In speaking with white folks who attend other colleges, I have run across an odd, recurring train of thought. It goes something like this: “At X College, students are very segregated. This is most clearly seen in the dining hall. All the white students sit together, all the Black students sit together, all the Asian students sit together,” and so on.
When pressed why this might be, I have generally gotten an appeal to “human nature” as a response. While that specific phrase might not be used, some kind of appeal to a “natural tendency” for human beings to gather together by race is usually made. While it is typically phrased in terms of a more generalizable “like seeks like” formation (“People try to make friends with similar interests and experiences…”), the underlying assumption that there is some simple, easy kinship between all members of a particular race goes unmentioned and unquestioned.
To be sure, there are real reasons why students at a college, residents in a neighborhood, employees in a workplace, or any other number of social groups might organize themselves along lines of race. However, “human nature” or even social psychological concepts like “ingroup-outgroup” actually have nothing to do with this phenomenon. Simply put, it is impossible to explain why any human group is structured by race without talking about racism.
What do I mean by this? In short, race is a social construct. We can actually point the specific historical moment when our modern global racial system began to develop. Because this is a system of power and oppression based on racial identity, it is better understood as white supremacy.
Appeals to “human nature” as a reason for why students of color might seek one another out in majority white spaces require the erasure of histories of violence and resistance to oppression, as well as the effacement of the continuing, destructive reality of white supremacy. To reduce this social phenomenon to a quirk of psychology is to render race a natural fact of human existence; it is also to equivocate on the question of power, hence to simply deny the very real inequality of power between white people and people of color.
Why, for example, is identity-based housing (where students from marginalized backgrounds can elect to live only with others who share their background) derided as “self-segregation,” while admissions policies that ensure the maintenance of a white majority at that same educational institution go unchallenged? It is because the former requires a racist power structure to acknowledge that racism is an ongoing social force while the latter is a manifestation of that same structure. Racially organized friendship groups in the dining hall similarly challenge the pervasive myth that racism is a thing of the past. In order to cover over this apparent contradiction, white supremacy must paint such groups as either: 1. equally bad when all white and when all persons of color and/or 2. natural.
In the former case, racism is reduced to a habit of the human mind. People are thought to group themselves into “ingroups” and “outgroups,” and no further analysis is given as to why such groups exist as they do in the first place. Race is not a natural given; it was created for the purposes of justifying imperialism, settler colonialism, and slavery by Europeans.
Why, then, should it be equally bad for students of color to avoid white students as for white students to avoid students of color? In fact, it isn’t. To some, this may seem like a controversial claim. But that can only be so if one truly believes that racism is over. And it isn’t, emphatically so. White students who have excluded students of color from their friendship groups are merely engaging in a long historical tradition of white solidarity to maintain white racial power. There is nothing admirable about white students seeking out one another, especially when institutions of higher education in the United States have been specifically designed so that white students never need engage with students of color as human beings.
On the other hand, students of color are in the minority at most colleges and universities in the United States, and this fact has also been engineered. More to the point, in the face of ceaseless micro- and macroagressions by white students, faculty, staff, and administrators, is it any wonder that students of color might wish to seek out those who are least likely to perpetuate white racial power, namely other students of color? To berate the solidarity of people of color in the face of white supremacy as “equally bad” to white intra-racial alliances for the purposes of the maintenance of white racial power is itself a racist act. Racism is a system of power and oppressed based on racial identity; it benefits whites to the detriments of people of color. In no case can all-white and all-person of color friendship groups be understood as “equally bad.”
But what of “human nature”? Indeed, this claim –that racially homogenous friendship groups are the result of a natural human tendency to seek out as friends people who share one’s own background– is quite enchanting to many white minds. Indeed, to suggest that racism plays a role in the friends one surrounds oneself with would seem to shatter the notion that racism is simply a mean-spirited act of willfully hateful individuals; and such a notion must, in fact, be shattered. As I mentioned above, racism is a system of power, and it cannot be simply extricated from our affective, intimate bonds any more than it can be separated from our political views or our morality. To replace a simple appeal to “human nature” with an account of the racial politics of friendship renders political the very bonds upon which many people rely for support and encouragement. And so it must be, for the just and the good.
If race is a social construction, there can be no basis for its use as a categorizing tool by “human nature.” A “natural” mind cannot identify like “natural” minds on the basis of cultural bodies. This is a simple truth. Yet is seems somehow earthshattering to many fellow white folks to whom I have spoken. I, for one, cannot claim to understand why this particular rationalization is so compelling to so many white people. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in Racism without Racists, identifies the naturalization of racism as but one mechanism of many whites use to deny the persistence of racism. Still, in a time where to offer an account of racism in even the most mild and subdued terms is construed as “divisive,” it is all the more important to push back again this seemingly minor instance of white racial hegemony.
Allowing any space for “human nature” into discussions of why people might come to form friendships with only those of the same race is not only specious and insipid (and thus intellectually repugnant), but it also legitimates institutionalized racial inequality (and thus is morally and politically repugnant). To allow white supremacy any quarter, any space to pillory students of color for seeking one another out while excusing all-white lunch tables as “natural,” is to give it ground on bigger issues, such as identity-based housing, financial aid, student group funding, faculty hiring decisions, and other issues of racial justice, both on- and off-campus.
Race does not exist outside of racism; it never has historically. To depoliticize solidarity among people of color while simultaneously legitimizing white-perpetuated exclusion and discrimination is not “natural” in the slightest. It is eminently political, and therefore subject to contestation.