Fostering unity through identity

When I first transferred from a junior college to this essentially homogenous university, I was apathetic to student organizations. A year later, I am writing for the Guardian and I am a member of the African American Student Union and the Women of Color Conference Committee. I went from disinterested to hyperinvolved in the span of a year.

Pat Leung

I believe that students who try to involve themselves in campus life, especially in race-based organizations, are doing exactly what it takes to get the most out of their college experience.

Ethnicity-based organizations provide an artery for diversity to flow through UCSD. To eliminate such clubs would mean the death of what limited diversity UCSD now has.

A recent conversation with a fellow student forced me to evaluate why I believe these groups are a necessity.

“”Why are you in AASU?”” asked Nathan, a Caucasian friend, without a hint of sarcasm. “”Why does there need to be an AASU anyway?””

We engaged in a heated discussion about the need for ethnicity-based student organizations. Nathan adamantly argued that if people in the United States hope to eliminate racial barriers and intermingle successfully with one another, we are obliged to eliminate exclusive groups and move toward cross-cultural unification.

Nathan had a valid point. But then I looked around campus and I thought of 56 good reasons why AASU and other student organizations like it are necessary.

Fifty-six new African-American students enrolled at UCSD for the 2001 school year. This includes transfer and freshman students.

UCSD’s total undergraduate enrollment is 21,568. This means that 0.2 percent of the undergraduate population is represented by new black faces.

Do we need AASU? Absolutely.

Ethnic-based organizations are a campus necessity that should be designed, at least in part, to fight the causes that are specific to a particular race. But in addition to that, these groups provide their members with an outlet independent of academics, and a system of friendship found scarcely anywhere else at UCSD.

First, ethnicity-based groups serve as a forum for political activists to champion the views and address the concerns of groups marginalized by society.

I do not feel that white people cannot or should not be involved in causes afflicting other ethnic groups or that, say, Chicanos should not picket on behalf of the Filipino population.

I am, however, saying that social movements are more passionately driven by members directly affected by their outcome. The assistance of every race makes social movements more effective. But, for example, the Chicano members of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan would probably be the most forceful in organizing a movement on behalf of Latino janitors.

Similarly, members of AASU would probably be more fervent than a group of white students when arguing for black admission and retention rates at UCSD.

The commonality shared among members of ethnic groups is often a defining characteristic of many of the members’ lives. When they fight for causes that pertain specifically to them, the dynamic of group power is amplified.

Another reason to promote ethnic-specific organizations is the camaraderie and sense of family that such groups foster.

Look around UCSD. You see faces furrowed in deep thought — most likely contemplating the elusive answer to an equation. You see people on Fridays, hurriedly heading toward a shuttle or trying to beat rush hour traffic for their commute home.

What you don’t hear is people eagerly talking about the tailgate party for the Friday night football game. You won’t regularly hear people chatting about Greek houses at which they are going to make their weekend rounds.

UCSD has a fragmented, antisocial atmosphere. I may be a little biased, as a transfer student who was forced to live off campus my first year, but in general, social life — well, the lack thereof — is a serious problem for UCSD students.

Ethnicity-based groups bring people together in a way that elicits feelings — not only of friendship, but of family. On this campus, that is very difficult to attain.

I am African-American, and AASU has afforded me the opportunity to see faces — smiling faces, at that — of people who look like me, sound like me and have endured similar experiences. That we share such an integral commonality eliminates a lot of the preliminaries that precede the development of most friendships.

On that note, the Greek system also provides similar opportunities conducive to the bonding of students who identify ethnically with one another. While I support students who find fellowship in that environment, there are two major differences between race-related Greek organizations and student organizations of the same kind. These differences lead me to the conclusion that race-based student organizations are superior even to their Greek counterparts.

First, membership is free in student organizations such as AASU and the Nikkei Student Union. No dues or membership fees are required.

Second, and most importantly, race-based student organizations welcome everyone. You do not need to rush, apply or even be of the ethnicity around which the group is centered, as long as you self-identify.

Race-based student organizations are a convenient way to develop friendships without pretense or restrictions. That is something students would be hard-pressed to find in any other campus activity.

Maybe last year I would have agreed with Nathan. Maybe I would have said, “”America is a melting pot — we should eliminate these groups that encourage ethnic exclusion.”” But after attending UCSD for a year, I realize that we are far from the proverbial “”melting pot”” so commonly used to describe the diversity in this country. In fact, we are so lacking in ethnic variety that it is a misnomer to even classify UCSD’s composition as the “”salad bowl”” also frequently referred to.

We are a disjointed, fragmented institution experiencing a diversity crisis and depressingly low student morale. Until these two elements change, our campus needs race-based organizations to fight for social change and nurture camaraderie among its students.

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