Monday, September 23

UCLA diversity lacks cultural exchange

An example of functional diversity: the cultural exchange that occurs in a kitchen pantry when shared by people of different ethnicities.

An example of functional diversity: the cultural exchange that occurs in a kitchen pantry when shared by people of different ethnicities. Frank Shyong

On the surface, UCLA looks like a diverse university.

Our student body is 38 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 15 percent Chicano/Latino, 33 percent white and 4 percent black. We have a profusion of ethnic student groups that regularly provide culturally valuable events and programs. We have research centers for American Indian, Asian American, African American and Chicano studies, making us the only university with four such dedicated programs.

All of this looks great on the brochure. But look closer, and you’ll find that the university’s diversity is largely statistical.

We have effectively amalgamated different groups of people within a square mile, but diversity is more than the numerical presence of variety. A functional conception of diversity implies a meaningful cultural exchange that we sorely lack.

Take a stroll down Bruin Walk ““ each turn of the head exposes you to a different slice of culture or creed. But the people sitting at those picnic tables aren’t there for you or the group sitting next to them. They’re there to serve students that share their ethnicity, and although they put on excellent culture nights, there is no exchange occurring. Look out into the predominantly Vietnamese audience at Vietnamese Culture Night and you’ll see what I mean.

We have a tendency to arrange ourselves by race. Just look at our student groups, a significant proportion of which are simply replications of already existing groups but directed towards a different ethnicity. There are pre-professional fraternities and sororities for Latinos, blacks and Muslims. Even Christian student organizations and pre-dentistry societies arrange themselves by race. This ethnic fragmentation corrals us into culturally isolated existences, whether unintentionally or by design.

This is a university culture that perpetuates ethnic insularity, a community in which race is a large part of how we relate to each other. The end result is that many of us lead ethnically homogenous social lives, and remain ignorant of the richness and value of a truly diverse college experience. Our diversity is a set of inert statistics ““ certainly nothing worth bragging about in the brochure.

I admit that I don’t have the solution to this problem. The tendency of human beings to seek familiarity is a deep-seated instinct, and this self-segregation is a problem even outside of the university. You can observe this trend in Los Angeles, where it seems like every year, a different neighborhood is declared an ethnic enclave.

But as college students, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. For these four years we are surrounded by highly diverse peoples who are studying the same things we are, living next door to us and sharing our fate. Achieving functional diversity is our prerogative, and the first step is stepping outside what is familiar. There’s much to be gained.

Last year, I decided to room with three transfer students randomly assigned through university housing who are also my current roommates. I’m Taiwanese, my roommate Ariz Guzman is Filipino, and my suitemates Marques Vestal and Jason Muse are black.

When I think of diversity, the first image that comes to mind is our kitchen pantry, where Jiffy Cornbread Mix and Lawry’s Seasoning Salt share space with bottles of Mang Tomas All-Purpose Sauce, Sriracha sauce and rice wine vinegar.

I think of Ariz convincing Jason to try his salmon adobo, and coming home to the intoxicating scent of Jason’s fried chicken a few nights a week. I think of Jason’s mom’s cooking and Mark’s stories about growing up in South Central Los Angeles.

I think of all the ways my life has been enriched and improved by my roommates and their cultures, and I’m convinced that diversity means more than going to the same university as a statistically significant number of Asians, blacks and Latinos.

My experiences have convinced me that diversity is worth striving for, but enrolling more ethnicities merely creates the potential for a meaningful cultural exchange. The rest is our responsibility.

E-mail Shyong at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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