s/he has less bigoted beliefs towards black people.

So, of course, I have a couple of thoughts:

*I wish the article was more explicit and detailed and careful in their use of language. Although, as noted above, they refer to roommates of different races, the article only references specific white-black interracial roommate pairings. Which is fine. But then, the article should not conflate "interracial" with white-black or even majority-minority pairings. For instance, are Latino-Asian roommates reducing their levels of prejudice against each other? Against other non-white races? Or even against whites? What about white-American Indian roommates--in other words, does the improved view of race relations hold for other majority-minority pairings other than black-white?

*Actually, there is an oddly worded paragraph that suggests that the studies in question, by Ohio and Indiana, are specifically showing positive effects for black-white pairings and NOT other types because:

Several studies have shown that living with a roommate of a different race changes students’ attitudes. One, from the University of California at Los Angeles, generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.

WTF??? OK, so my first quibble is wording (because I taught grammar and composition for years while in grad school). The parenthetical phrase embedded in the last sentence, "the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice"--does that mean that Asian Americans ARE the most prejudiced of racial groups--that Asian Americans exhibit more bigotry and racist values than others? And are Asian Americans haters towards all other groups or specific races/ethnicities?

[Aside: This reminds me of the strangest interview question I've ever been asked. It was years ago, at a small liberal arts college the nation. An octogenerian white male professor asked me: "It's clear that you can teach Japanese students, but how do you feel about teaching Filipino and Korean students?" Generally baffled, I asked him to rephrase the question, assuming I misheard or misunderstood. The interviewer repeated the question, and I answered perfunctorily (I think my generic response was something like, "I will teach any student who walks through the door of my classroom") but what I REALLY wanted to say, assuming I was going to throw that job away, was "Well, Filipino students, sure I can teach them but don't get me near a Korean student because I will just EXPLODE." Guess this guy assumed Asian Americans were a pretty prejudiced group--against one another!]

*My other beef with that above quotation is the idea that living with an Asian American means you will develop into a more bigoted individual. Really? Asian Americans are such a viral group that we will infect others with our prejudice, passing it along like the swine flu?

And furthermore, it's unclear who the target of the prejudice is. If a white guy has a Chinese American roommate, will the white guy become MORE racist towards all races or specifically towards Asian Americans?

*My other big thought about this study is the burden placed on the roommate of color; in the terms of the article, it's specifically the burden placed on black college students paired with white students I want to address. Because the person they interview for the article, Sam Boakye, said that he worked HARDER as a freshman in his classes in order to prevent his white roommate from thinking bad things about black people:

“If you’re surrounded by whites, you have something to prove,” said Mr. Boakye, now a rising senior who was born in Ghana. “You’re pushed to do better, to challenge the stereotype that black people are not that smart.”

Now, it's an interesting twist on the Claude Steel study about stereotype threat. And in some ways there may be a spark of truth, at least I can relate, to Boakye's sentiments--because I definitely felt that way in grad school. But even if it yields good results for Boakye personally (and academically) and yields potentially good results for his white roommate, who must now change his opinions about African Americans' intelligence levels, it still puts the burden on the black roommate rather than the white roommate. In other words, it's up to the black student to help the white student overcome his bigotry. And that's just a lot of responsibility to put on the black student.

But the truth is, it's always there--that pressure to "represent" and hence help change racial attitudes. And while I'm heartened to know that there are some studies that suggest that things do improve under the "Ebony & Ivory" approach to race relations in college dorms, I also want more. I want a more progressive and sustained effort on behalf of white Americans, especially WHITE ALLIES and by other people of color, cross racially and ethnically so that we're not placing the burden, always, on the person who has to "represent" his/her race/gender/sexuality/religion/fill-in-the-blank identity marker.

Finally, for those of you who grew up on MTV music videos from the '80s, here's a flash backwards to the original "Ebony & Ivory":


CVT said...

I've kind of been on hiatus lately (again). But I'm BACK!!!

Anyway, I enjoyed this post (inasmuch as you can "enjoy" something that gets you riled up a bit). I suppose I should read the original article, but I don't particularly buy that the black roommate doing well in school is going to make a real dent in the white roommate's overall opinion of black people: how often do we hear white folks claim the non-stereotypical people of color as the "exception" without actually changing their prejudices?

Jennifer said...

Hey CVT--thanks for stopping by--I have been dipping in and out of your blog and hope all is well for your upcoming travels!

I also wonder about what real "measure" of change in racial attitudes that occur in the white students after living with a black roommate. I mean, I don't doubt that for those who had really AWFUL and IGNORANT beliefs about African Americans, that they'd change and become a bit more *enlightened*--but I mean, I think it may be on the order of not asking dumb-ass questions. Among two that come to mind that African American friends have told me they were asked by their white roommates in college:

*Where is your tail? This was asked to 2 different friends (1 male, 1 female) by their roomates who HONESTLY believed that African Americans had tails--they were TOLD by their parents that this was so. My friend "M" said that his roommate (they were both at a Georgia college) was a white kid from a really small, rural town and he asked the question not maliciously but out of curiosity. I just find it hard to believe that someone who could get into college would be that stupid/ignorant, but racism is everywhere.

*Does your color run in the shower?

(sigh). OK, now I'm getting angry. Anyway, good to hear from you!