By MALAIKA COLASO
Art by MAHINA MARTINSON
UCLA is “one of the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse communities” (UCLA). Yet, this notion of UCLA being a cultural melting pot is highly debatable given the lack of fusion between these communities on campus. Instead of steeping in this supposed melting pot, students appear to be stuck in a “Culture Trap.” This is the tendency of students to primarily associate within their ethnic groups, where they participate in agreeable and mostly nonconflicting discourse. Being a victim of a Culture Trap is not always the outcome of student agency; rather, it stems from an inherent tendency to see race from the very first interaction. We become subconsciously aware of our differences before we even begin to explore our similarities.
To confirm these suspicions in my own pseudo-scientific method, I observed a man selling samosas on Bruin Walk. He actively ignored all other races while diverting his marketing to the brown people nestled within the sea of people strolling across campus. Such a fundraising tactic seems like a harmless example of racial profiling; it even made several South Asian students happy to enjoy home food on a normal day of class. This is not the only case of seemingly-harmless racial profiling. It can be seen in other examples, including the recruitment of students for ethnic Fraternities and Sororities. The very notion that we are able to target our attention to different communities brings to light our heightened sensitivity to seeing race. Furthermore, this visual cue has transitioned into our daily discourse where ethnicity has become an epithet and is considered a holistic description of a person’s identity. It has become hard to see past race, especially when it defines so much of our geopolitics and informs us about our histories. However, the habit of stating one’s ethnicity before the term ‘friend’ – “my white friend x or my brown friend y” causes one to retreat to an ethnically homogenous zone. This is done to escape the weight of one’s ethnicity and the effect it has on how people view themselves. Such an escape only fuels further profiling and keeps the wheels of this vicious cycle turning.
According to an African American undergraduate student, a major cause for her retreat into the black community was her belief that other ethnicities were unable to understand her culture; “when we talk to black friends, we all agree and can have a great deep conversation, but with other ethnicities it feels like I’m teaching them about my culture.” In ethnically homogenous groups, people already have the context necessary for meaningful conversation to take place. However, in other interactions, explanations of one’s ethnic background has to occur before a conversation on other topics. Moreover, explanation does not guarantee understanding, thus inducing a feeling of disconnection. When asked whether she feels like this didactic discourse was reciprocated, she said that “being black also entails understanding other cultures, but other cultures don’t teach this and therefore do not participate in the same conversation.” An interview with a Latina student reiterated this sentiment, as she discovered an “extra connection” with others from her Latinx community; she emphasized their ability to better understand each other, whether it is through language or past experiences, with the example of “machismo.” The term refers to the inherent sexism of men in the family, which she sees as a community specific topic from which other conversations can stem. However, if this sentiment is shared across ethnicities, then our self-created barriers will always hold this level of discourse out of reach and diverse thought will never be fostered.
Here, I would like to differentiate the terms “culture” and “ethnicity” because culture goes beyond ethnicity to include a myriad of elements such as cuisine, art, and religion which are not always related to biological inheritance. The African American student spoke about how ethnically homogenous groups are “about identifying.” Therefore, in a multicultural setting she “won’t feel like [she] belongs.” The Latina student reflected on how she doesn’t see the impact her ethnicity has had on her because she stays within her community. Whether this was a conscious choice or not, retreating into an ethnically homogenous setting finally allowed her to not be defined by her race. On the other hand, an Indian undergraduate student stated that he “rarely talks about India with [his] non-Indian friends” and feels like “[he] is hiding” from his ethnicity, in order to prevent people from seeing his race first. The only times he is able to disregard race as a defining factor around non-indians is when he actively chooses to “hide” it. If he never participates in meaningful discourse about his culture, then why should the other students do the same? This vacuum of discourse leads people to retreat into their own communities without ever pushing past the barriers of explanation.
Interacting within our ethnic groups may be an unintended result of how from our very first interactions we see race. This places a burden on the discourse we intend to participate in, whether it is because of language barriers or cultural differences, and that makes our stories seem too difficult to narrate because of the fear of not being understood. However, instead of succumbing to the Culture Trap, discourse could be flavored with elements that are brought in by various communities who have distinct experiences because of their unique personal contexts. Interestingly, in the midst of all the differences between the ethnicities interviewed, there remained one unifying quality: Beans and Rice. In all three interviews, when discussing cuisine as an integral part of any culture, beans and rice were the common thread. Red beans and rice are an integral part of African American cuisine, Arroz con Frijoles in Mexican cuisine with variations on it throughout South America, and Rajma Chawal is red beans and rice in traditional Indian cuisine. While all three dishes are prepared differently and contain culinary elements suited to the tastes of each ethnicity, beans and rice remain the core elements of each dish. Beans and rice are universal ingredients that are integrated in almost every culture and, while they are tied to ethnicity, they also unveil the most basic points of cultural connection between ethnicities, albeit different, sharing a very similar context.