Self-Segregation on College Campuses

College students from different backgrounds tend to self-segregate into separate racial environments. One professor attempts to help his students examine and cross this type of interpersonal behavior.

| April 2015

  • Student Diversity
    Tendencies to self-segregate because of being anxious about interacting with racial others is highly correlated with lack of diversity experiences.
    Photo by Fotolia/Carlos Santa Maria
  • Taking On Diversity
    Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste shows how we can all learn to meet the challenges of diversity in “Taking on Diversity.”
    Cover courtesy Prometheus Books

  • Student Diversity
  • Taking On Diversity

Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste regularly counsels students at North Carolina State University about their anxieties in situations involving people who are different from them in some way. In Taking on Diversity (Prometheus Books, 2015), he shares students’ stories about dealing with diversity in some way and challenges readers to face these differences. This excerpt is from Chapter 13, “What Did You Just Say to Me?”

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There is no denying that sometimes students come to the university bringing with them people who want them to keep their old patterns of interpersonal behavior. On any campus, students do arrive with old relationships that push for keeping to the old back-at-home ways. That is why one of the goals of my classes is to help these young travelers develop a critical eye about “how we have always done things.” Otherwise, again, we leave them to their own uneducated devices.

In one of our open-class discussions, my students talked about the sadness they feel about their self-segregation. My Latino, White, male, Black, Arab, female, Hindu, mixed-race students talked about the fact that here at college they have a racial mix of acquaintances, but they seldom go to each other’s parties. There are Brown parties, White parties, and Black parties, all manner of segregated social activities.



Hearing lament in their voices, I ask, “Why so much self-segregation?” And they reply:

“We don’t know how to talk to each other.”

“We don’t know what to expect.”

“We don’t have any helpful experiences being with each other before we come to college.” 

Those concerns reflect what the research shows. Tendencies to self-segregate because of being anxious about interacting with racial others is highly correlated with lack of diversity experiences. Coming from middle and high school environments that lack diversity, or that lack meaningful interactions between young people from different groups, our students come to us unprepared for the neo-diversity of a college campus. Young people come to college with group stereotypes as the only tools they have for trying to survive in a new social situation.

Keep in mind that these are not old people. For that matter, being old would be no excuse. But again we are not talking about old people, set in their ways. These are college-aged, college-going young people who are sometimes downright resistant to interaction and learning.

Sad as this is, sadder still is the fact that all too often when they get to college their stereotypes are allowed to live on, if not grow stronger. We seem to have lost faith in the power of higher education. That is why there is so much flat-out resistance among these young people to interacting across group lines. A Southeast Asian Brown student wrote:

As I finished eating dinner at Fountain Dining Hall on campus at NCSU, I sat back in my chair and started to relax and enjoy the conversations a couple of the other Resident Advisors were discussing. My friend Drew asked what I was up to this weekend. I replied by saying, “I’m hanging out with my South Asian Club (EKTAA) friends on Friday night. We are throwing a party for the President.”

Drew then said, “Cool, that sounds like fun. I am on duty with this guy over here.”

I look over, and across the table is Resident Advisor, Ben. Ben then looks at me and says, “I’d come and crash the party and be the odd ball out since I’m White, but I’m on duty too.”



I looked over and said, “How would you be the odd ball out?”

Ben then said, “It’s a “Brown” party, right?! I’m sure I’d be the only White person.”

I proceeded by looking over to Drew and saying, “Our friend Ryan comes to these “Brown” parties all the time; he’s White and he enjoys them. He actually loves them. He thinks they are quite fun.”

Ben looks at me and goes, “I got invited to one once by my suitemate Kunal.”

I said, “Kunal who? I might know him.”

Ben then states, “Kunal ghisdigkhslgkhsg or something, I don’t know how to say it. It’s a ‘Brown’ name. All I know is that he hangs out with only Indians and they all smell like curry.”

I then looked over to Ben, shocked, leaned over the table away from the back rest of my chair and said, “I don’t smell like curry and I’m Indian. I actually am not a big fan of curry anyways. I do know Kunal though, that’s his party I am going to on Friday. He’s vice president of EKTAA, and I am secretary. Look what I am doing now, I’m hanging out with you and Drew and all the other RA’s, of which none are ‘Brown.’”

Ben then laughs and says, “Yeah, I guess you’re right, you’re eating dinner with us.”

By this point, I get up, walk away to get some water, and get back to the table. My really good RA friend Murphy starts to talk about how he wants ice cream, and the subject changes.

If we do not give young people new and more appropriate tools to use to evaluate their tendencies to self-segregate, this is what we get. By saying no more than “You have to be more accepting” at their graduation we send them away from the university on the Wrong-Line train, and they become the “educated ones,” the “leaders,” who still have trouble interacting with, and showing respect to, whoever “they” are. As a social psychologist and a former university administrator I worry about the consequences of self-segregation.

For two years I served as NCSU’s first vice provost for Diversity and African American Affairs (Wolcott). While in that administrative role I was sensitized to the fact that our university was not doing much to help students deal with the neo-diversity that was coming to our campus. I had taken the job to be a change agent within an institution that was fearful of change in the diversity climate. It was a turbulent two years, which I chronicle in my memoir Making Gumbo in the University (Nacoste).

During the time I was vice provost I learned some things. I don’t know about other universities, but North Carolina State University has, for a long time, held a separate day of orientation for African American first-year college students. When this practice began in the 1970s, the idea was that Black students coming to a predominantly White university were in need of a little extra help adjusting to a hostile social climate. African American students might also need some hints to help them adjust to the academic pace of a major research university. Later, around 2001, that approach was extended to American Indian and Hispanic students, each group given a separate day of orientation.

This special arrangement for orientation of selected groups made some sense very early on as the university was opening to a more broad-based, desegregated student body. But much of this approach was based on the assumption that ALL Black, ALL African American students would have trouble adjusting to the racial college environment of NCSU. That was no longer true when I became vice provost, and it certainly is not true now. Today, African American students who enter NCSU are themselves neo-diverse. Admitted Black students are a mix on all kinds of dimensions.

I was aware of the problem before I became an administrator in 2000. From 1988 to 2000, I carried out my faculty role with no major administrative duties. As most faculty members do, I advise students in our psychology major. During that time I advised a Black male student who was already a high academic achiever, as was evidenced by the academic scholarship he received when he came to our campus.

An academic go-getter, this young Black man from Fayetteville was a founding editor for an online magazine at our university, and he went on to win other major academic fellowships. In one of our early advising meetings he asked me to explain the point of the separate orientation. He asked because he was frustrated by having someone (a Black person) assume he did not know how to manage his time. Over and over, for years and for various reasons, African American students have expressed to me their frustration with that approach to getting them oriented to the campus, including the presumption (made by some in charge of the orientation) that Black students come to the university afraid of White people.

Another student, a Brown-skinned, mixed-race female who identified as Black, expressed more than frustration. This young woman was angry because during the African American Symposium (orientation) she felt that she was being told not to trust White people on campus. Looking into my eyes she said, “I was insulted . . . my Daddy is White and I love my Daddy.”

As the vice provost for Diversity and African American Affairs, I raised serious questions about the segregated orientation for Black students. In no uncertain terms, I was told not to cause trouble. It was just easier since this was the way it had always been done. In my view, both then and now, too many in the administration seem to have lost faith in the power of higher education.

Yet I was not saying that ALL Black students come to us prepared for the environment of our campus. My argument was that isolating those students by race does not help, and may hinder, their development as students. I feel even more strongly about this given what my students have written about since I began teaching my “Race” course. The student response to my class assignment “one new thought” always finds me learning a bit more about my students’ lives on campus. The assignment is straightforward:

New information is only worth something if it gives you a new way to look at the world. The new information in this course should be helping you to develop a “social psychological eye”; a way of looking at the world that is first and foremost social psychological. In particular, this course should be helping you develop a social psychological eye for looking at race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation at the interpersonal-intergroup level; in interpersonal interactions and relationships. The point of this paper assignment is for you to describe what you consider to be the most important one-new-thought you have about interpersonal-intergroup interactions and relationships as result of this course.

In one page, explain the most important one new thought about interpersonal interactions and relationships that you have had that is based on a concept related to neo-diversity discussed in this class. Your assignment is to write about that one new thought describing how it will help you function better in your interpersonal-intergroup (race, gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, or religious) interactions and relationships.

About how the separate orientation day influenced her, an African American female student wrote:

When I began to think about past experiences in my life that could be related to this class I began to think about when I first came to North Carolina State University. When I came to NCSU, for orientation the African American students were asked to attend a day earlier to be able to connect with other African Americans, which in this story will be considered the in-group. It is here where we bonded and formed friendships that would blossom throughout the years to come with people we met here. Towards the end of that day the upperclassmen began to tell us to be aware of tomorrow because the fact that there are so many people here and everyone looks like you will not be the case tomorrow. A few of the people that I connected with that night got together and promised to hang out the next night after all of the festivities of orientation died down.

The next day, when I woke up to get ready for the day at eight a.m., there was a flood of the Caucasian race. As some of my acquaintances from the day before walked in and saw each other we looked at each other as if to say do not go too far and call me so we can make sure we get together. In the beginning of the day we were all separated up into different groups where for the most part there were about thirty different orientation counselors with one to two African Americans in each group. Yet, every time we got the chance to get together throughout the day we would get together and talk about how we were all going to get together later that day and how supposedly the Caucasians did not try to talk to us, and we felt as though they didn’t try to include us in any of the events or activities.

But when looking back at this event I am discovering that there was a high intergroup anxiety, or anxiety stemming from contact with out-group members. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder if it was White students not accepting us or us Black students not accepting them? Did we even give them a chance to get in our circle, or did we already come with preconceived notions from what members of our in-group had already told us the previous day. I realize that it is hard to develop relationships with people who are members of the out-group because of the close bond that we have with members of our in-group. Looking back at the situation I wonder just how many possible relationships did I completely push out during orientation that could have been meaningful, lasting relationships.

Yet, the fact is that I cannot continue to dwell in the past because it is something that I cannot change, but I can focus on the changes I can make for the future. This change is to not judge before I get the chance to know someone because I can block out a potentially meaningful relationship.

Given a set of concepts by which to analyze interpersonal-intergroup interactions, students themselves see the pitfalls of the university’s segregated approach to helping Black (as well as American Indian, Latino, and Hispanic) students adjust to the campus. This writer was able to express what other African American students have expressed to me in their own way. Yet the university persists in taking this segregated approach. The university seems to have lost faith in its educational mission and skills.

In 2012, a new administrator who read my memoir about my work on diversity in the university asked me this question: “If you had a magic wand, or institutional power, what would you do that is not being done on our campus to address diversity issues?”

I had an answer ready. For a long time I have believed that the university needs to put together a group of incoming students based on their status as the first in their family to go to college. First-generation college students are smart, but they have no informal network to draw on to get answers to their questions about college or university life. They are, after all, the first in their family, and research shows that the lack of family to advise them puts these students at risk of dropping out (Chen and Carroll). So, if I had a magic wand, I would have the university create a group made up of first-generation college students. That group would not be isolated by race or gender, because it would be neo-diverse. That group would need basic information about how to navigate college, including how to manage an environment with so many different kinds of people. But as they learned about all this, these students would be learning within a racial, gender, ethnic, and religious mix of students. Taking that approach, this group would be as mixed as the rest of the campus. In order for this course to be effective, one of its features would be student interaction with each other to deal with the self-segregation tendencies.

If I had a magic wand, I would create a requirement for all first-generation college students to be in an “Adjustment to College” course. That’s what I would do in an effort to improve retention and graduation rates of a neodiversity of students.


This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move from Anxiety to Respect, by Rupert W. Nacoste and published by Prometheus Books, 2015.




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