Human Tendencies That Underlie Racial Separation

Classroom Divides—Like in many classes where students can choose their own seats, Ms. Jennifer Hastings' sixth period English class is evidence of people's subconscious tendencies to group themselves according to race. In the photo, most Asian students sit on the left, while most white students sit on the right.Photo by Jennifer Hastings

Classroom Divides—Like in many classes where students can choose their own seats, Ms. Jennifer Hastings’ sixth period English class is evidence of people’s subconscious tendencies to group themselves according to race. In the photo, most Asian students sit on the left, while most white students sit on the right.

Photo by Jennifer Hastings

By Lynne Xie

I passed by her again in the hallway last week. Do I say hi? Do I smile? Do I simply pretend I don’t know her? Thoughts raced through my mind as I finally settled on a smile, hoping she would smile back.

When I was in elementary school, my friend group changed every year, depending on who was in my class, but everyone I came in contact with was a potential friend. This changed in middle school, when my white peers suddenly stopped talking to me, a fact I couldn’t understand. Was I not cool enough? Why did she ignore me again?

As a high schooler, my friends may no longer change every year, but I have. I now understand why I was ignored. Rather than avoiding people of other races out of spite or disdain, I naturally gravitate towards people I have much in common with: people I see in my classes everyday, people I share cultural characteristics with. However, I envy the chameleons of South, those who can befriend people from different ethnicities and backgrounds with ease.

Surely I am not the only one who feels this way. Think about friend gatherings during the holidays. Think about various groups in the lunchroom. Think about club compositions around the school. Even though racial diversity is a source of pride for South, students must also consider the racial divides in South. While many cultures exist, not all cultures interact with each other. However, this racial divide at South cannot be blamed on any human individual but rather on human tendencies. With psychological roots, the issue of racial separation is something we must fight to change.

So if we aren’t racist, why do we separate into groups based on race? In psychology, there is something called the “us vs. them” phenomenon, a term describing how social identities drive the process of group formation. Formed by cultural and familial surroundings, social identities propel people to associate themselves with one group and contrast themselves with other groups. Since most social identities are formed by racial backgrounds, we tend to group ourselves with others of similar racial identities who can understand our traditional and cultural characteristics. For example, I clearly remember the first time someone told me my lunch smelled. I was so embarrassed I brought fried rice for the rest of the week, worried about upsetting my other peers. Yet, when I eat traditional, homemade Chinese food with my Chinese peers, the only comment I receive is, “Can I have some, too?” Social identities we’ve developed through our experiences and surroundings will shape our group preferences, sometimes without our conscious recognition.

We also separate because of stereotypes. The fundamental attribution error claims that we tend to attribute others’ actions to the person’s character rather than situation. Road rage is a leading example of this: people will flip someone off for their inept driving skills before considering if there was some reason behind the horrendous driving. Similarly, in our racial groups, we tend to attribute people’s actions to stereotypes we have developed rather than the situation that might be causing the behavior. Instead of helping us, our instinctual assumptions often result in false conclusions, thereby only exacerbating the existing racial separation already in place.

While racial grouping may not stem from prejudiced views and isn’t the school’s most pressing problem, it is an issue that must be addressed. Once groups have been formed, divisions are only intensified. People innately prefer members of their own groups because those members are viewed as diverse and interesting while outsiders are viewed as identical and mundane. Therefore, students are more likely not only to form but also to maintain peer groups based on race. If we don’t try to move beyond these divides, they may only get worse.

So what can we do? While we may have different racial and cultural backgrounds, we all have the same human tendencies that need to be fought. Some may say that a racial problem does not exist in our school. Others may say that they have neither the skills nor the power to make an impact. I challenge these notions and say that we should believe in the power of the individual. Try sitting next to new people in classes, saying “hi” to elementary school friends, or getting involved in events that need racial diversity. If everyone contributed a stitch to mend the divide, the separation between the races would eventually close.

Furthermore, the contact hypothesis states that stereotypes and prejudices toward a group will diminish as contact with that group increases. Perhaps the key to mending divides lies in bringing more races and cultures together more often. Recently, our school installed two peace trees in the lobby to mend the divides of the previous election. But we can do more. For instance, if Cultural Heritage Night and Fashion Show co-hosted a show, perhaps the audience members would become more diverse for both shows in the following years. If HOSA and DECA held a fundraising event together, perhaps both clubs would see a more diversified recruitment in the following years. Even starting small, such as requiring each grade’s class planning committee to have a minimum of three different races present on the board, would perhaps attract more people to school events. While many psychological factors contribute to racial separation, students should fight these tendencies by taking small steps. Eventually, we may all become chameleons.

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