In the front commons of this school is a spot that any Greyhound would recognize. Every afternoon and passing period, this ordinary spot, an open lobby area jammed between the front office, library and auditorium, becomes filled with students coming together to talk, socialize and make plans for the weekend. But what makes this meeting spot distinct from many others at CHS is that nearly all the students who meet here are African-American.
“It was originally the ‘black spot;’ that’s what they call it,” junior Asia Henderson, an African-American student and a regular at this meeting place, said. “There’s a lot of white people at the school, so we thought that since there’s only a few of us that we should all get together and, you know, be friends, and that’s just where we all go to hang out.”
Senior and African-American Jaila Brewer said she is also a frequenter of the “black spot.”
“(The spot) is majority black. There are a couple of Caucasian people that come here, and that’s pretty much it,” Brewer said. “We just sit around, talking and listening to music, (and) talk about our day and our weekend and things like that.”
Meeting spots at this school dominated by a single race are not unique to just “the black spot” and African-American students. Large concentrations of minorities can be seen in several other areas of the school, such as a dominantly Asian population meeting at the front of the media center and multiple lunch tables composed of students of uniform race.
That, according to IU sociology professor Stephen Benard is not unusual. Underlying these racially separated gathering grounds, he said, is the existence of racial “self-segregation” in friendships. Self-segregation, he said is not segregation caused by a law, nor is it de facto segregation. It is instead separation caused by the group itself. In terms of friendship, he said, racial self-segregation is the choice, consciously or subconsciously, to become friends with people of the same race.
This school is not alone in its self-segregation in friendship. In a study conducted by the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, students of different races were asked to identify the races of their friends. White students surveyed reported that 85 percent of their friends were also white, and black students surveyed reported that 85 perfect of their friends were also black. In the group surveyed, however, white students made up only 51 percent of the population, and black students made up only 38 percent, highlighting the disproportional composition of races in friendship circles.
While self-segregation in friendships is not necessarily harmful or malicious and can even have positive effects, the reason why it happens is wide and expansive. Especially at this school district which has, according to the Carmel Clay Schools website, a student body composed of 21.7 percent minority students, a relatively high statistic, racial self-segregation can be both easily avoided and readily accessible.
According to Benard, the leading reason people gravitate toward people of the same race is a desire for similarity.
“There’s actually a really general tendency for people to want to spend time with people who are similar to them. We call that ‘homophily,’” Benard said. “You see that absolutely for race, but you also see that for other things like gender and political beliefs or interests. So people definitely tend to affiliate with other people who are similar to them.”
Henderson said she agreed that similarity is a factor in why she sometimes prefers to associate with people of her own race.
“(People with similar backgrounds) feel more comfortable about (people like them), I guess. Like, they can relate more,” Henderson said. “Like, black people relate to each other by, like, their family and their parents especially.”
Like Henderson, Brewer said she feels more freedom to be herself around other African-American students.
“I know the people can understand me more when I come (to the ‘black spot’),” Brewer said. “I can talk the way I want to talk and everything like that.”
Like Henderson, junior Stephanie Lee, who is Asian-American, said her sense of reliability with people of her own race leads her to have a friend group that is dominantly Asian.
“I guess I can just act more myself around (other Asian students), and then they can usually understand how I feel better,” Lee said. “We have so much in common. We go through the same things, I guess, (with) school work… and they tend to know how I feel because they go through the same things as me.”
Benard added, however, that in addition to homophily, racial stereotyping is another factor in determining friendships and how people self-segregate.
According to Benard, “There is a history of racial stereotypes in the U.S… that can sometimes lead to members having more negative opinions of people from other groups or maybe be less trusting of people of other groups, so that can also exacerbate this tendency to self-segregate.”
Henderson said she agreed that stereotypes contribute to how people view her and her friends. She said she sometimes feels that non-black students expect her to associate with other African-Americans and that non-black students have negative views toward the “black spot.”
According to Henderson, “Some people think that black people are more loud or ghetto, and there’s a lot of white people who are loud and ghetto, too. But once they see the spot they think, ‘Oh that’s ghetto over there, let’s not go over there’.’”
Racial stereotypes may have an even greater impact than may be consciously realized. According to Benard, these stereotypes are sometimes so deeply embedded within society that they continue to have influence.
“There are a lot of people who don’t believe in the stereotypes, but they can even be unconsciously affected by them just because the culture is kind of saturated with them, so that can affect peoples’ behavior,” Benard said, “even if they’re not really aware of it and even if they don’t really think the stereotypes are true.”
While Henderson said that a large majority of her friends are African-American, she added that she does have friends of other races, as well.
“One of my best friends is white,” Henderson said, “and I feel comfortable doing everything with her as I do with other people. I think it’s good to be friends with all races.”
Lee added that she also has friends who are of different races, but she finds it easier to befriend those of her own race.
“For me, I think that if you’re like the same race, then it’s easier to become friends with them,” Lee said. “But I think that you can make friends with other races too.”
Benard said he agreed that crossing barriers to other races may present challenges when it comes to adjusting to new environments and situations.
“You know, I think there are a lot of people that you may think you don’t have a lot in common with,” Benard said, “and having more diverse ranges of people can be a lot more challenging.”
While segregated places like the “black spot” and an Asian-dominated front of the media center seem to present awkward or unusual situations, in fact, they do not display uncommon habits. This racial self-segregation may not necessarily be negative, but, according to Benard, a separation from self-segregation could have benefits.
“There’s certainly nothing wrong with associating with people who are maybe more similar to you or you have things in common with. It’s not necessarily that you don’t want to interact with people of the same race,” Benard said. “I think, you know, just that there’s a lot of advantages to interacting with people who are different from you, that you can learn things from. I think that in the U.S. we tend to go a little more in the direction of not having those ties across different groups.”