Op-ed: Identity and exclusion

Nicholas Kinberg | Class of 2020

Coming to a university like Washington University means meeting people of all kinds of different identities, experiences and lives. Coupled with this is the need to mature. But what buttresses all of this is the fear of exclusion.

Wash. U. is a majority-white environment. One would expect to find this in a majority-white country. But because of this, the environment is also ruled by white culture. This article will discuss the sociological perspective of a minority in such an environment to succinctly explain the problem that minorities face not just at Wash. U., but around the world: exclusion. It will also discuss, specifically, white culture, and why this minority is made uncomfortable by it. This is, however, just the experience of one minority, so it does not profess to speak for all—not even the minorities to which the author belongs.

As in any country, the majority’s culture reigns supreme. This leads to those with minority status, whether that be in race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, what have you, having to adapt to that culture. Some do it better than others, some being tokenized for their minority status among a majority, some being genuinely included without having to sacrifice their own culture and others having to jettison their own culture in lieu of the majority’s. Others fail, and experience exclusion on a scale disproportionate from the exclusion felt by students of the majority.

Take the author, for example. His status as a black male makes it more likely that he will have been raised in black culture, which is different from other cultures. This leads to clashes between those cultures and, in some cases, exclusion. Because black people are a minority on this campus, that exclusion will be felt more intimately, to the point where he is incentivized only to hang out with other black people. They will be all he trusts.

This, however, is coupled with maturity in college. It becomes difficult to discern between what is an adoption of white culture and what is simply recognizing a new social cue, becoming more considerate of others, handling one’s allergies or functioning in group settings. While the latter goal should not be ignored—in fact, it should be promoted because college is about growth—it should be recognized that minority status confers a difference upon a person. Black people are different from white people are different from Latino people are different from Asian people and so on. These differences aren’t bad; they’re the opposite. But the problem arises when the majority doesn’t try to include those who aren’t like them. It isn’t enough to just hang out with people who are different from you, because doing that means subconsciously hanging out with people who are culturally like you. It is enough to make intentional and proactive inclusion a part of your life, such that you recognize the differences between groups and accommodate and celebrate those groups rather than calling them “weird.” This prompts a discussion of white culture, with which the author has two problems: its tendency to hold a grudge and its capriciousness.

White culture is unforgiving, in that a single social faux pas can destroy entire relationships. The author has experienced this on numerous occasions and is worried whether his myriad relationships only with minorities are a result of his personality or his mistakes in dealing with white culture. The culture can also be arbitrary, in that social rules seem to materialize and disappear randomly to the point where it is impossible to understand white culture without having grown up in it. The problem also arises of repeated violations of white culture causing people trying to find and expecting weird things said from the person violating the culture. A common response to this is hanging out only with those who look like oneself and refusing to talk around white people for fear that what one will say will be “awkward.”

The author is projecting because he sometimes doesn’t know the difference between exclusion based on culture and exclusion based on maturity. The author has certainly made mistakes of maturity in the past, whether that be in competence, work ethic, avoidance of excuses and more, and will continue to improve. But lack of perfection doesn’t mean lack of dignity. The author, and all people, still deserve to be treated like people, differences between people being acknowledged and not erased. Bigotry doesn’t make you a bad person. Refusal to do anything about it does.