The Argo, Spring 2003
"Cultural Clubs Promoting Diversity...or Division?"
By Erin Durkin, ‘04
Integration. They marched for it on the streets of Selma and Montgomery. They sat in at lunch counters and boycotted buses. The NAACP filed lawsuits, and Martin Luther King led a march on Washington. And they succeeded—segregation has been legally abolished for years. The halls of BLS teem with students of all races. Yet take a look around the cafeteria during any given lunch period, and you will see that precious little integration exists. Eight Asian girls sit around a table at one end of the room, while eight Caucasian males chat at another. We all profess to be open and tolerant and forward thinking, yet during the one period of the day when we are really free to associate with people of our choosing, we tend to break ourselves down along racial lines.
The same trend exists in several of the clubs and organizations that exist at BLS. Some exist explicitly to celebrate a certain race or culture; others have purposes that don’t seem at al related to race but nonetheless end up with a racially homogenous membership. Asian Students in Action (ASIA) falls into the former category. Its goal, as presented in its mission statement, is “to represent the true meaning of cultural pride in serving our school, community, and others,” and to “provide a forum for students to voice their opinions, to learn from each other as well as socialize in a nurturing an positive environment.” ASIA’s best-known event is Asian Night, set to take place this year on May 23, but, as James Zhang (II) says, “ASIA isn’t just about Asian Night. We do perform community service and try to help all the students in this school.” ASIA’s leaders insist that the club does not discriminate on the basis of race. Its mission statement reads, “[T]he organization is not limited to Asians. As shown as our activities, associations, and members, diversity shares a great part in ASIA’s success.” Yet the fact remains that the vast majority of ASIA’s members are of Asian ancestry (of the 241 students on its members’ list, approximately 11 are non-Asian). Every year, ASIA sends out invitations to designated seventh-graders, singling out those who identify themselves as Asian. Students of other races who have participated in ASIA’s activities have mixed feelings about the experience. Katherine Pittore (II) recalls a hostile reception. Other members she says, glared at her and commented in auspicious whispers, “This is ASIA—forAsians.” “It ade me more hesitant to go to any of their events in the future,” says Pittore. “They say they’re trying to promote diversity, but when you go there trying to learn about Asian culture they force you out. I understand the goal of preserving your culture, but I don’t think you should do that at the expense of excluding others. I don’t think a public school is the place for that.” Yet Andrei Lapets (I), a white ASIA member, defends the organization. “I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable with joining the club,” he says. “Any community will be in some way exclusive because it’s [made up of] people who know each other. Its perfectly normal [for] people of similar interests and similar cultures to come together.”
The Fashion Talent Show, which took place March 17, had two major purposes—its fashion section, open to any student who chose to participate, aimed to showcase various styles, while the talent section, which required an audition, was intended to display the specific abilities of the performers. None of this seems particularly race specific. Yet, for one reason or another, most of the performers and organizers of Fashion Talent are black or Hispanic. The March 17 show, as well as performances in years past, attracted a “predominantly minority audience,” in the words of Fashion Talent secretary Tiffany Gelott (I). Fashion Talent has tried to reach out to students of other races. “It’s just that the people who show up are minorities,” Gelott says, “We try to change things, but its hard to change.
By no means are these the only clubs whose membership is made up predominantly of one race. Nor are minority students the only ones who practice self-segregation. Many clubs at the school are mostly or entirely white; these clubs tend to get less attention because white exclusivity is nothing new. At the same time, however, many associations at BLS can boast member lists that are extraordinarily diverse. Indeed, some groups point to the promotion of diversity as their express purpose. International Showcase is such an organization. Members are currently preparing for this year’s International Showcase, planned for April 11. The show involves a parade of nations, as well as cultural performances by students of various ethnicities. In the words of participant Emily Yuan (IV), who plans to play the piano in the International Showcase, the show’s purpose is “to show the characteristics of the traditional cultures of various students.” Asian, Hispanic, and African cultures are among those represented. Yuan believes that such a performance encompassing so many distinct traditions serves to counteract the racial homogeneity that exists in other clubs. “International Showcase implies diversity. The goal of this [show] is to embrace different cultures and ethnicities.”
The goal of any cultural performance is to promote understanding and mutual admiration across ethnic lines. Whether this goal is served by clubs that cater to particular racial groups or whether such groups merely promote divisiveness and segregation still remains an open question.
With reporting by Hana Yoo ‘03