A Vicious Cycle

By Carl Takei / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
For much of its history, Brown was an exclusive playpen for the most privileged members of white America. In recent decades, however, increasing numbers of students who are women, economically disadvantaged, or members of racial and ethnic minorities have been admitted through the Van Wickle gates. Today, despite its continuing financial-aid deficiencies, the University has shown an admirable commitment to diversity. So, why is it that so much of Brown remains, well, white?

Take, for instance, the Brown Daily Herald, where I am a columnist and photographer. The BDH has no black students on its editorial board. None. In fact, among nonwhite groups, only Asian Americans are well represented. Of twenty-seven BDH editors, ten are Asian American; the rest are white.

Why aren’t there any African-American or Latino editors? Speculation about Asian-Jewish-Anglo conspiracies aside, the most likely explanation is that the editorial board simply reflects the composition of the reporting staff: Asian Americans are the only nonwhites who volunteer for the BDH in any real numbers. As an Asian American, I can’t claim to understand all the reasons blacks and Latinos don’t volunteer to work at the BDH, but I know many African-Americans believe that the BDH is racist, asserting that the paper’s coverage of African-American events is sparse, inaccurate, and overly negative.

Is the BDH racist? It’s true that the quality of its ethnic and racial reporting ranges from responsible, pedestrian journalism to wildly inaccurate sensationalism; but this is more likely due to the harried pace of busy college students’ lives and to reporters’ unfamiliarity with the Third World community than it is to racism. A more diverse reporting staff and editorial board would do much to improve the quality and consistency of the BDH’s reporting in these areas. Unfortunately, the dearth of blacks and Latinos at the paper reinforces the belief that the BDH is racist, discouraging the very people who could make a difference by volunteering to work there.

This vicious cycle is not unique to the BDH. The booklets for the fraternity and sorority rushes, for example, are almost devoid of anything but white faces. It would be easy to assume that the reason for this is that all fraternities and sororities are racist, sexist throwbacks to the 1950s, but I believe the explanation isn’t that simple. Take, for example, the two most progressive members of the Greek Council - Zeta Delta Xi (Zete) and Alpha Delta Phi (AD Phi). (Full disclosure: I am a member of Zete.) For years, both Zete and AD Phi have been quietly defying the traditional frat-boy and sorority-girl stereotypes. These organizations went coed in 1982 and 1973, respectively, and now attract a roughly gender-balanced variety of both straight and gay women and men. However, like the rest of the Greek system, Zete and AD Phi are largely white. Very few students of color attend the rush events for any Greek house, and those who do show up encounter a predominantly white world in which they feel uncomfortable and out of place. Thus, very few end up joining.

Organizations such as the BDH and Zete find them-selves grappling with a horrible chicken-and-egg problem. How can any organization make itself more diverse if its very need to diversify makes it undesirable to minorities? The answer depends on minority trailblazers. Brown needs min- ority students who are willing to join historically white organizations. Such trailblazers can break the vicious cycle by succeeding in these largely white arenas, clearing the path for other minorities to join them.

Minority students at Brown must take a risk and change predominantly white campus organizations from the inside. Such a step may feel uncomfortable and uncertain, but if we remain in self-segregated groups, everyone ­ even students who are members of ethnic and racial minorities ­ will be robbed of important new growth and learning. And aren’t learning and self-exploration what Brown is all about?

Carl Takei is a geology concentrator from Sacramento, California. An earlier version of this essay was published in the Brown Daily Herald.

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March / April 2000