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LAS VEGAS -- Many a discussion among white students about race has devolved to the question, "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" The question is so common that Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College, used it as the title for her much-taught book on race relations. (Tatum points out among other things that if a cafeteria has black students at one table and white students at other tables, more than one group may be opting not to sit with those of another race.)

Tatum's work is referenced in new scholarship that looks at what happens when college students of different races and ethnicities eat together in the dining hall. The study -- presented here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association -- found that students who regularly share a meal with those of different backgrounds are much more likely to view the campus as having a good environment on race relations than do those who don't. And the impact of talking with those of different races in the cafeteria is much greater than the impact of cross-racial or cross-ethnic interaction in the classroom or in dormitories, the study found.

The research presented here was conducted at a liberal arts college that is not named but whose characteristics resemble those of Southwestern University, whose institutional review board likely wouldn't let it be named. The work was conducted by Maria R. Lowe, a professor of sociology there; Reginald A. Byron, an assistant professor of sociology; and two undergraduates, Griffin Ferry and Melissa J. Garcia. The college is described as having just over 1,200 students (of whom about a fourth participated in the survey for the project), 75 percent of whom are white.

For the project, students were asked about their views on the state of race relations on campus. Not surprisingly (as this is the case at many places), the views of white students about the state of race relations were generally much more positive than those of minority students. Then the sociologists looked at what factors were linked to whether students had a more positive or more negative association about the state of race relations -- specifically examining the impact of racial interactions in the classroom, the dormitory and the dining hall.

While students may spend more time each day in their living quarters, and may grow intellectually in the classroom, the role of dining hall experiences is paramount when it comes to defining the state of race relations, the study found, inspiring its title: "Food for Thought."

Byron explained that the classroom and dormitory experience produced "null effects" on students’ perceptions of race relations. Many courses don’t discuss race at all. In those that do, much discussion is on a "surface level," and many students reported watching what they say, and being cognizant of feeling some competition with other students in the course, he said. Residence life produces "polarizing experiences" in which some students thrive and others don’t; some get along with roommates and others don’t (irrespective of race). Interactions there did not seem to significantly affect students' perceptions about racial climate.

When the researchers asked students about their experiences in the dining hall (the unnamed college has but one, so everyone eats in the same place), they found that a majority of students -- both white and minority -- reported regularly sharing meals with those of different races. But a minority of students of all races and ethnicities reported doing this seldom or never.

This was where the researchers noted a significant difference beyond eating patterns. Those who didn’t regularly eat with people of a different group were 54 to 60 percent less likely to report a positive racial environment on campus. The gap was similar for all ethnic and racial groups.

In follow-up interviews with students, the researchers heard numerous comments about greater honesty of students when they are away from the classroom.

One minority student said: “I feel like a lot of students, when they’re outside of the classroom they can express their feelings more freely because they feel like some things aren’t necessarily politically correct they don’t want to say in the classroom. But they feel more comfortable, for example, in the lunch room where that can say that to their friends or other people.”

A white student said: “I have had dinner on several occasions with groups consisting of a mix of ethnic and racial groups. Being open about our differences, asking questions, and even poking fun at each other and how we do or do not fit into obviously silly stereotypes has always has been the road to racial understanding in my experience.”

Lowe noted some key qualities to cafeteria interaction. Where one sits is voluntary, and the environment lacks the intensity and competition of the classroom. The very qualities that may make these interactions seem less important, she said, may make them more influential in how students see the state of race on campus.

Byron and Lowe both noted that there may be limitations in acting on their findings. At many colleges and universities, so many students are enrolled that there is no single dining place -- and many larger campuses see students of different racial and ethnic groups socialize in different spaces. Likewise, interpersonal relations may be different (on racial issues and other issues) on a small campus.

Still, they said there were things that campuses might do. One is to "pay attention to spaces," said Byron. He noted that colleges may send subtle or not-so-subtle messages when a given dining hall features only the portraits of white men. Make sure that all spaces are inviting to all students, he said.

Further, he suggested that resident assistants and others look for ways to encourage patterns in which people eat across racial and ethnic lines, say by taking a hall of a dormitory (assuming it is a diverse hallway) to eat together.

And he said he tries to apply the ideas from the study to the classroom, and in particular to brief, informal interactions in the classroom. When an exercise calls for groups, he doesn’t let students divide themselves, but assigns pairs or groups, trying where possible to mix different kinds of people (and he noted he defines "difference" there broadly, not just focusing on race and ethnicity).

While both Byron and Lowe said that colleges need to resist the temptation to require mixed eating groups or anything like that, they said that college officials can encourage these kinds of interactions by thinking about patterns they see on their campus. Said Byron: “Colleges and universities will just throw students into the school and expect that everything just works out, and it doesn’t.”

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