Some find comfort, some find threat in ethnic dorms


October 17, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- For a peek at campus-style racial reality today, there's probably no better place to look than Wesleyan University.

While the student body is diverse and seems free of racial discord, Wesleyan has officially acknowledged the obvious -- that some minority students would simply rather have their own place to call home.

The result is a hodgepodge of special campus residences geared to black, Latino, gay, Jewish and Asian-American students, as well as female students of color.

Universities across the country -- from elite East Coast institutions such as Cornell to public campuses such as Arizona State, but none in Maryland -- have established residences geared to minorities.

Supporters say such housing strengthens racial groups on campuses where they are vastly outnumbered by the white majority.

"I live there because I want to be around other black students," Wesleyan sophomore Dallas Glenn says of the Malcolm X House, home to 26 black students. "It's not a need to separate from white students. It's to be closer to other black students."

Although students on most campuses tend to eat, study and socialize with people from the same racial background, many in academia are asking if it's healthy for universities to go one step further and set up housing based on race.

College, they say, is supposed to immerse students in the world's diversity, not consign them to their own enclaves. Ethnically oriented housing, while well-intentioned, only fragments campuses that are already politically charged by racial issues, they say.

Even the "Doonesbury" comic strip weighed in recently, suggesting that some campuses working to make minority students more comfortable are, in the process, simply drifting back toward the bad old days of segregation.

"I have the deepest reservation about the increasing tendency within the campus to define ourselves in terms of groups or factions," Cornell President Frank H. T. Rhodes said recently, explaining his decision to veto a special house for gay and lesbian students to go along with existing dorms for American Indian and black students.

"I would express this same view if presented with requests for similar living units from other racial, religious, ethnic or special interest groups."

Diverse enclave

Seven students live in the wood-frame, Asian/Asian-American House on the outskirts of the Wesleyan campus. The house has a kitchen, but the students share few communal meals. A planned library devoted to Asian-American issues is just a shelf with a few books on a stairway landing.

A campus stereotype that students in the house are immersed and knowledgeable in Asian-American issues is not true. Rather, says Katherine Chan, a junior, the house is simply a home for seven students who are trying to learn more about their heritage.

"We're all coming from different backgrounds," says Ms. Chan, 20. "It's important for us to be able to explore our Asian backgrounds."

While all campus housing is technically open to all students, most of the ethnically designated housing does not attract outsiders as residents. The Asian house residents, in fact, were worried earlier this year about who might fill a vacancy there.

"To us, it was very, very important that all the house members were Asian or Asian-American," Ms. Chan said.

Comforting haven

At the other end of campus sits Malcolm X House, a two-story brick and cinder block building. Except for the oversize, 20-year-old murals of Malcolm X in the hallways, it is your basic homely dormitory, with communal bathrooms and cramped bedrooms.

The house was founded more than 20 years ago, in the wake of racial problems on the newly integrated campus. These days, there are few in-house programs that center on African-American issues, although some of its 26 residents say they would like to do more of that. Most outside students visit the house only for parties, which draw large, multi-racial crowds to the basement lounge.

Malcolm X mostly provides a refuge for black students who may feel overwhelmed on the predominantly white campus.

"The house is where I can be myself," says freshman Semeka Smith, 18. "I don't feel like I have to act a certain way."

"There are some students who feel the need to escape and retreat into a safe environment, to get refreshed and re-energized before they go back into the world," says Frank A. Tuitt, Wesleyan's housing director.

Trying to ease friction

An hour north of Wesleyan, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has special housing geared to blacks and Latinos, gays and lesbians, American Indians and international students. The housing, which may just be one floor of a dormitory, serves as a partial antidote to racial problems that have sporadically plagued the sprawling, 23,000-student campus.

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