My previous experience says that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. From the first day that we started at this highly ranked business school at a well-known university; diversity has been touted as one of the benefits of this school. First year students were assigned project teams for the first three terms designed to maximize differences in age, ethnicity, work background, gender, etc. We’ve attended cultural fairs and programs, participated in conversation tables and film festivals. We work together and party together.
But I should have known…from the lunch tables. Any day during lunch there is usually a black table, where all the black students congregate to eat or stop by and catch up on the latest information. But look around the same cafeteria and you will see similar groupings of Koreans, international Latinos, Indians, and most frequently, whites. To be fair, there are a lot of other tables with all types of people, but the groupings are recognizable. As Beverly Tatum suggests in her book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” people of color need “safe spaces to retreat to and regroup in the process of dealing with daily stress…”
But this is only at lunch time right. Like I said, we work together and party together.
So this term, when each of my classes gave us the opportunity to choose our own teams, I sought out people that I hadn’t had the chance to work with yet this term. I specifically didn’t want an all black team because not only am I conscious of the perception that black people segregate themselves, I also wanted to recreate the workplace that I will be returning to. But when I went up to various people, they all hemmed and hawed, or told me they had already formed teams.
To be honest, my pride was hurt. It takes a lot to ask someone about forming a team and to be rejected multiple times was an assault to my dignity. Who likes to be last when picked for the kickball team?
But I wasn’t the only one picked last. As I asked around it seems the other black people were having problems also. Thus, in the majority of my classes, I am either on an all-black team or have at least two black members in my team. For a student body of over 800 with close to 50 black students, that is significant.
Now I am not so arrogant to think that there could be many other reasons why I and other black students weren’t chosen, but in reality, it sucks that have to wonder if your skin color or perceptions about you because of your color. And to be quite honest, the fact that many of us had the same issue is just too coincidental to shake off.
My boyfriend wanted to know why this bothered me. His thoughts were “you know how people are.” But it’s deeper than just choosing a project team for a grade.
Last term, I was having a discussion with my white male teammate about institutional racism. He didn’t understand the concept and I had a hard time explaining what he didn’t want to wrap his mind around. As the conversation continued, he compared our very diverse ILE team with the team of all white Christian males that he had chosen on his own. While he understood why he gravitated to people with similar backgrounds, he said that he was glad that the school assigned teams in the beginning. He appreciated the friendship that he and I had as well as his relationship with our other teammates.
He also revealed that some of his friends did not like the assigned teams and preferred to pick their own. Since our conversation had gotten fairly emotional, I bit my tongue instead of haranguing the point:
Look at who you and your friends picked for their teammates. Your friends will be the high-level team managers and decision makers for companies. They will have responsibility for hiring and choosing teams on many occasions. And they will choose, as shown here, people who look, think and act like them. When this continues to happen, time after time, generation after generation, this is institutional racism.
The disappointing part is that somehow, I thought we were better. I thought I had made positive relationships with people. I believed that I had proved myself academically and had shown enough in class and through my work within the school. I thought we, as business school students, had moved picking groups based on where you sat at lunch. Apparently not.