I am not white and yet, at UW-Madison, I have never been harassed, discriminated against or frowned upon because of the color my skin. I know I've been lucky, perhaps the rarest of exceptions. Recent discussions in campus media remind us that other students of color have had experiences not nearly so rosy.
To promote diversity on campus and help minority students, student groups are pushing hard for improved facilities, more staff and better programs.
But even if these measures are implemented and, through some magic, the student of color population came to equal the white student population, things probably wouldn't get any better: more diversity does not mean less segregation.
Will those measures help students of color feel more comfortable? Maybe'though the overall campus climate at UW-Madison may not improve at all. I'm no socio-meteorology major, but I think \climate"" shifts on two fronts, changing with the actions of not only students of color but also of the Caucasian majority. In other words, the climate cannot warm considerably unless all white students reach out and engage with minority groups. And that just won't happen.
On campus, we have Plan 2008, diversity mission groups in dorms and in our student council, a Multicultural Student Center, the Retention Action Project and countless ethnic organizations that sponsor engaging cultural events. We know these programs are necessary, but we also know that the majority of students'white Wisconsinites who need them the most'don't utilize them.
Frankly, only coercion (or the ethnic studies requirement) will bring most of these people to a cultural event or forum on race relations. Even when students ""learn"" from such activities, the knowledge gets lost when they're asked to apply those ""lessons"" to the real world'to their personal interactions and peer groups. It's far easier to learn facts than to change social habit. The preferences of whom we choose to associate with form at some point between the first day of preschool and senior prom night, and for many students at UW-Madison social tendencies emerge in a context that is predominantly white.
Things tend toward the path of least resistance. So, really, it's natural for college students to stick with the people and cultures they grew up with. During the college years, when so much is new and the reassuring elements of home are stripped away, why would anyone deepen discomfort by seeking out people who are so different and so alien? Instinct drives us to seek others with similar backgrounds; it's a basic survival technique in a harsh world.
Because the effort and will needed to stray from one's social ""comfort zone"" is so rarely found, no number of well-funded programs and no sum of well-paid staffers, at the university level, can dramatically improve the campus climate. Long-held habits, ugly human laziness and plain old fear preclude the intimate and infinitely difficult interactions between peoples that are essential for mutual understanding and respect.
Still, there are individuals among us'a strong and saintly few'who not only transcend their own comfort zones but also encourage others to do the same. These people should be applauded for their heroic mission to foster awareness in us all. The UW-Madison community has no alternative but to provide, for those who want to step outside the familiar and the comforting, ample opportunity to do so. It is a fight that must be fought but one that, in all likelihood, cannot be won in the near future.
That is, unless from a very young age, people are literally forced to interact with others quite unlike themselves'on a daily basis. Either through grade-school curriculum or social setting, we must live and learn that differences are to be cherished, other ethnic groups understood and friendships of all cultures cultivated. These are lessons impossible to absorb in college; indeed, that learning must start from the moment a toddler totters, wobbly and wide-eyed, out of his house for the very first time. And then, perhaps over a lifetime, he will develop a habit of fearlessly finding out about others.
But let's not kid ourselves'UW-Madison serves Wisconsin, and demographics alone tell us that there are few places in this state where such utopian goals can reasonably be accomplished. And though I speak Chinese and Japanese, major in East Asian studies, eat rice and use chopsticks with dinners at home, celebrate the Lunar New Year, cherish my heritage and love my parents who emigrated from Taiwan just a few decades ago, I am evidence of a failed ""cultural"" education.
I grew up in Appleton, Wis., and learned to live alongside Caucasians. Every teacher I had was white. Every grade-school administrator I had was white. The overwhelming majority of my classmates were white. Almost all of my friends in high school were white. Although Appleton is hardly the cosmopolitan San Fran of the Fox River, I felt at home there. Sure, it was white as snow up there'but never seemingly as cold.
So it only follows that now all four of my roommates, and almost all my friends on campus, are white. I have few student-of-color friends and will always regret not being more involved with worthy groups like the Asian Pacific American Council and the Multicultural Student Coalition. I didn't get involved because, at a school dominated by those of fairer skin, I have'for the last three and one-quarter years'felt comfortable.
And, like so many others, that is where I have failed.