Kids Stay Separate Outside of Class
They prefer comfort to integration; that’s OK, the experts say
Teresa Mask and Maryanne George, Detroit Free Press, Feb. 25
White girls sit on one side of the room. Black girls sit on the other. Chaldeans are in a corner.
It’s lunchtime at Mercy High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Farmington Hills.
The scene mirrors that of cafeterias in schools across metro Detroit and on college campuses like the University of Michigan. As the nation recognizes 50 years of integrated schools with the May 17 anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., educators and students are struggling to understand why it’s so difficult to truly integrate social circles.
Despite all of the programs and attempts to bridge the cultural gap in schools, the reality is that efforts often fade at lunchtime and on weekends.
It’s an issue 17-year-old Chanel Shaba, a Chaldean senior at Mercy High School, raised at a recent student diversity forum. It also came up for the second year in a row during student chats after the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in West Bloomfield.
It’s human nature, experts agree.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with it,” said DeWitt Dykes, an associate professor of history at Oakland University, unless the seating decisions are based on misconceptions of people in other cultures.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College in Atlanta and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” said, “We have all gotten misinformation about people who are different from ourselves. It doesn’t really matter where you grew up. You’ve been exposed to stereotypes about groups other than your own, and to some extent, your own group.”
She said students from the same background sitting together in school cafeterias is not a sign that integration has failed.
“We shouldn’t assume that because people sit together that it doesn’t work,” Tatum said recently at the University of Michigan. “Sometimes, people are together because of shared experiences.
“When I have to sit here because I’m not allowed to sit anywhere else, that is a failure,” Tatum said. “But when I’m sitting here because I feel comfortable and because I share language or my slang expressions or music, that’s OK. The true failure is if we don’t create opportunities for people who might not naturally be drawn to each other to interact.”
Dan Pan, Allen Li, Edward Chen and Tepparat Wongcharoenwanakij, students at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, admit that they often dine together because they have a lot in common due to their Asian culture, not because they don’t like the other students.
Dwaine Duncan agrees that comfort is important.
“It’s just more comfortable to sit with certain people,” said Dwaine, 16, a black student at CranbrookKingswood Upper School. “It’s all about relationships and how you can talk to them.”
He said this as he was having lunch with 17-year-old Ray Gage, who is white.
Dwaine said he sits with black students at dinnertime.
“I just end up eating with people on the basketball team who I hang out with. I don’t know if” fully integrated cafeterias “will ever be achieved. People always are going to just sit with people like them. It’s stupid, I guess.”
Cranbrook students appear to have integrated lunch tables, though there are cases in which that doesn’t exist.
Segregated cafeterias used to bother Sharkey Haddad, dean of students and community liaison for the West Bloomfield School District.
“Before, we used to say, ‘It’s wrong, they should be integrated,’” he said. “Now, we say, ‘We should respect their comfort zone.’ “
Still, he said, groups such as the Cultural Information Advisory Council still have a purpose. They have helped dispel myths about various cultural groups in the district.
Other districts have similar groups and diversity clubs geared toward cultural understanding. Some officials said students get it on an intellectual level but have trouble putting that knowledge into action.
“The students are a mirror image of their parents and their community and their society,” Haddad explained. “If we adults are guilty” of segregation, “how do we expect them to figure it out and to be more advanced?”
Some sixth-grade girls at Cranbrook Kingswood Girls Middle School said their generation will be different. Their lunch table is an integrated one.
Lauren Meier, Tiffany Carey, Shelby Houttekier, Amanda Mitchell and Teddi Cantor come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“We’re just friends. It really doesn’t matter,” 12-year-old Lauren said.
Integration is something that can be achieved everywhere if students are challenged, said 15-year-old Samantha Tazzia, a white freshman at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School. People at other schools “aren’t challenged to talk to other people they don’t know — or they don’t feel the need to,” she said.
But at least once a year, school districts across Michigan do challenge their students. They participate in a national event in which students are encouraged to sit with people they normally wouldn’t dine with.
It’s a gesture that lasts only a day for some, but the acquaintances that are made endure, said Kyle Stuef, 17, a white Hazel Park High School senior.
Educators slowly are recognizing that acceptance can exist without sharing a meal together.
But they still hope.
“It’s not important whether they eat together. But I’d love to see the cafeteria just totally integrated. For some reason, it would really be a symbol that things are truly integrated,” said Wil Gervais, assistant principal at Mercy High School. Students “are realizing it’s really the change inside that makes a difference.”
And acknowledging prejudices allows people to move toward discussions about racial understanding more quickly, Tatum said. Just having the discussion can be a start.
“It’s useful to say this is a hard conversation and people will get uncomfortable,” Tatum said. “I might say something offensive not because I mean to, but because it slips out. You might say something that offends me.
“But if we make that long-term commitment and examine what it means to be white, black, Latino or Native American in this society, and I listen carefully to you, and you listen to me, we may not come to agree, but we will understand where each other is coming from.”