Journey In The Promised Land

In high school a classmate described Passover as a time when Jews celebrate their ancestors’ liberation from bondage in Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. When a friend invited me to join his family for a Seder dinner during my sophomore year of college, this was still the extent of my knowledge. I accepted his invitation because I was eager to learn more about the ceremony and see how a wealthy, white family celebrated their freedom from slavery. And of course, like most college students, I couldn’t afford to turn down a free meal.

Once inside my friend’s home, it was obvious that his family was at least a couple thousand years out of slavery. Their house sat on top of a hill in Piedmont, California – one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America – and overlooked San Francisco, where his parents owned a successful law firm. I had been in their home before, so I knew that my friend came from more-than-comfortable beginnings, but coming to college from South Central, Los Angeles – notorious for its gangs – I found his family’s wealth jarring. Yet somehow celebrating the end of slavery inside their home magnified their affluence even more.

As I learned was customary at their Seder, my friend’s father told the story of Exodus. I recognized the birth and childhood of Moses, his pleas for the pharaoh to let his people go, and the plagues God wrought upon Egypt. However, my familiarity with the story ended once the Jews crossed the Red Sea. I didn’t know that soon after Moses led Jews away from centuries of slavery, they complained about the physical hardships of their journey and longed to return to Egypt. Apparently this caused God to declare that the entire generation born into slavery in Egypt must perish before the next generation, which would be born into freedom, could enter the Promised Land.

As an African American, I have always been surprised that blacks don’t celebrate Emancipation. But it wasn’t until I heard a detailed narration of Exodus while dining with a white family that the absence of a black celebration of freedom struck me as particularly odd. Giving my thoughts more attention than the dinner conversation, I wondered if today’s Jews have a greater appreciation for their people’s transition from slavery to freedom because, unlike blacks, they fled the society that had enslaved them. Perhaps starting a new life in the Promised Land freed Jews from constantly worrying whether they could be treated as equals. Did the inability of newly liberated American slaves to have their own Promised Land condemn today’s blacks to expect this country and whites to be forever indebted to them?

Listening to my friend’s father describe a new generation of Jews finally reaching the Promised Land, I considered how Jews and Egyptians might have interacted had Jews been emancipated but remained in Egypt. I wondered if enslaving Jews was a sin for which Egyptians never would have been forgiven. Could Jews assimilate into Egyptian society or would they want a separate identity? Could Egyptians learn to stop brutally oppressing Jews and treat them as equals?

Although attending a Seder led me to view the impact of history on race relations from a new perspective, my experiences as a black student at the University of California, Berkeley inspired my interest in what some call “self-segregation,” or people choosing to associate primarily with other members of their race. Throughout secondary school almost all my black peers equated having white friends (or being articulate) with “acting white.” I eventually learned to accept that schoolyard bullies believed blacks should kowtow to abstract and narrow tenets of “authentic blackness,” but I later realized that racialized expectations are also prevalent amongst black college students.

I applied to Berkeley hoping it would be a place where students could discover and pursue their passions while learning both from and alongside people of different backgrounds. Berkeley didn’t disappoint. I routinely noticed ways for students to satisfy their interests, from those in love with astrophysics to those hooked on The Simpsons; and it was not uncommon to come across classmates who had served in the military, grown up in rural areas, or only recently moved to America. It didn’t take long to learn that Berkeley also offered several opt-out options for black students who didn’t care to experience the school’s diversity – to use a loaded word. Days after being accepted, I was invited to live on the “African American Theme” dormitory floor and attend “Black Senior Weekend” (a weekend for underrepresented admits to visit Berkeley).

I frequently met black students who seemed determined to participate in activities and organizations that were exclusively black, despite the likelihood that their professional ambitions would be better served elsewhere. The most illustrative example is an acquaintance who was looking to meet other students interested in the law. Having made the same search and joined the Cal Mock Trial Team, I recommended she tryout. Competitors study evidence, examine witnesses, and compete around the country in mock trial tournaments to receive feedback from judges and attorneys. To bolster my sell, I explained that our coach (whose home I would visit for Passover) was a founding partner of a prestigious law firm in San Francisco. I waited for questions about costs and time commitment, but she only bluntly asked “How many blacks are on the team?” I didn’t see how it was relevant, but answered “Right now, just me.” Noticing her interest fade, I quickly added that many members of the team were great people and some of my closest friends. She then put into words the dismissive look that came across her face as I made my last point: “Girl, I can’t be kickin’ it with all them white people.”

I didn’t understand why she found the prospect of socializing with white students unappealing, so I turned to a friend active in the black community at Berkeley for some insight. Ignoring my question, my friend immediately launched into her opinion of race relations in the 1960s. I was about to redirect her attention to present day college students when she nonchalantly claimed that blacks would have been “better off” if integration never happened and whites had just “left us alone.” I couldn’t absorb the significance of her assertion quickly enough to say anything other than “Is that what you really think?” She briefly explained that “forced association with whites” had prevented blacks from establishing their own identity.

These encounters strongly suggested that some black students had no desire to experience racially diverse environments. But in post-Prop 209 Berkeley, the focus was the number of minorities the university admitted, not the separatist route many of those same students chose once, and sometimes before, they arrived. (In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 209 to prohibit public schools from considering race in admissions.) I heard professors lament that Prop 209 had devastated the acceptance rate of minorities, and saw black students sport shirts with “Overqualified and Underrepresented” plastered across the front and statistics noting the drop in black student enrollment after Prop 209 on the back.

By my junior year, I had become more intrigued by the racial separatism I witnessed and bored with the heated affirmative action debates that infected virtually every aspect of campus life. I knew that I would have to devote time to studying this issue if I was going to answer the questions I had been asking myself since I set foot on campus. So I obtained a fellowship with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity to research factors that influence the likelihood that black students will separate along racial lines and the potential ramifications of their behavior. With the support and guidance of Berkeley Law’s Dean Christopher Edley, Jr., I looked at measures Berkeley and other universities took to enable black students to separate or integrate, and I interviewed prominent blacks on self-segregation and the contribution they believed integration made to their success.

Based on media coverage of this issue, there appear to be two main camps in the public debate surrounding self-segregation on college campuses. One side argues that underrepresented students at predominantly white universities need separate racially homogenous environments to nurture their identity, socialize with people who truly understand them, and temporarily escape always being in the minority. Opponents insist that self-segregation is divisive and fails to prepare students for environments in which they must interact with other races regardless of the discomfort it might bring. Many who defend “comfort-zones” argue that whites aren’t required to reach out to other races and that blacks (and Latinos) are unfairly singled out when all students engage in some form of separatism.

Creating enclaves is clearly not limited to any one group. People want to be around others like themselves, and certain characteristics – including race – can indicate common ground in additional areas. However, it is ironic for a race, after a long-time struggle against and historic triumph over forced segregation in America, to voluntarily segregate. And though racial separatism surely occurs beyond university walls, college is often seen as the time students are equipped for life outside school.

While there are undeniable and understandable tendencies for similar people to band together, I wanted to explore whether self-segregation adversely affects black students’ ability to maximize their achievement in the “real world.”

Simply entertaining this possibility might cause some to wonder if I am from an economically privileged background or a “black conservative.” I am neither. Nevertheless, I believe that automatic accusations of callousness and racism exemplify the severe limitations on discussions of this issue, and the undeserved vilification with which questioning the behavior of blacks is typically met.

People who disagree with facilitating separatist environments for minority students are often characterized as unsympathetic. These charges don’t concern me. Of over eight thousand applicants accepted to Berkeley, I was one of 108 blacks in the incoming class of 2004. More often than not, I was the only black person in my classes, from sections with twenty students to lecture halls with several hundred, and I had my share of run-ins with people who help create the “hostile” university environment.

Once I familiarized myself with the national debate on self-segregation, I began researching avenues that allow black students to separate themselves from the rest of the student body. Since I was invited to live on the “African American Theme Program” (AATP) dorm floor my first year, I started with university housing designated for black students. I spoke with several AATP administrative assistants about the origins of Berkeley’s all-black residence hall and its overall objective. They seemed highly defensive and more intent on questioning my motives than providing basic information, as if inquiries threatened the program’s very survival.

AATP’s website touted the program as a place where residents could have open discussions and learn to understand students from different backgrounds, but I wasn’t convinced that either objective was a top priority. According to their online pitch, AATP gave students “who share the same interest” an opportunity to live together. Wanting to live solely amongst blacks appeared to be the only “interest” other housing options couldn’t satisfy. After all, every other experience AATP said it offered was available, though possibly more difficult to obtain, outside a racially segregated setting.

Although I chose not to participate in AATP, I appreciated its appeal. With over thirty thousand students and hundreds of student organizations, Berkeley can feel rather Darwinian. I empathized with black freshmen attempting to nurture their identity and more easily transition to college.

What I didn’t understand was university officials actually paving the way for students to avoid living with peers without the same skin color. I wondered if people who defend minorities having their own dorms to cope with an “unwelcoming” university would support a comparable housing option for other groups.

During my college years, which overlapped with the majority of George W. Bush’s second term, few people at Berkeley were confronted with more animosity than Republicans. A “conservative only” dorm might afford some students special comfort in an overwhelmingly liberal and consistently hostile environment, but universities wouldn’t permit such facilities. As my group leader at student orientation acknowledged, universities expect students to cultivate an ability to interact and find common ground with people unlike themselves.

I can’t equate the adversity that black and conservative students face. But something seems amiss if universities encourage conservative students to challenge themselves and their views by living amongst a diverse group of people, and simultaneously help blacks opt out and, as some suggest, miss out. In 2006, when the University of Massachusetts, Amherst elected to stop reserving dorm floors for minorities and discourage students from trying to live with people of the same race, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life said college students “need to be exposed to different opinions and ideas.” He likened letting students live exclusively with their race to “allowing [them] to shut themselves off,” which he argued means that “they are missing out.”

The national debate that ensued after officials at UMass announced their plans to increase integration by eliminating segregated dorms reveals the difficult situation universities are in: appease minority students with special privileges or limit separatism and be branded “unwelcoming.” Given this political predicament, many universities don’t commit themselves to providing all students with the fullest possible educational experience or addressing the problems on campus that motivate minorities to self-segregate; instead, they offer band-aid solutions so that they can dodge allegations of insensitivity.

As I was completing my research of black dorms, I found myself constantly being asked, “Are you going to Black Grad?” Traditionally, universities have a general commencement and individual graduations grouped by major for undergraduate seniors. In more recent years, however, several schools also host “Black Graduation” – a separate ceremony that black students may attend. I looked into this form of self-segregation once I realized that virtually every black senior I knew had plans to participate. Administrative assistants were resolute that the event is open to any student. Technically speaking, this is correct though the name of the ceremony and numerous graduates wearing academic stoles in the colors of the Pan-African flag – a popular symbol of black unity – seem to indicate who is welcome.

More From Thought Catalog

  • JJ

    Jesus.  This was enlightening.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Timberman/922794 Steven Timberman

    Lots and lots of ideas to chew on here, the first half is particularly strong.

    But, this doesn't feel like a personal narrative. This feels like an essay written for an ethic studies course. An interesting one, sure, but the constant deluge of facts and history lessons took me out of your own personal journey and experience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    Heres my whole thing. There are a lot of black americans who feel that slavery must have come and gone with their toils. I wonder how many even know that the word itself originates from Slav, or Slavic person. White people have been slaves too. Lots. And there still are, slaves of every race on this planet. Now what separates us? The fact that some people can't get over what happened many generations ago. I come from extremely poor mostly Eastern European stock. I can bet anything that at one point or another, my ancestors were at least serfs, if not outright slaves. Do you hear me whining? 

    Also, this whole identity thing. Its all what you make of it. Think about it every day and sure, you might feel lacking. But focus on what is actually relevant and important in this universe, and youll quickly see how utterly meaningless your perceived notion of things are.

    • Tay

      Oh shut the fuck up.

    • http://typicalnut.blogspot.com Bema

      To put this commenter's point more succinctly:

      “I'm from a third world country so top that, black people!”

      • http://typicalnut.blogspot.com Bema

        Damn, I put my foot in my mouth in denying your Slav etymology.

        And to make it worse, my ancestors probably sold your ancestors into slavery.

    • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

      Lol, this is terrible. A lot of people on Earth have been slaves. Not unique to all previously-enslaved groups however (yah white folk I'm talking 2 u), is the pervasiveness of their cultural identity. Race is not utterly meaningless. Society has made it that way. To a white person in a white-majority country, it's probably easy to forget the notion of identity. But I cannot escape my (different) skin colour so I think about it almost every day.
      Somewhat unrelated tangent:I've been having this sort of discussion with gay men that reject the idea of a “gay community” since liking men is merely a personal trait. It's almost always white guys that say this because as the racial majority, they consider their “whiteness” pretty meaningless. I have no real point here, but it's interesting to think about…

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        #1 if its so terrible why did you preface it with “lol”? #2 I consider my whiteness to be meaningless as I consider my bisexuality to be meaningless. Sure, I am judged for it, but fuck it, I don't care. Sucks, but youre right society does paint different groups of people in different light, when, in my opinion, we're all equally retarded and worthless.

      • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

        1. Because I don't let the white man bring me down. ;)

        2. No one is judging you. I just really dislike it when people discredit the value of self-identifying with a cultural grouping.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

        WHAT WOULD SHAQ DO?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CaseyJonesATX Casey Jones

      Looking at Greg Petliski's profile, it looks like this guy is a walking, living, breathing 24/7 hour troll.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        But how many trolls can wax as eloquently as I can? :)

  • Forrest

    It doesn't read like most of what else is on TC. I like that.

  • Tay

    It isn't really self segregation, it's more like self preservation. Perhaps you think that in the absence of these spaces where minorities come to support one another are a host of friendly, accepting spaces where blacks/hispanics/etc are wholly welcome. Well, no, it isn't that simple. In reality, whites self-segregate as well, only they're the majority so it isn't as noticeable. There's a reason that terms like “token black friend” exist…mainly because young white students social groups tend to be predominantly or wholly white themselves, even in liberal/progressive/academic spaces. Oh and saying things like “graduation is only about academic achievement not race” etc completely discards all social and historical context. For a black family seeing their child graduate from university and being the first member of their family to do so it a monumental moment, the product of lots of social justice and progress often in the face of poverty, discrimination and shitty school systems. You really did just glaze over why these minority spaces might be of benefit.

    • Teukros

      Your argument about graduation and social context is ridiculous.  I shouldn't even have to ask this, but do you think that only black people have offspring who are the first in the family to graduate?  Do you think ALL black people have offspring who are the first in the family to graduate?  Really, the connecting factor here isn't race — which, as the author said, eliminates the need for (or rationality of) a black graduation.

      The connecting factor is really “offspring who are the first in the family to graduate college” — or to put it more generally, “poverty.”  Do you want to have a poor man's graduation?  The concept is just as absurd as black graduation.

      • Tay

        No the connecting factor is both that and being of a particular racial experience. Really not asking you to ~understand and ~get it, its specifically for those students and families who feel they would like to participate. It's not mandated or anything so your question is pretty irrelevant.  If you think its absurd then don't participate.

      • Teukros

        It's not that I don't “~understand” what you're saying.  What you're saying is just wrong.

  • Teukros

    I agree with Forrest that this doesn't sound anything like Thought Catalog.  I hope you're seeking publication in other places where this will get the attention it deserves.  (For the record, I don't doubt that many politically conservative news outlets would be delighted to showcase this piece.)

    • ariel

      why conservative? I didn't think this article was conservative or liberal. It was more a statement about a particular phenomenon.

  • Guy

    This was a thoughtful read, but I think there's an important distinction between integration and assimilation.  Putting all the pressure on minority students to challenge themselves in racially charged and/or uncomfortable environments is, in effect, the most glaring double standard.  The same situations and struggles obviously do not apply to all blacks or other minorities the same, but the people who might support separatism have had some racial experiences just as valid as those disagree.

    Why are white students not asked to participate in Black Graduation, to encourage a racially heterogenous experience more uncomfortable than the ones they're used to? (I realize this might defeat the point of Black Graduation, but I doubt you would find many volunteers anyway)  Why are white students not encouraged to intern at historically black institutes or organizations?  If we expect the same comfort levels and risk taking, white students should be nudged towards situations where they are the racial minority, and they should do this with proper knowledge of the historically situations they are entering and interacting with.

    • lula

      I really like this article and what it had to say, but I also agree with Guy.  As a white woman living in the south, it seems to me that my black colleagues are much more adept at navigating racially divers situations than I am.  I can't even remember the last time I was in a situation where I was a racial minority.  Maybe that just says something about me, or maybe it's because the south is still pretty segregated for whatever reason (by choice or institutionalized racism, etc), or maybe it's because I'm in the majority racially.  I don't really know why.  But I do know that so long as this country continues to have a white majority, black Americans will consistently find themselves in situations where they are the minority.  This fact both fosters and necessitates the ability to mix with different races.  I think it's natural that people will gravitate towards those with similar backgrounds on a number of dimensions, and that's fine.  But I don't really think it's necessary for institutions to promote self-segregation.  Students can form their own student groups based on race, they can join culturally relevant activities, but the university doesn't need to provide segregated housing or black graduation.  I guess what i'm trying to say is that segregation should be deinstitutionalized, the the rest up to individual choice.  I don't know, maybe I'm wrong?

  • dctransplant

    Having been a white student at a predominently white liberal arts college, this is a topic that I have always thought about.  I just have never understood why some black students seemed to not want to hang out with the general student population.  Of course some people are racist, but I would venture to say the majority are not.  I think this was extremely well written, and I appreciate this being posted here.  I also agree with another commenter that this should be published somewhere where more people will have access to it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

    This was a fascinating article. It was a little challenging for me to read while eating breakfast… Your style of writing is a bit too complicated for the level of journalism I expect out of TC (have you noticed how many articles on this site are just LISTS?).

    Anyway, here's another list.

    1. “However, it is ironic for a race, after a long-time struggle against and historic triumph over forced segregation in America, to voluntarily segregate.”

    This is not ironic to me. Forced segregation carries nuances of POWER and DOMINANCE of one group over another. Voluntary segregation has no such connotations. Maybe to many blacks, an all black dorm floor is a type of Promised Land.

    2. “is voluntarily separate equal?”

    What an excellent question. It can be but often it is not. I think if anyone would like to think about this in further detail it would be worth looking at other “case studies” around the world. Places like Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Trinidad. Places where different peoples were just plopped together and expected to cooperate. Unintentional petri dishes around the world, each beautiful (and sometimes tragic) in their own ways.

    3. I think many people reject integrating because they fear a loss of their own culture. And yes, maybe part of that culture IS a “speech pattern”. Language is power, and a powerful language is not necessarily the language of the one IN power, but whatever language empowers YOU. Nahmeen? :/

    4. You talk about your experience ar Berkeley but do not make reference to Asians at all. I just thought that was weird. It would make for a very interesting comparative. 

    5. Black conservatives scare me. That is all.

  • http://twitter.com/rislynsey christopher lynsey

    Interesting, provoking.

  • professor bum

    Great job :) I came to Berkeley in 2006 – 94 black students in my class – and the campus is jarringly not-black, especially compared to the communities surrounding it. 
    It seems that self-segregation becomes even more appealing when the number of folks who share your identity is smaller in the general population. If there were 400 people who looked like me in the 20,000+ undergraduate student body, I'd want to find those other people, too! But I always wondered if black students on my campus found connection in the Berkeley or Oakland city communities. If students felt at home in those cities, would the urge to self-segregate on the Berkeley campus be less strong?

  • ariel

    This is the best and most interesting article I have read on TC. I almost think this article would be interesting to read and discuss in a sociology class. Very thought provoking.

  • http://achildcansee.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/the-weak-affirmed-by-love/ The weak affirmed by love | A child can see ...

    […] And then Communism too came knocking at this door.  An empire of Serfs became ripe for the Promised Land of the Slaves of Egypt once more.  And the cycle continues. […]

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