Cultural sensitivity at colleges: Separate but equal again?

College campuses are supposed to be places where students can grow intellectually, while also feeling comfortable enough to share their beliefs and opinions. However, if a student or a group of students does not feel safe expressing their views, then clearly the university is not doing a good job at supporting its students. For example, on my campus at the University of Chicago, students in a group called UC United are currently pushing the university to establish cultural centers, so that minority students can feel more welcome and supported by the administration. I figured that my school isn’t the only one fighting this battle, so I decided to do some research into cultural centers and housing on college campuses throughout the U.S.

One of the first schools that I looked at was Northwestern University, which is located just north of downtown Chicago. I discovered that Northwestern is a few steps ahead of UChicago when it comes to having cultural centers on campus. For instance, Northwestern has the Black House, which serves as the social, cultural and educational hub for African American students on campus. However, the president of Northwestern, Morton Shapiro, has received complaints regarding the house. As a response, Shapiro published a letter explaining that he had been receiving complaints about the Black House, but has never once received notes questioning the Hillel or the Catholic Center’s presence on campus. After reading this letter, I wasn’t that surprised that there were complaints about the Black House on a predominantly white campus, since the majority of Jewish and Catholic students are white. So why not attack the minority’s safe space?

After reading about the ongoing backlash against this house that has been on campus for over 40 years, I wanted to learn more about the possible reasons why UChicago might be pushing back against cultural centers. To my utter surprise, I found an extensive research project carried out by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) titled “Separate but Equal, Again: Neo-Segregation in American Higher Education.” This project took roughly two years to complete, and the result is a 214 page pdf with data from 173 schools across the U.S. The report concluded that of the 173 schools, 42 percent offer segregated residences, 46 percent offer segregated orientation programs, and 72 percent host segregated graduation ceremonies. Keep in mind that the word “segregate” often has a negative connotation, but it is important to decide for yourself if this is a negative word in this context or not.

Of course I had to look and see what the report said about my own school, just so that I could see how accurate the data was. Based on the report’s findings and my own experience on campus, I can verify that UChicago does indeed have segregated commencement ceremonies (to use the language of the report), such as our Lavender Graduation, which honors students in the LGBT+ community. Another fact listed in this report is that 68% of the schools have diversity fly-ins, otherwise known as segregated previews of campus. As someone who has personally experienced one of these programs at UChicago, I find these programs to be very beneficial to students because it gives them the chance to see what going to school on a predominantly white campus looks like through the lens of a minority student. However, at the NAS’s presentation of their report, Dion J. Pierre, the lead researcher of this project, proclaimed that diversity fly-in programs make students think of themselves as members of a racial category months before college matriculation even takes place. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with students viewing themselves as members of a racial category since that is their personal identity and will most likely dictate how they are treated in this racially tense nation, unfortunately.

As previously mentioned, 42 percent of the schools in this report were found to have segregated residencies also known as “themed houses” or dorms that are designed for specific ethnic or racial groups. Honestly, I didn’t expect this number to be so high, and I was surprised to find out that these types of living communities do not solely exist at private universities, and that they also appear at public universities.

Something that was not so surprising to me, is that UChicago isn’t in this 42 percent, and it is for this reason that students are pushing for cultural centers hoping to include places such as a Black house and a Latinx house on campus. One of the reasons why we don’t have places like these on our campus is because we have the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), which provides the main support for many minority groups on campus. I found that it is common for universities to try and appease students demanding cultural centers by implementing places such as these like at Rice University’s Multicultural Center. However, these places are simply not enough for minority students since we are all so different, and while these centers do provide some support for minorities, we can’t help but see the situation as the university’s way of trying to appease all of its minority students by shoving them all into one building.

As with any debate on a college campus, it is important to listen to the other side of the argument, so in this paragraph, I will do my best to acknowledge some of the reasons why people, like NAS, are against cultural centers and housing. The main reason that I came across for the opposing argument is that providing these spaces, which target specific racial and ethnic groups, is a form of neo-segregation. If you have never heard of this term, the NAS defines it in their report as the “voluntary racial segregation of students, aided by college institutions, into racially exclusive housing and common spaces, orientation and commencement ceremonies, student associations, scholarships, and classes.” However, I think the use of this term isn’t appropriate for the situation because segregation in American history was less of a “voluntary” act for the Black community and more of a forced separation. Additionally, another argument being made is that cultural centers and housing erode any sense of unity for students by forcing students to feel like they have to self-segregate into these communities. But in reality, no one is forcing students to live in these themed houses or venture into these designated cultural centers.

Now that we’ve heard both sides of the argument, I want to throw in a little blurb from Van Jones, who I think describes college safe spaces in the most accurate terms possible. In a discussion hosted by the Institute of Politics at UChicago, Jones explained his stance on safe spaces by explaining that they are supposed to be places where people will not be physically harmed, or subjected to sexual harassment, or become targets of hate speech and racial slurs. He says that a common mistake is for students to want safe spaces as places where they feel ideologically and emotionally safe, where if someone says something they don’t like, then it has to become a problem for everyone including the administration. Now in this case, I definitely agree that we, as students, have to be willing to interact with people we disagree with, because disagreement is such an inevitable part of today’s society. However, as Jones said, it is important that we still have a place where we feel physically safe and not subjected to hate speech or slurs within our campuses.

In the end, it is clear that there are already many challenges that come with minority representation on college campuses, and not only do we have to work to get minority students to college, but we also have to work on keeping them there, and that means setting them up with the best resources that make them comfortable being their true selves on campus.

If you would like to read the NAS report on Neo-Segregation, check out the link to their website below:


[Claire Shackleford is a student at University of Chicago.]