College roommate ad sparks race debate

'This is not a conversation about segregation and racism'

A viral college roommate ad seeking responses from "POC only" (people of color) sparked a debate over whether students should be able to vet potential roommates on racial and ethnic criteria. 

Karé Ureña, a student at Pitzer College—part of the Claremont Colleges—posted an ad searching for a fourth roommate in an all-minority apartment for the summer. Compared with peer institutions, Pitzer is rather diverse: just 49% of its students identify as white.

The debate began when right-leaning student publication the Claremont Independent ran an article on the ad titled "Students at Claremont Colleges refuse to live with white people." Subsequent social media activity and article comments criticized the students.

Pitzer President Melvin Oliver weighed in as well, criticizing both the housing ad and the comments made about it.

"The Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our mission and values," Oliver writes. "We come together to live and work in a shared learning environment where every member is valued, respected and entitled to dignity and honor. Our shared goal is to create a balanced approach to engaging complex intercultural issues, not to isolate individuals on the basis of any protected status."

Ureña argues her ad wasn't racist.

"This is not a conversation about segregation and racism. These terms are deeply rooted in historical and systemic acts of violence towards people of color that white people have simply not experienced… We want to reframe it so that it becomes a matter of students of color simply prioritizing their need for survival in the face of historical oppression in higher education," she told The Guardian.

A larger conversation

The recent ad plays into a larger debate over college housing situations.

Today, many college students learn about—or choose—their roommates via Facebook. This means even when race or ethnicity may never be directly addressed, it may play a factor. 

Also see: 3 reasons you need to talk about student activism now

White students might not specify wanting to live with another white person, but much of the time that's how it ends up, says Cindi Love, executive director of ACPA-College Student Educators International.

Contradictory research findings

A few studies have examined how students fare when paired with a roommate of the same or different race. Some find students benefit—others find it detrimental.

A 2009 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that roommates in mixed-race rooms reported less intimacy and positive emotions compared with pairs of the same race.

A 2008 study in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations found 15% of mixed-race roommate pairs saw their roommate relationship end part-way through the school year. Meanwhile, 8% of all-white and 6% of all-black roommate pairs experienced the same.

That same study also found on average black students who earn at least a 24 on the ACT or a 1040 on the SAT earned higher grades when paired with white roommates than with black roommates.

"My work (and others') indicates that on average individuals in same-race roommate relationships are happier, spend more time with their roommate, and report less stress with their roommate than those in cross-race roommate relationships," says Natalie Shook, a psychology professor at West Virginia University.

"However, I have data that indicate living in a cross-race roommate relationship reduces prejudice and intergroup anxiety, as well as leads to a stronger sense of belonging at university, which can have benefits for academic performance," she says (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 8/15). 

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