It was around 9 pm and I was in the Robarts Library Cafeteria, doing some field observation. A group of Asian students had just received their ordered food from outside and were busily chatting as if the cafeteria was their own home, and they had just invited friends over for some take-out. It is the sort of university experience one thinks of when one imagines studying late at night. Young, full of energy, carefree.
Now, always in any place, there are people who make it feel like they own the place because of how comfortable and confident they are; and there are others who feel like they are nothing but guests and should be very mindful of everyone and everything. We often associate these differences in behavior to personality, yet the humanities and social sciences have long argued that our personalities are nothing but a social construction. While it has become common practice to ask questions about what kind of gender norms we are imprinting on the younger generation, it is not yet regular practice to constantly reflect how these apparently personal traits might stem from diversity issues.
I was reminded to reflect on this matter as I watched the Asian students giving off a sense of ownership in a shared space. I was originally in the library to see if students were sub-consciously forming ethnic-based clusters when deciding where to sit in the library. And to some degree, they did, but it was often obvious that they were friends from their interactions with one another. While I was glad to see that students weren’t making biased decisions about seating in a library, it made me conscious of something else: Everyone in the building was a University of Toronto student because of COVID-19 restrictions, so most of these friendships and clusters had formed at some place and time on campus. At some point, we all have to make decisions about our small interactions on campus, and we are perhaps swayed to sit next to someone who looks like us. Or we may prefer to work with someone with similar ethnic background for a group project rather than someone else. These decisions slowly flourish into friendship groups that come together to the library to study. There is perhaps nothing much that the university can do about what we decide to do. Still, I couldn’t help wonder how much this can impact the university experience of smaller minorities. Watching the Asian students, I look back at my three years of student life and the difference between us is striking. I know that it is not just about personality; my friends back home know me to be very similar to these Asian students, social and carefree. But if/when university friendships are formed based on ethnicity and appearance, I have little chance to act like I own the place when I’m one of just four visibly Muslim women in the library, compared to Asian students who composed about 60% of all 250 students present in the library that night. It becomes a paradoxical situation: The more visible you are – due to membership in smaller minorities- the more you want to just see others, because then, even if momentarily, you are freed from the burden of being seen.