An Ethnographic Study at BGSU
Throughout America’s history, race and ethnicity have always impacted our daily lives. Since the day we were born, we have all acquired racial and ethnic viewpoints and opinions due to the influence of our parents, peers, teachers, and the media. One of the most common racial and ethnic issues is stereotyping and labeling; it exists everywhere. Stereotypes and labels can be very detrimental because they “lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice attitudes,” and they “make us ignore differences between individuals; therefore we think things about people that might not be true” (Mcleod 1). In Joy L. Lei’s essay “(Un)Necessary Toughness,” she conducts an ethnographic study in a medium-sized high school in the city of Jackson. In this study, she observes the stereotypes at this school, and attempts to uncover why they exist. College is supposed to be a place where higher education is fostered, and also where students grow and learn to interact with people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds; not just their own “people.” So, in this ethnographic study, my goal is to identify the role that racial and ethnic issues play at Bowling Green State University, and to see if they are similar to some of the stereotypes outlined in Lei’s essay.
To start off my ethnographic study at Bowling Green State University, I went to the Bowen-Thompson Student Union to observe how students interacted with each other, and to see the role that race and ethnicity played. I decided to go to the Student Union on a Friday at 12:30 p.m., which is a very busy time at the Union because many students get lunch there. I observed at the Union for an hour, and focused on who was interacting with whom. Many people like to enjoy lunch with their closest friends, so by going during lunchtime, I was trying to see what groups ate together and compare it to the stereotypes found in Lei’s study. So, I sat down at a table where I could everyone in the Union, and began taking notes of my observations. I first observed that the Union was mainly comprised of students. The next thing I noticed is what really shocked me. Pretty much everyone was sitting with people who had a similar racial/ethnic background. That is, African-Americans were primarily sitting with African-Americans, Asians were primarily sitting with Asians, whites were primarily sitting with whites, and there was a group of Latinos sitting with each other. There were roughly about fifty different groups of people eating lunch at the Union, and there were only three groups that had people from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. In two of these groups, there were African-Americans sitting with white people, and the third group contained two Asians sitting with five whites.
After I observed the different kinds of groups that were at the Union, I then began to take notes of what the other groups were doing, and if people of one racial group acted differently than other racial groups. To my right, there was a group of four African-Americans: one female and three males. This group was louder than any other group in the Union. They were talking loud, two of the guys were standing up, and overall, they seemed to be having a good time. When observing the Asian groups, I noticed something interesting. One of the all-Asian groups was being loud, like the African-American group, and were laughing and having a good time. However, the Asians that were in the group with the five other whites were very quiet; they were only two tables in front of me but I could not hear any of them talking. Similarly, in one of the groups where African-Americans were sitting with whites, every one was generally quiet compared to the all-black group. I found these two groups very interesting because there seemed to be a difference between how people acted with people of the same racial/ethnic group compared to how they acted with people of the same racial/ethnic group. On the other hand, most other groups were reserved and laid back. That is, they were talking more quietly amongst themselves as they ate their lunch. One of the final things I observed was that there were many fraternity and sorority groups that were sitting together. Primarily, these Greek groups were composed of whites, and they dressed a little bit differently compared to the rest of the people in the Union. Most of these fraternity and sorority members were dressing in designer clothes, such as The North Face and Hollister, while most other people dressed a bit more casual, such as sweatpants and sweatshirts. Generally, I found that pretty much every group was acting the same. For the most part, people were just talking to their friends in their group while they enjoyed their lunch. In a way, the Union seemed to be segregated.
Based on my observations at the Bowen-Thompson Student Union, I am able to make many assessments about the campus climate of Bowling Green State University, primarily with regards to race, ethnicity, and class. John W. Santrock states that “In many schools, peer groups are strongly segregated according to ethnicity,” and this is definitely the case at Bowling Green State University (329). The social world of Bowling Green State University (BGSU) is clearly one in which people of the same racial/ethnic type stick together. This is evident by all the similar groups (African-Americans, whites, Asians, Latinos, fraternity and sorority members) staying together at lunch. I believe one reason of why many people at BGSU tend to hang out with people who are similar to them is because it is easier and more comfortable to associate with people who have a similar race and ethnicity. Santrock comments, “Peers from their own ethnic group provide a crucial sense of brotherhood or sisterhood within the majority culture. Peer groups may form to provide adaptive supports that reduce feelings of isolation,” and I think that this clearly happens at BGSU (329). College can be very overwhelming for new students. College brings a lot of new challenges, many of them being racial and ethnic. Thus, it is easier for people to form relationships with others of a similar race and ethnicity, and this is clearly happening at BGSU.
A second reason I believe that students at BGSU tend to stick with people of their own race and ethnicity is because people still have prejudices, which leads to stereotyping and labeling certain groups of people. Prejudice “involves holding preconceived views about an individual or group, and usually involves stereotypical thinking—that is, thinking in terms of inflexible categories,” and because of my observations, I definitely believe that this is going on at BGSU (Giddens, Duneier, Appelbaum, and Carr 352). Since each and every one of us has some bit of prejudice in us, we tend to place stereotypes on people that are different from us. I believe stereotyping and labeling played a big role in why students at the Union were so segregated. All races and ethnicities have negative stereotypes. For example, some stereotypes include: African-American are the “loud black girls,” Asian males are the timid, antisocial boys, Arabs are terrorists, whites are racists, Italians are members of the mafia, etc… the list of stereotypes goes on and on. Because these negative stereotypes exist, people have certain negative images of other people just because they may be of a different race/ethnicity. A third reason that can help explain the segregation between groups at BGSU is the gap between classes that exists. This is evident in the formation of the fraternity and sorority groups. Since members of these Greek groups were primarily wearing brand name clothes, I assume that they are a little more wealthy than the other students at BGSU. These fraternity and sorority groups were primarily composed of whites, which suggests that there may be a class gap between whites and other races and ethnicities at BGSU. This class gap at BGSU helps to explain why fraternities and sororities are primarily white; they can afford it, while people of other races and ethnicities cannot. Thus, these wealthier white groups are created, while African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other ethnicities form their own groups, adding to the segregation of race and ethnicities at BGSU.
One aspect that is really interesting about my ethnographic study at the Bowen-Thompson Student Union is that it is very similar to the study conducted by Lei in her essay “(Un)Necessary Toughness.” Lei states that “the black female students were portrayed as loud and tough, and the Southeast Asian American male students were characterized as quiet and clannish,” which is very similar to what I observed at the Union (155). Before I conducted this ethnographic study, I assumed that the students at BGSU would be more desegregated than a high school since college is supposed to foster a learning environment in which people interact with others of a different race and/or ethnicity. I was definitely surprised at how similar the results of my study were Lei’s study. As stated above, I believe the reasons for this segregation among students at the Union were because people like to identify themselves with others of their own race/ethnicity, everyone has prejudice in some way that leads to stereotyping and labeling, and there is a class gap that exists.
As with most ethnographic studies, my ethnographic study obviously has some flaws in it. Some of these flaws occur in my method of research. For example, I decided not to interview anyone for my study. If I would have chosen to do some interviews of people of different races and ethnicities, I would have been able to get valuable knowledge about different backgrounds, which could help paint a better picture of the issues that race, ethnicity, and class play at BGSU. Another flaw in my method of research is that I only chose to observe one place, the Bowen-Thompson Student Union. Although the Union is very large, I probably could have gotten a better scope of the ethnography at BGSU if I would have observed at some other locations on campus. Also, I only observed on one day at the Union. To make a more accurate ethnographic study, I could have observed the issues of race, ethnicity, and class at other days of the Union to help paint a more accurate picture of the ethnography at BGSU. However, I feel that my ethnographic method was still solid, and it helped me to identify many of the racial, ethnic, and class issues that BGSU has.
In conclusion, it is obvious from my ethnographic study that BGSU has many racial, ethnic, and class issues. Some of the reasons for this are people like to identify themselves with others of their own race/ethnicity, everyone has prejudice in some way that leads to stereotyping and labeling, and there is a class gap that exists. As Ronald Takaki says, one way to fix this is “many educators need to stress, multiculturalism has an intellectual purpose: a more inclusive curriculum is also a more accurate one,” and I think that this would be very beneficial to break down the segregation among students that exists at BGSU (6).
Dalmage, Heather, and Barbara Katz. Rothman. Race in an Era of Change. New York: Oxford
UP, 2011. Print.
Giddens, Anthony, Mitchell Duneier, Richard P. Appelbaum, and Deborah Carr. Introduction to
Sociology. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. Print.
Mcleod, Saul. “Stereotypes.” Simply Psychology. Web. 09 Dec. 2011.
Santrock, John W. Adolescence. 13th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2008. Print.
Takaki, Ronald T. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. New York: Back Bay
/Little, Brown, and, 2008. Print.