By Najib Aminy
Fu-Lung Chiou’s orange shirt and red shorts weren’t the only reasons why he stood out in a pick-up game of basketball one fall evening at Stony Brook University’s athletic complex.
Nor was it Chiou’s less than stellar performance that made the 36-year-old Ph.D. student from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences noticeable—Chiou played little defense and took a while to heat up before making any shots.
It was the simple fact that Chiou, originally from China, was playing in a game with mostly black players in a gym where likes play with likes.
“It’s no problem for me,” said Chiou, who has a distinct accent, after the game. “I’ll play with anyone. Just for fun.” Chiou, whose team consisted of himself, an African American guy and a white guy, went on to lose the game of 21.
“I just play for exercise,” he said.
Whether students and locals from the area come out for exercise, competition or just pure love of basketball, there is much diversity at the courts at the athletic complex—very much representative of life on campus. But just like the campus, the courts are visibly segregated. From what students say, that voluntary segregation spans from the cafeteria tables to the library halls, where race brings people together and separates them.
“I’ve noticed usually that people will just group together with their races,” said Suraj Chalil, who grabbed a bite to eat one Friday evening at the SAC cafeteria. “People are just comfortable with their own ethnicity and they think they know each other more from their culture, where they’re from and how they’re raised,” said Chalil, a senior Information Technologies major.
Sitting across from Chalil was Shon Augustine, and to Chalil’s right, Daryl Augustine, cousins who are both sophomore Biology majors. The three students share one thing in common—they are Malayalian, people from the Southern part of India—and when the three realized it, they laughed at the irony.
Diversity at SBU is highly visible, one need only to take a walk down the academic mall to realize that. In 2009, the U.S. News and World Report ranked SBU 38th out of a 100 schools in the nation for ethnic diversity. Roughly 40 percent of the more than 16,000 undergraduates are white, followed by a 30 percent of students being Asians and Pacific Islanders. However, while diversity is prevalent, diverse interactions, at least according to students, is not.
“I was actually surprised because I’ve never seen many races in one school,” said Daryl, who had attended St. Mary’s High School, where he said he stood out for not being white. “I was expecting more [mixed] interaction, but I guess it doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Sitting on the opposite side of the SAC cafeteria from Chalil and his friends, junior Steven Leclerce has met up with a couple friends after a week of classes. Leclerce’s table is populated with Caribbean students, all of whom live in New York City. Like Chalil and his friends, Leclerce realizes that he too fits to the Stony Brook stereotype of “likes sitting with likes”
“I feel like that’s just the way people go about,” said Leclerce, 20, from Canarsie, Brooklyn. “Who you hang out with starts at a young age because that’s who you see on your block when you’re outside playing. And it transfers to junior high, high school and all the way to college,” said the junior Health Science major.
Looking at the demographics of SBU, a large number of students come from the many diverse culture pockets of the five boroughs and Stony Brook follows trends in the city. “There have been dramatic changes in terms of the university landscape, as Stony Brook reflects the population New York City,” said Dean of Students Jerrold Stein. “You can see that in the creation of fraternities and sororities, a number of African and Latino groups surfaced in the 90’s, and Asian groups in the last decade. Stony Brook is a reflection of the changes taking place in the city,” said Stein, who has worked at SBU for more than 34 years.
But when another significant population of SBU students come from Long Island, the third most segregated suburban region in the US, what happens when the segregation of Long Island communities mixes with the diversity of New York City’s population?
“While we have got used to diversity in the work place and classroom, you can still go and stand in the SAC or Student Union and look at who’s sitting together. You would see a very similar grouping by nationality or race,” said Kathleen Nutter, a professor from the Stony Brook History department. “The comfort level for social interaction has increased in formal institutional settings. but in terms of socializing, there are still barriers out of tradition and out of that, residential segregation,” Nutter said.
While Leclerce believes the root of the social diversity gap is relations at home, Chanelle Husbands, sitting to Leclerce’s right, says the absence of racially mixed interaction stems from the sheer size of the student body.
“This campus is so large, it’s so easy to find somebody else that fits exactly who you are,” said Husbands, the Carribean Student Organization public relations officer. “Because there are so many people on campus, you can have your own small community within a larger community. If it was smaller, we would be forced to have racially mixed interactions,” said Husbands, an sophomore undecided major.
But the campus size, says Stein, a former quad director, is a segregating factor remedied by the dorming on campus, primarily for freshman. As students sign-up for housing, they are placed randomly in dorms, increasing their chances of diverse social interaction given the size and diversity of each incoming class. According to a campus survey as late of Spring 2009, roughly 70 percent of resident students (from a sample size of 676 residents) said they had greater than moderate socially diverse interactions. Additionally, nearly 95 percent of the respondents had indicated some-to-extreme benefits from the diverse interactions.
Chalil disagrees with Stein’s argument. “There are not enough activities to intermingle,” he said. “Everyone has their own stuff going and they are secluded from what is going on.”
On stage during the Annual Multicultural Affair event, SBU senior Lauren Phillips is one of a handful of performers during a traditional Japanese Taiko drum presentation. The upstate New Yorker from a small town called Windsor stands out—she is clearly not Japanese.
“For a while, I was the only white person,” said Phillips, a European Studies major with a minor in Japanese. “It’s given me a lot more friends who aren’t white and now the majority of my friends are some sort of Asian.”
However, Phillips is no longer the only non-Asian on the Taiko drum club, something she credits to events like the multicultural show. “Events like these are very vital,” she said. “It broadens people’s horizons and their outlooks by showing them different cultures.”
And while the beat of a drum has put Phillips beyond her comfort zone, it is the drum of multiple beats that has sophomore Ryan Messina dancing with the Philippine United Student Organization.
Messina, now a member of the PUSO try-out dance team, recalls his first unsuccessful attempt to make the team. “It felt weird being the only white kid in this whole thing,” Messina said. “I didn’t make it and I thought it was because of that, but I’ve come to accept that and that they’re just people. It [the race issue] is really not that big of an issue, you just have to be open minded,” he said.
Messina spends his Tuesday and Thursday evenings outside the Benedict Dining Hall in the atrium, dancing to hip-hop, among other themes, for upcoming competitions, continuing to pursue his passion while fighting against what he calls a visible problem.
“Sure, the race line is still there. It’s never really going to go away,” the linguistics majors said. “Our generation is still learning to accept that, it’s based on how we are raised.”
Back on the courts, a diverse group of people joined for another pickup game, with all races represented—but nowhere near as competitive as earlier games. It just so happened that all the other basketball hoops were raised and the courts closed early.
The hoop on “Court #2” doesn’t go up.
As Chiou waited for another game, his teammate and essentially the best player on his three-man team was changing into his street clothes—calling it an end to his day of playing basketball.
“Everybody is scared to play with us,” said Shay Seyi, a 21-year old from Medford, to the issue of social segregation on the basektball court.
By “us” he meant blacks. Seyi was born in the US, grew up in Nigeria and moved back to Long Island where he went to a high school with a large black population.
“They are scared to lose; I don’t know why. Maybe they think they are not good enough,” said Seyi, majoring in Health Sciences about why other students don’t play on the middle court.
“I’ve played over there,” Seyi said pointing to the courts on the sides. “When we need people to play, ‘ya’ll wanna play,’ they say ‘nah,’” he said.
Seyi expected social integration on the court and off, at Stony Brook. He did not find it.
“Everybody just wants to be segregated from each other which makes no sense to me,” Seyi said, talking about similar problems he had during his freshman year.
“I don’t know why, but a lot of people just be like that,” he said, while putting on his grey t-shirt with President Barack Obama’s face on it.
“I don’t even know what to tell you. That’s Stony Brook.”