Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
March 16th, 2007


My dorm is your dorm

I’m still not a fan of The Review, but the paper’s latest diatribe against the ethnic theme dorm program deserves comment, because I don’t think the reactions I’ve seen are adequate. The columnist rehashes the same points everyone throws at the program, and I know those points will be refuted in time, so I won’t rebut them point-by-point. Instead, I think I’ll keep your attention better with a higher-level defense of the program.

Disclaimer before I begin: the only ethnic theme dorm I’ve lived in is Casa Zapata, so I’m probably making ruthless generalizations here, but I believe the theme dorms have a lot in common anyways.

Ethnic theme dorms are not the one-day “multicultural fests” that your elementary school might’ve organized. They put a lot of effort into events throughout the year, exposing students to the many issues facing minorities in less fortunate sections of our society. Although the issues are typically discussed from the perspective of a particular ethnic group, they transcend race. For instance, Casa Zapata’s talks may mention illegal immigration with some frequency, but the community places importance on this issue more for protecting the poor than for protecting any particular race.

Ethnic theme dorms may exude more of a sense of community than other dorms do, but it’s not a matter of inclusion or exclusion, and it’s not a matter of who has more in common with whom. In my experience, ethnic theme dorms do more to keep everyone in the loop. It’s partly a matter of your dorm mates recognizing and greeting you when you’re more than 500 feet away from the dorm. Even if you’re not of the same ethnicity as they are. I was a freshman in Casa Zapata last year, and I certainly didn’t feel like that weird outsider who likes Mexican food. A lot of dorms, including non-themed dorms and especially fraternities, make similar attempts at creating a tight-knit community, but they don’t get called out for it, because – for example – “all the Roble kids sit at the same table” simply isn’t a valid complaint in our setting.

When I was little, I was under the naïve assumption that, if somehow everyone would just ignore each other’s race, everyone would eventually forget about it, and we could move on. It was naïve because it conflates two approaches: ignoring an individual’s race when interacting with them, and ignoring the topic of race altogether. The former approach is laudable: who cares whether you’re white or Asian or Hispanic when you’re playing cards with someone? However, the latter approach is unacceptable: if you ignore the issue of race, it doesn’t eliminate the problems that raised the issue in the first place.

We are in a university. It’s true that many of us have already overcome the “prejudice and poverty” that the ethnic theme dorms often discuss. But our role as students is to learn about the world’s problems, both technical and societal, both facing us and facing others. Our role is to take that knowledge and eventually work towards solving them. Those actually facing prejudice and poverty today are counting on us. Celebrating food or music or other aspects of a culture is just one aspect of an ethnic theme dorm. It’s somewhat of an icebreaker, to get everyone ready for the real issues.

It boils down to this question: do we want “racial harmony” just within our school, or do we want it for the society at large? If it’s the latter, we can’t settle for the columnist’s stop-gap solution of eliminating the discussion. Yes, after doing so, we will get bogged down in our schoolwork anyways and forget the whole thing happened. But what about those not fortunate enough to be here? We’re not just in it for ourselves.


  1. Excellent response, Minh! When I read that girl's article I was furious that we could have such ignorant students (and poor journalists too!) I felt like her article didn't deserve a response because the arguments were so bad, but you did a very good job at articulating why ethnic theme dorms are important.

  2. Conservative News

    This response is a complete example as to how to keep your cool and solve things out, and ...