THE BLOG
08/20/2013 03:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

The Asian College Bubble: Self-Segregation or Something More?

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Recently a friend forwarded a video by the Fung Brothers, "The Asian College Bubble."

I laughed watching brothers Andrew and David Fung neatly dissect the pros and cons of having mostly Asian American friends during college. It's a phenomena not limited to Asian American students; work by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found that white students actually have the most homogeneous friendship groups in college.

The Fung Brothers' video echoes a recent Reuters poll that made headlines: 40 percent of U.S. adults don't have a single friend of another race, a powerful reminder of the divides in our country. Due to residential and K-12 educational segregation, U.S. adults are highly segregated prior to and after college. College is a unique opportunity to break the cycle of segregation, to be thrown together with a mix of peers from all walks of life to live, play, and study together.

So is allowing yourself to spend time in a community or circle of friends that caters to a particular ethnic group okay? It depends on whether there is room to pursue relationships beyond that bubble. We have loads of research on the positive benefits of cross-racial interaction -- basically interacting with people of other races and ethnicities -- during college. Work by Patricia Gurin and others explains that cross-racial interaction spurs learning and growth: Continuous exposure to different points of view forces us to go off of auto-pilot and question our assumptions, which leads to more complex ways of thinking. Because many U.S. students attend racially homogeneous high schools, cross-racial interaction during college is a particularly effective way to hear different viewpoints and perspectives.

If your "Asian College Bubble" is functioning as a force field, preventing you from having continuous, meaningful interaction with people of other races, that's not good. Plus as the Fung Brothers point out, limiting yourself to knowing people from your own group may disadvantage you when you need connections for jobs. Granovetter's work on the "strength of weak ties" shows how job opportunities often come from casual acquaintanceship networks (e.g., LinkedIn), so diverse social networks that offer non-redundant information are important.

However, having some element of "______ Bubble" in college, where you spend large amounts of time hanging out with people of the same race as you, isn't necessarily a negative thing. It just needs to be accompanied with a broader social network of diverse friends and acquaintances. It's also important that you interact with people from multiple different racial groups and not just with one other group. Cross-racial interaction and having friends of the same race don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Interestingly, research by Victor Saenz at UT Austin shows that being involved in an ethnic specific student organization doesn't reduce or limit cross-racial interaction. Students of color have high rates of cross-racial interaction during college in general. For example, Asians can only spend so much time only hanging out with other Asians; they still have to go to class, live in the residence hall, etc. However, Greek life (fraternities/sororities) is associated with lower cross-racial interaction, especially for White students. Although they are rarely accused of "self-segregation," White students have the lowest rates of cross-racial interaction during the college years.

So tell the college student of any race in your life -- if you do end up in an "Asian (or White, Black, etc.) College Bubble," make sure you're simultaneously nurturing a broader network of diverse friendships To quote the Fung Brother, be a floater, or at least have some area of your life where you're involved with a more diverse crowd.

One of the trickiest things in understanding college student racial dynamics, however, is that not all of this is pure choice. The demographic makeup of an institution matters a lot; greater racial diversity in a college campus is linked with higher cross-racial interaction, regardless of one's own race. As my book, When Diversity Drops, explains, friendship may seem like a matter of personal preference, but you are somewhat limited by the people who are present in the environment. So if universities want to encourage students to mix across racial/ethnic lines, they need to recruit and retain racially diverse student bodies.

If you're feeling nostalgic for college and the convenience of interacting with friends from all walks of life (not to mention late night food runs), it's not too late to recapture some of that magic. Take a look at your current friendship networks and consider whether you have meaningful conversations with people who are different from you in some way, be it via race, class, political party, sexual orientation, age, and/or religion. Figure out where you disagree and try to understand where they're coming from. It may take more intentionality than it did when you were younger, but the benefits never get old.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education.