January 29, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 37°F


Mixing spaces with races

When sophomore Amber Hammonds, who is African-American, moved into her freshman dorm last year, she was greeted by her Caucasian roommate. While living together, Hammonds realized their differences were as clear as black and white.

From left, sophomores Kevin Nhieu and Ledon Black. Photo illustration by Allison Usavage and Chris Carlon

“I think I was the third black person she had met in her life,” Hammonds said. “She might say it was an eye-opening experience for her, or she might be one of those people who would say they got educated and such, whereas I would say, ‘Yeah, that sucked.’”

Sophomore Robyn Lustbader, Hammonds’ roommmate from freshman year, said she did find it to be eye-opening because she had limited experiences with other races in her town.

“When she had a lot of her friends over and they were all African-American, it was definitely a good experience for me hanging out with people of a different race,” she said.

The majority of interracial roommates at Ithaca College are randomly placed together. Though the initial reaction of these roommates may not be positive, living with another race can help dismiss stereotypes, according to a new study.

Natalie Shook, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted a racial experiment at Ohio State University with Russell Fazio, a psychology professor at Ohio University, that studied the racial interactions of 260 anonymous freshman roommates. They found that after three months, students living in the interracial dorm rooms showed a positive increase in their racial attitudes, whereas those in same-race rooms didn’t show any change over time.

Shook also found at the beginning of her research that initially students in interracial rooms spent less time in their rooms and were less satisfied with the living situation. Shook said her research shows people have a harder time interacting with members of a different race.

“We’re generally much more comfortable with people who are part of the same group that we are because we feel that we have more in common, more shared experiences,” she said.

Bonnie Solt Prunty, director of Residential Life and Judicial Affairs, said if there was a problem between roommates at the college that had to do with race, Residential Life would handle it as they would handle any other roommate conflict.

“If it’s a situation where the students haven’t even met, our position is that we wouldn’t move students in anticipation of there being a roommate conflict,” Prunty said. “So we would at least ask them to move into their room, meet each other and give each other an opportunity to get to know each other before they make a decision about whether they can or can’t live together.”

Prunty said living with people of different backgrounds and races can create a much more enriching college experience for students.

“Some of the students who have had the richest experiences during their time here at Ithaca have had them because they’ve done something that the idea initially made them a little bit uncomfortable,” Prunty said.

Hammonds said Lustbader would make comments that may have seemed innocent but were actually offensive.

“She would say things that she heard in rap songs, and she’d be like, ‘What — that’s not OK? I can’t call you that?’” Hammonds said.

Lustbader said when she sang “n—-r” in that instance she didn’t realize it was considered offensive or inappropriate.

“It was fair of her to get upset at the word, but in the context of me just singing along to a rap song, it may have been an overstated reaction,” Lustbader said.

Belisa Gonzalez, professor of sociology, said the July 2009 New York Times article “Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice” regarding the study did not discuss some of the negative effects on students of the nondominant race.

“While the overall effect might be positive, it’s positive for the white students and not necessarily the students of color,” Gonzalez said. “Unfortunately, the burden is usually put on the person who isn’t in the dominant group to explain and teach the person who is.”

Janet Cobb ’89, a former African Latino Society member who is African-American, said when she was at the college races didn’t usually mix because they were more comfortable around each other. She said the thing she was most uncomfortable discussing with her white roommate was hair.

“I found it difficult because as black people we don’t wash our hair every day, and at night you usually wrap your hair with something,” Cobb said. “If I went to the bathroom, I had to take my hair out because I didn’t want to be questioned. You kinda hid a part of who you were because you didn’t want to answer questions.”

Seniors Craig Moses, Will Gaskins and Aubrey Manning have lived with interracial roommates since their freshman year. Moses, Caucasian; Gaskins, African-American and Chinese; and Manning, Puerto Rican, African-American and Blackfoot Indian, live in the Circle Apartments together. Gaskins said he and his roommates are comfortable talking about race because they are so immersed in it. He said they joke about it every day.

“We gang up on Craig and make fun of him, but he gives it right back to us,” Gaskins said. “I always tell him that he has gold buried under his house. Or Aubrey and I will be in the kitchen cooking and, [Craig will] walk in and be like, ‘Smells like chicken.’ But it’s all in good fun, we all get along really well.”

Manning said while he doesn’t think the rooming situation has had a huge effect on him, living with Moses has made him more aware of another culture.

“Just getting used to Jewish holidays and customs like how they won’t eat for a certain time after a certain holiday, or that they celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas,” he said. “It does open your eyes to different cultures.”

Sophomore Kevin Nhieu, who is Asian-American, said he was worried freshman year about rooming with one of his roommates after hearing he was from Jamaica.

“I did have a few stereotypes in mind,” Nhieu said. “I had the idea that he would consume a lot of alcohol or smoke marijuana, but after meeting him and getting to know him, I learned that wasn’t true.”

Sophomore Ledon Black, Kevin’s roommate from freshman year who is now a resident assistant in Boothroyd Hall, said living with people of different backgrounds can be a learning experience and a way to fight stereotypes.

“When [Nhieu] met me he was probably kind of surprised because I don’t drink or smoke at all,” Black said. “Stereotypes aren’t always true. That’s what Kevin found out and what I found out.”

While a lot of people may say that they don’t believe in stereotypes and therefore don’t need to interact with people of different backgrounds and races, Moses, Manning and Gaskins all agreed that this ideology is impossible.

“To say that there are no stereotypes at all, I feel is pretty ignorant,” Moses said. “To embrace the fact that you’re truly comfortable around another race, you have to accept the fact that there are stereotypes you have to overcome.”