A black student at Pitzer College in California and two other minority students at the Claremont Colleges, of which Pitzer is a part, were looking for a fourth to share housing for the summer. One line in the posting – “POC only” (for people of color) – turned the roommate search into the subject of a national debate.
Was it legitimate for black students to seek only non-white roommates? Was the posting evidence of self-segregation by minority college students?
The students have received an onslaught of criticism. But some say the reaction ignores the way many white students either seek out or just end up with white roommates.
Regardless of what one thinks of the choices of students, researchers who have studied college roommates who cross racial lines have found a range of outcomes of such pairings – including evidence that some black students seem to perform better academically when they have a white roommate, and evidence that the negative attitudes of some white students about black people may contribute to tensions among roommates.
The discussion of the Pitzer ad started last week when The Claremont Independent, a student publication that leans to the right politically, reported on the housing ad with the headline “Students at Claremont Colleges Refuse to Live With White People”. The comments on that article and in much of social media were harshly critical of minority students who wanted a non-white roommate.
Race relations have been much debated at Pitzer and other Claremont Colleges in recent years. Compared with many competitive liberal arts colleges, Pitzer has a highly diverse student body, with only 49 per cent of students identifying as white.
The new president of Pitzer, Melvin L. Oliver, responded to the growing public discussion of the ad by issuing a letter to the campus in which he criticised the housing ad and comments about it.
“While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our mission and values,” Oliver wrote.
“Pitzer College’s mission is to create engaged, socially responsible citizens. We rely on Pitzer’s core values, including intercultural understanding as well as Pitzer’s community values of diversity, dialogue, inquiry and action to help us achieve this mission. We come together to live and work in a shared learning environment where every member is valued, respected and entitled to dignity and honor. Our shared goal is to create a balanced approach to engaging complex intercultural issues, not to isolate individuals on the basis of any protected status.”
Karé Ureña, the Pitzer student who took out the ad, told The Guardian that it was wrong to accuse her and her fellow roommates of racism. “The conversation that the public is having is focused on white people and their exclusion in this housing ad,” she said. “But this is not a conversation about segregation and racism. These terms are deeply rooted in historical and systemic acts of violence towards people of colour that white people have simply not experienced…We want to reframe it so that it becomes a matter of students of colour simply prioritising their need for survival in the face of historical oppression in higher education.”
The Pitzer incident is hardly the first time the issue of roommates and race has come up – well after legal segregation was barred.
Michelle Obama's roommate during their first year at Princeton University was a white woman whose mother tried to have her daughter moved because she objected to her daughter living with a black roommate. Obama didn't learn of the roommate's mother's (unsuccessful) attempt to move her daughter until the 2008 election campaign, when reporters looked into her years at Princeton. “We were never close,” Obama said of her roommate in an interview that year to The Boston Globe. "But sometimes that's the thing you sense, that there's something that's there, but it's often unspoken."
These days college students who care about the race of a prospective roommate (or who don't) are likely to learn about the identity of their roommate through Facebook. And many colleges let new students use Facebook or roommate matching services to find a potential roommate, meaning that, without a college asking anyone's race or ethnicity or students admitting that they care, students may base their roommate requests in part on race.
On Roomsurf, a popular social networking site that students use to find roommates, photos are part of profiles, but there are no questions about race or ethnicity on the profiles or questionnaires designed to give students potential matches.
Dan Thibodeau, co-founder of the site, said via email that only a handful of the 900,000 students who have used the service have asked about identifying race or complained about the lack of race on the questionnaire. He said that, in those rare cases, the requests have generally come from foreign students who want to have roommates from their home country.
Cindi Love, executive director of ACPA-College Student Educators International, said: "We want students to live in spaces where they have to live and work across cultures." But at the same time, she noted that white students might not need to specify wanting a white roommate and would just end up with one much of the time.
“I find it so interesting that this is the common experience of many white people” but “we find it so difficult for black people” to have the same experience, she said. Further, she said that educators should be asking why black people “feel unwelcome” on campuses such that they feel the need for minority roommates, rather than just criticising the Pitzer student who felt this need.
Professors who have studied college roommates of different races have found some evidence that the roommates struggle more than others, and other evidence that they benefit from the experience.
A 2009 article in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin compared members of same-race and mixed-race college roommates, based on daily questionnaires about a variety of issues. The study (abstract available here) found that “roommates in mixed-race dyads experienced less positive emotions and intimacy toward their roommates than did roommates in same-race dyads”.
A 2008 study published in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations (abstract available here) found several possible impacts of mixed-race roommate pairings. This study was based on 2,700 dorm rooms with randomly assigned roommates in a large, predominantly white universities.
The study found that 15 per cent of roommates of different races had their roommate relationship dissolved during the academic year, compared to 8 per cent of rooms where both roommates were white and 6 per cent were both black.
The study did not determine any patterns, in roommates of dissimilar races, about the race of the student who opted to leave.
The same study found an apparently positive impact on the grades of some black students with white roommates.
Russell H. Fazio, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and one of the authors of the study, said in an interview that other research he has done shows that white students with negative attitudes about black people are more likely than other white students to seek to change rooms to avoid a black roommate. But he also said that when such roommate pairs last for an academic year, the attitudes of the white students are less negative to black people than they were at the start of the academic year.
Factors other than student attitudes about race can impact the results of this kind of research, Fazio said. For example, he said that colleges with extra housing space may be more willing to let students switch roommates than are colleges without any extra rooms. So the decision to let a white student avoid a minority student or vice versa is frequently a practical one, not a philosophical one, he said.
Fazio said that he did not know specifics of the Pitzer case, but said he personally disagreed with the criticism of the students there. “Every person has the right to decide who to live with,” he said. Further, he said that research on the racial attitudes of white students shows that their hostility toward minority individuals “is not so rare” as to make the Pitzer student's request irrational.
Natalie Shook, associate professor of psychology at West Virginia University, and co-author of the research cited by Fazio, agreed that studies of roommates pointed in different directions.
“My work (and others') indicates that on average individuals in same-race roommate relationships are happier, spend more time with their roommate, and report less stress with their roommate than those in cross-race roommate relationships,” Shook said via email. “However, I have data that indicate living in a cross-race roommate relationship reduces prejudice and intergroup anxiety, as well as leads to a stronger sense of belonging at university, which can have benefits for academic performance.”
Shook stressed that these findings are “on average”, and don't apply to all individuals.
This is a version of an article that first appeared in Inside Higher Ed