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Kim: Myth of self-segregation only further centers whiteness, undermines need for real progress

Justine Kim, Columnist

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I took five official Northwestern tours before coming to campus as a freshman, which is five more than many students can say they’ve taken. Each time we walked into Norris University Center, I told myself that if I was admitted to the school, I would never be at “that” table with all of the Asians. I asked myself throughout high school and prior to coming to NU, “Why do all of the (insert minority group here) always stay together? Why can’t they integrate?”

But this privileged mindset quickly changed when I became the student sitting at a Norris table among only Korean Americans. The questions I asked myself — and those often asked about the “self-segregation” of minority students, such as cultural organizations and students, who are just minding their own business — perpetuate a harmful mindset that permeates all systems and institutions. When people refer to groups of students of color as self-segregating, they perpetuate the dominance of marginalizing discourse and center whiteness as the norm.

There is still a negative connotation associated with seeing groups of black, Latinx, Asian American, international — essentially most groups that are not white and cisgender — students simply existing together in groups. But I have yet to hear, “Why do white people ALWAYS sit together?” in the same distasteful tone that I myself have used against my own communities. Unfortunately, dominant narratives question both the formal and informal gatherings of people of color in a way that labels their status as deviant from whiteness. And this ultimately results in the belief that for there to be further social progress or change for the better, groups of these self-segregated minority groups need to be better integrated into white spaces.

For instance, I recently had a conversation with a white friend at another predominantly white institution who asked me “how progress is supposed to be achieved” when white students are unable to access spaces — both literal ones, like the Black House, and general social circles — to better understand minority oppression. Progress, however, is subjective in these conversations. The definition of progress is informed by one’s position within power dynamics; having expectations that students who exist in the margins have the responsibility of explaining their oppression or integrating into mainstream spaces assumes that both parties are already on equal terms. But the problem is rooted in equity, not equality.

We’ve been taught throughout all of our educations to treat everyone equally, that “everyone was created equal,” that separate is not equal. But what this narrative fails to address is equity. One of my professors once used the analogy of a race to explain the difference. Equality essentially treats everyone the same regardless of their starting point or ending point. However, equity operates under the acknowledgement that not everyone starts from the same point and, therefore, we need to allow everyone in the race to start from the same point. For instance, the “privileges” that are given to traditionally marginalized groups do not take space or opportunity away from others; rather, they create an environment around the traumas and institutional obstacles some groups go through. Similarly, criticizing minority students to stop being self-segregating assumes they are already functioning in a level playing field, when in reality there are institutional premises that bond them together.

So now what? It’s easy to feel dejected after realizing, potentially for the first time, that you and the people around you are complicit in upholding certain ideas, such as the fallacy that is “self-segregation.” When white people assume minority groups self-segregate and choose to exclude other demographics from their social circles, they perpetuate a narrative that equality has already been achieved and expect those in the margins to make active efforts to reach out to them. But in reality, it is important for those in the center — white, dominant individuals in society — to take steps into the margins if they truly care.

In fact, I still often catch myself questioning “Am I hanging out with too many Asians? Am I being ‘too Asian?’” But when I catch myself falling back into this ignorant mindset that centers whiteness and the harm it brings to marginalized communities, I remember the importance of being educated. Educate yourself about narratives you may not hear in class. Question the beliefs you have been socialized to and the environment you grew up in. Acknowledge the privileges you have, and how that privilege functions within your identity. And lastly, be aware of the expectations you have of certain communities and how those expectations may be informed by your privilege.

Justine Kim is a SESP sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.