Would Dr. King Approve?
Ethnic clubs in high schools and colleges — clubs such as the Filipino Club, the Black Students’ Union, the Latino Club, the Korean Club and so forth — have worried me for the 31 years I’ve been teaching.Yes, there are those who maintain that these clubs celebrate cultures, explore history and establish bonds among their members. But using one’s race or culture as the exclusive grounds for club membership seems to go against Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of being judged by the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin.Granted, these clubs and organizations sponsor on-campus festivals and food sales, awakening ethnic pride. Yes, they recognize diversity. And certainly these clubs should exist — off campus. But they are now a permanent part of the co-curricular scene at most public schools.Many will argue that “anyone” can join any club on campus. However, my 15 years of teaching high school and 16 years at a community college have shown me a different reality. Such clubs segregate students by ethnicity. Period. School clubs based on common interests such as writing, playing chess or using computers can bring students together to celebrate their sameness. True acceptance and understanding also can result from playing sports with athletes of all nationalities, as the Olympics can attest. But singling people out by ethnicity sends another message. A few years back, a college student of mine who felt ethnic clubs were divisive went through the process of establishing a new club on our campus. He called it the “White Students’ Union.” Immediately, there was an uproar. Upon hearing its name, many students and faculty were outraged. It must be a racist club, they thought. Some students even called the campus newspaper to complain, “Who started this club, Nazis?”My student had carefully copied the constitution used by another ethnic club, just substituting the word “white” for the ethnic or racial identifications already in place. However, people reading it concluded it was blatantly racist.When he called his first meeting, an angry group awaited his arrival. Many seemed shocked to see him, a Black student in his twenties, step to the front of the room. “By the way,” he said with conviction, “I established this club because, as you know, the word ‘White’ means ‘colorless.’ Anybody can join this club.”As he spoke, many looked confused. There was a lot of stammering and sputtering in the room. Then, 50 people of all races, colors, ages and genders signed up. The club, which remained on the books as a viable organization for several semesters, never actually met again. My student had made his point. But, perhaps the reason I strongly dislike ethnic clubs has to do with being in Selma, Ala., in the mid-1960s during a major civil rights march to Montgomery. I had driven there from Texas on my way to Washington, D.C., where my husband, an Air Force pilot, had been transferred to the Pentagon.As I drove into Selma, I looked for a motel room, but every hotel and motel on the main road had a “No Vacancy” sign. Curiously, their parking lots were all empty. In frustration, I stopped to inquire. “If we have to rent to them (Blacks), we won’t rent to anyone,” a nasty motel clerk told me. “We’re closed!” I returned to my car and continued to search in vain. I finally decided to drive to the Air Force base in town to ask if they could put me up. They did. The next morning, I was looking for a place to buy breakfast when I noticed that most restaurants had signs in their windows declaring “Private Club.” Again, the parking lots were empty.When I stopped for gasoline, I asked the young man filling up my car, “Where can I get something to eat? All the places say ‘Private Club.’ “The young White man sidled up, elbowing me in the ribs as he winked, “Oh, it’s OK; you’re a member!”I left Selma with a heavy heart and an empty stomach.
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