Eating Together

John Rosenberg

Crossposted from Discriminations:

About a week ago, in More “Food For Thought” From Sociology (If You’re On A Starvation Diet), I discussed a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association whose authors argued (hold on to your hats!) that students who ate at tables with interracial students reported “are much more likely to view the campus as having a good environment on race relations than do those who don’t.”

That post prompted a typically thoughtful and unconventional email from regular reader and still unmet friend, Linda Seebach, a retired editorial writer and columnist at the now equally retired Rocky Mountain News in Denver (it ceased publication in 2009, after 150 years), which I quote with her permission.

“[T]he first opinion piece I ever wrote for publication was on that topic,” she explained, “years before I had any thought that one day writing opinions could be just a day job … and I don’t recall that I’ve seen this point made elsewhere; in highly asymmetric circumstances, mathematical intuition influences social behavior.”

Let me start with a local example. I live in a senior residence — I’m 71, but the average age is mid-80s — and given demographic realities, women here outnumber men roughly four to one. The number of residents varies between 60 and 70, so there are 12 to 15 men, and about half of them are married, so there are six to eight single men. It is unlikely that the people who live here suffer from any deep-seated animus based on gender. Yet the ways in which people seat themselves turn out to be remarkably similar to the ways black and white students segregate themselves in university dining halls.

Our dining room has mostly tables for four. People go through the buffet line to get their food, and then they pause at the door to the dining room while they suss out where to sit. Married couples, of course, sit together; but the single men head for a table where there is another single man already sitting, and if they don’t see one they’ll start a new table rather than joining one where there are already two women. This is not because they object to the company of women; all of them have been married, and if they still were they’d be sitting with their wives. It is not because they think the women will object to them. If they’re worried about anything having to do with gender, it’s the opposite.

Women facing the same choice have noticed that the single men choose each others’ company. If, like me, they would prefer mixed company, they have probably noticed that these men don’t; at least, the conversational temperature may turn decidedly chilly when a woman asks those seated at a table with two or three men, “May I sit here?”

Conventionally, they may not refuse; but they don’t have to be friendly. Often enough, they’re not, so I tend to avoid them in order to avoid giving offense.

OK, scale up to a college dining hall. Suppose the student body is a diversity-perfect one-in-eight black, and ignore for the purposes of this thought experiment all the other messy complications of ethnic reality. To the student pausing at the door to select a table, what are the choices?

If there are two people already at a table, and both of them are black, that happens by chance one time in 64. Reasonable to think it happened by choice, not chance, and the person choosing a table might respect that choice, either way. If they’re both white, that happens by chance 49/64s of the time, so odds are it doesn’t mean anything. Mixed company, 14/64; plausibly by choice.

At that decision point, social constraints come into play. If a black student bypasses all the existing all-black tables to sit at an all-white table, he might run into hostility; I don’t think that happens often, but no doubt it happens sometimes, and it may be unpleasant enough to make sure he doesn’t risk it again. (And his friends who have heard the story from him won’t either.) If he chooses a mixed-company table, he may get grief from his black friends — that happens, too. “Oreo” is an ethnic slur, but one not invented by whites. White students will pass up all-black tables (and dining-hall tables usually seat six to 10, so the odds against black-by-chance become astronomical) either because they don’t want to sit with blacks or because they don’t want to intrude, but blacks — who have never themselves had occasion to figure the odds that way — naturally assume the former. White students won’t get any grief either way for choosing mixed versus all-white; nobody will pay any attention. That’s a manifestation of what’s called “white privilege”; if you’re in a large (numerical but visually identifiable) majority, you don’t have to notice.

Also note that to whatever extent black students are choosing all-black tables, they decrease the opportunities for white students who would prefer mixed-race tables to find one.

At majority-black colleges, do the same mathematical dynamics work in reverse?

If it’s true that casual social contact between the races is valuable enough to be worth fostering, which seems likely, then the only way I see to accomplish it is for influential people of both races to get together privately and agree to model the behavior they value in a very public way, staking out a section of the dining hall for mixed-whatever choices so people know it’s OK to seek out that option. Once started, it is likely to persist. At least among students of genuine good will.

“Fascinating!” I replied, asking her permission to quote but then asking with the snarkiness of a single-issue blogger with a one-track mind, “To be completely relevant to the diversity debate, however, wouldn’t the male geezers have to have been preferentially admitted in order to provide diversity to all you diversity-requiring females?”

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