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Alison McKee ’03, Jennifer Cobb ’03 and Rebecca Cho ’03 aren’t comfortable being portrayed as symbols or examples. They say they’re just three friends who shared a dorm room during their sophomore year at Pomona...
"One world united / All shades invited..."
The uplifting vocals of soul singer Mica Paris boom from an old mix-tape. You can still make out the smudged cassette insert, which reads: Spring 1991, the same season the City of Angels just west
of Claremont was transformed by the L.A. Riots.
I recall looking out from my balcony as tempers flared and fires blazed in the distance, drinking in the eerie silence of an after-dark curfew and turning over Rodney King’s now-famous lament in my head: Can’t we
all just get along?
While it’s been over a decade since L.A.’s racial uprising ignited an ongoing national dialogue on where cultural lines are drawn, some central questions never go away. Scores of songs, books and films pay lip service to the noble intentions of achieving diversity, but how do we face the challenge of realizing these lofty goals in own lives, much less on a college campus? In promoting and prizing a wide spectrum of diversity on campus—racial, cultural, sexual, political, socio-economic and otherwise—is Pomona any different from the world beyond First Avenue? Is the goal of authentic diversity a well-intentioned, but largely unrealized abstract—or a tangible reality that informs each student’s daily life?
Consider a trio of Pomona graduates and former roommates: Rebecca Cho ’03, Alison McKee ’03 and Jessica Cobb ’03. When these three young women were all deferred during a campus-wide room draw in 2000, they decided to room together, sharing a triple in Lyon Hall during their sophomore year. When they agreed to reunite for a joint interview one sunny September afternoon on the umbrella-covered patio of Pomona’s Smith Campus Center, the mood proved a bit guarded, but no less revealing.
“I think the fact that you asked us to do this story, and there weren’t many people you could ask, shows in itself that this isn’t something that commonly occurs at Pomona,” notes Cho, a psychology major.
It’s true that Cho, McKee and Cobb were singled out by staffers largely because they were remembered for getting along so well and resembling a college viewbook photograph come to life. Cho, after all, is Asian American; McKee, African American; and Cobb, white. It would be tempting, therefore, to portray the trio as poster children for diversity—glowing examples of the way in which living, working and learning side by side builds understanding and puts questions of race into proper context. Tempting, but according to the three of them, misguided. If there is anything to be learned from their experience, they argue, the lesson is more complex.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this picture,” asserts Cho, looking around to her friends at the table, “just as I don’t think there’s anything wrong with everybody around the table being black, everybody being Asian, or whatever. That’s something people at Pomona get very hostile about; that’s always the big question: Why are all the Asian people sitting together in the dining hall? Nobody ever questions why all the white people are sitting together.”
Indeed, if you look around during meals at Frank or Frary, you might be surprised—or would you?—to find most tables drawn together not by some diversity mandate, but by good, old-fashioned common interest—sometimes based at least partly on shared ethnic or racial identity. Look around, and you might find a lunch table of Asians or Latinos or blacks, or maybe gays and lesbians (if you could tell, that is)—or, for that matter, of people who live in the same dorm or share the same major. But is there anything intrinsically wrong with this situation, or is it just the way things turn out?
Indeed, the reason these three women became friends and chose to room together was really no different. As Cobb puts it: “We stuck together because we had a lot in common—we all went against the grain.”
McKee agrees: “I became friends with Jessica and Rebecca based on what we all had gone through, race aside. It could have been the same experience if it was someone from India or Singapore. If they had the same feelings I was feeling, the same likes and dislikes, it would have resulted in the same thing.”
In fact, the idea of race intruding on such a natural friendship strikes McKee as offensive. “I don’t think our situation, that we’re friends, is anything special,” she says. “She’s white,” she adds, indicating Cobb, “so who cares? Rebecca’s Korean. Why does it matter?”
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Except that it does—for the paradoxical reason that the world finds symbolism and hope in every little scene where race fades into the background and ceases to matter.
Again, it is tempting to dust off that diversity poster—to suggest that these women and others like them all demonstrate that, by living, working and learning side by side, through shared experiences and open dialogue, we can come to see that we’re not so different after all. On this point, however, Cho, McKee and Cobb would be quick to raise a red flag. Again, it’s not that simple. Diversity, they point out, isn’t about similarity—it’s about respecting and valuing difference.
“You need to recognize the differences instead of focusing so much on how we’re similar,” says McKee. “The fact is that we’re all here, so we must have something in common—grades, or something. But it is important to recognize that we come from different places, different backgrounds, and it plays a lot into the learning process here.
You can’t think that you live in this box, and no one else is outside of it. It’s much bigger than you are, and if you don’t recognize that, then you’re being ignorant—you’re not learning much about other people.”
Cho agrees, but wonders whether enough people are interested in learning about those differences. “I think Pomona does try to promote respect for differences in a positive way,” she says, “but underneath it all, do people really want to do it? There are a lot of opportunities to learn about each other, and to celebrate our differences, but how many people take advantage of those?”
So if the picture of Cho, McKee and Cobb is not quite representative of race relations at Pomona, is there, at least, something to be learned from their example? If so, the three of them aren’t sure what it would be. In fact, they aren’t even comfortable being seen as symbols of some ideal of racial
“I have a problem with people saying, ‘Because of what we see, we have problems,’ or ‘Because of what we see, we don’t have problems,’” Cho says. “I mean, who’s to say, looking at us, that we don’t have problems with race? You have to look deeper than that.”
But how do we look deeper? And how should we assess the success of diversity initiatives on a campus like Pomona’s? Indeed, in the ongoing effort to build a genuinely diverse community, what would success ultimately look like? It’s maybe the hardest question of all, but Cobb takes a stab at it.
“The day Pomona is successful will have nothing to do with what people’s relationships look like,” she suggests. “If you could ask every student, ‘Are you happy and comfortable here?’ and everybody said ‘Yes,’ then that would be the day you’re successful—regardless of who you saw them sitting with in the dining hall.”
—Gregg Mitchell ’89 is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.
Mark Wood was a contributing editor for this story.
Photo by Gregg Segal