Overton: Ending student segregation goes much deeper

BY JON OVERTON | JULY 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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Over the past year or so, writers for The Daily Iowan and other local media have drawn attention to racism against international students and their difficulty integrating into American culture.

This has consistently been framed as a problem, and some criticisms leveled at students and the university are legitimate gripes.

Twitter has been a popular target for criticism, but to be fair, it’s not clear how prevalent racism from UI students on Twitter is or how it translates into face-to-face social interactions.

The general idea is that you can reduce racism by increasing interaction between domestic and international students, which would be super awesome, but the mere fact that international students don’t usually integrate into American culture is not a problem.

That’s just social life. Similar people clump together in their own circles. We all do this; it’s just more visible with international students because they aren’t usually white and they often speak a different language. That people prefer similar others is among the most well-documented findings in the social sciences.

We flock to people like us even when it’s completely arbitrary. A classic social psychology experiment showed that people will draw group boundaries based on preferences for different painting styles. It’s also apparent that these tendencies run deep in human behavior. Recent psychology experiments have found that not only do preverbal infants like similar others, but they also like those who harm people who are different from themselves.

Given that international students generally face a mild language barrier, dress a little differently, don’t follow all of our social norms, look different, and hold different values and beliefs, it’s a given that in lieu of some major commonality with domestic students, both groups are going to stay mostly in their own social circles. There’s just not much the UI can do to meaningfully increase domestic and international student interaction.

Data from the Office of the Registrar show that approximately 55 percent of UI students in the fall of 2013 were from Iowa, and according to census data, 88 percent of Iowans are non-Hispanic white. Then you figure that a sizable chunk of the students also comes from the Chicago suburbs, which are also very, very white.

Then you have Chinese and Korean students (who make up about 86 percent of international students at the UI), whose home countries are racially homogeneous with a strong collectivist and conformist culture.

Given what we know about human behavior, it’s inconceivable that you could bring adults from American and East Asian cultures to the same general area and expect that even though they’ve probably had limited exposure to people of other races and backgrounds, that most of them will have substantial cross-cultural interactions.

Sure, it’s possible for domestic and international students to become close. Domestic students who are really open and/or internationally minded and curious can befriend international students, but let’s be honest, that’s just not how most domestic UI students are.

If you go to a new country and must adjust to a new language and completely different way of life, you’ll probably feel alienated at some point, and the people who are going to understand best are, you guessed it, other international students.

There’s a time and place to condemn racism, but we have to keep this in perspective. Being around similar people helps build cohesion, so we feel as if people understand us and as if we matter.

Maybe the UI can do a little more to encourage mingling between domestic and international students, but the divide that exists now will probably be with us for the foreseeable future, and that’s OK.

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