At the awkward gathering of New York area students who had been accepted to Princeton, the father of another black student approached me as I poured myself a glass of ginger ale. “You know, we have to stick together,” he declared, after introducing himself. I agreed with him then, and I still do now. It would be naïve of anyone to believe that what DuBois called the single greatest issue of the last century has ceased to be a pressing concern on our campus and in our nation. The people who supported pro-segregation legislation are only one generation removed from power, and the current administration has done nothing but leave people of color behind. Yet, it seems to me that sometimes those of us in the minority occasionally take the idea of unity to its extreme, and transform a positive and necessary idea into a form of isolationism. There are many instances of segregation on our supposedly progressive campus – some self-imposed and some forced upon us – and although that word carries with it a deservedly ugly reputation, it is exactly what is happening here at Princeton.
One night, back when I used to go to Prospect Avenue, a friend of mine was preparing to leave one of the clubs and I asked him where he was going. A black man himself, he responded that he was going to Campus because “that’s where the black people just went. They travel in packs,” he said, chuckling because it was true. Sure enough, there was about one half of one non-black person on the ground floor of Campus that night. And when a few decided to leave, the entire place emptied out, much to the chagrin of the DJ and the club’s members. As much as it may have annoyed them, though, it could not have been entirely unexpected. Upstanding organizations like the BSU and LAMP do a great job of supporting the black community at Princeton in varied and useful ways. It is when there is something of a wall around those with the same skin tone that problems arise. The question is whether it’s locked from the inside, outside, or both.
Last May on Chris Matthews Day, those of us who decided we wanted to stand up for our beliefs and those of us who just wanted to be on television for a split-second were gathered in a disorganized circle around the various speakers. At one moment, the person who held the microphone mentioned minorities and poverty as a means of indicating the administration’s failure to help those in need. A young man who probably got to choose the size and shape of the silver spoon he was handed at birth decided that this was the perfect time to say that poor minorities were in this situation “because they don’t have jobs.” Whether or not you blame it on them, unemployment is certainly a problem among the impoverished, yet it did not appear as though his goal was to point out a core issue and propose a solution. No, he wanted to make his cruel friends laugh and enrage many others in the most public time and place possible. A few bad apples do not represent the general population, yet the comfort level necessary for this young man to say something so mean-spirited to hundreds of people does not exist for minorities. An offensive joke among friends is not harmless, but it does not actively wound anyone, while an act like this, which generated a shouting match, does nothing but poison the campus atmosphere, even if it is just the words of one person. Such a remark decreases the comfort level of those targeted by it, and moments like this indicate that the wall I mentioned before is at least partially locked from the outside.
Music can divide and unite groups of people as precisely as politics, and while there’s a place or two on the Street that is very inclusive in musical choice, most places play the same eighteen songs from the 80s time and time again. Maybe it’s because rich people can only scream about how they’re living on a prayer when they’re wasted (I know that’s the case for me). Or maybe it’s a general unwillingness to try something new. Theme nights are wonderful, but when they’re all the same four or five recycled ideas, they’re not really that special, especially when the regular music already fits that subject. Unless you really like showing off your slutty Catholic Schoolgirl outfit, this repetition does nothing but make much of the Street monotonous. It also serves to alienate a large segment of the population, i.e. those who don’t like “I Touch Myself.” (Yes, these people do exist.)
Now, my own musical tastes have broadened since I’ve come to Princeton, and the people who insist, like I once did, on only listening to hip-hop when they go out are putting themselves in a corner by being stubborn, and thus packs are formed with the intent of following the scent of a club playing the right type of music. There’s no excuse for this tunnel-vision, yet there is certainly a reason so many people take so long to be rid of it, and that is the aforementioned indistinct music that blares from almost every club. Similarly, I do love to dance, and I can understand that, if the only dancing that goes on at a club is large people groping the women who are willing to serve them, then I’m less inclined to spend an evening there. You also can’t really dance to Axl’s screeching, as much as I do actually like his music. Much of the social system at Princeton has settled into a rhythm that serves people who have none (this is not Caucasians, but simply people who can’t dance), and this is distressing for those who do not fit into this category.
My freshman year, my Resident Advisor held one of his many glorious study breaks, and somehow we landed on the topic of how much we were enjoying Princeton. For me, that first year was full of ups and downs, and since I was in the middle of a downturn, I rated my time here as a “4 or 5.” Of the dozen or so students sitting in that room, the only ones who gave the school scores below or even in the vicinity of mine were black. The happy students were surprised that anyone could be dissatisfied, since the school was giving them everything they could have asked for. And, unfortunately, this was, and is, tied into the fact we did not feel the same way. Yet as much as it may seem that I believe the deck is stacked against us here, we don’t help ourselves much by creating a very narrow comfort zone and trying to live within it. Yes, it is entirely unfair for us to have to change in some way just to be happy when so many classmates of ours can enter the social sphere of Princeton effortlessly, without blinking or maturing. As my friend’s father said at the New York gathering, we need to stick together, but not to the point of becoming a literal representation of the phrase “birds of a feather flock together.” My friend used the term “packs” to describe the social patterns of black students that evening. The fact that he described these groups in plural form shows that this is far from an uncommon occurrence among the Princeton minority population.
After being invited out for the evening, some of the black freshmen I know will balk at the offer just because of the presence of live music. This is utterly silly, since it’s not even a genre that’s being rejected (which is dumb enough), but the fact that it’s being performed rather than spun. Since I used to be somewhat like this, I can understand that there is a natural instinct to resist anything that seems weird when you’re someone who’s accustomed to two turntables and a microphone. The unfortunate truth is that the common interests among black students are considered “weird” by the social structure of our institution, and as a result, we can either travel in flocks or assimilate ourselves into the rest of Princeton. There is a gray area, to be sure, but even with a great deal of effort, it’s difficult to sustain. And so, for most of us, our social lives are either black or white.