Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice
As a freshman at Ohio State University, and the only black student on his floor, Sam Boakye was determined to get good grades — in part to make sure his white roommate had no basis for negative racial views.
“If you’re surrounded by whites, you have something to prove,” said Mr. Boakye, now a rising senior who was born in Ghana. “You’re pushed to do better, to challenge the stereotype that black people are not that smart.”
Several recent studies, at Ohio State and elsewhere, have found that having a roommate of a different race can reduce prejudice, diversify friendships and even boost black students’ academic performance. But, the research found, such relationships are more stressful and more likely to break up than same-race pairings.
As universities have grown more diverse, and interracial roommate assignments are more common, social scientists have looked to them as natural field experiments that can provide insights on race relations.
“From a scientific standpoint, when these roommates are paired, you have a natural experiment going on, in an area that’s very difficult to test empirically,” said Thomas E. Trail, a graduate student in psychology at Princeton University who has studied interracial roommates. “You couldn’t very well set up an experiment assigning people to spend several months living with someone of a different race.”
Russell H. Fazio, an Ohio State psychology professor who has studied interracial roommates there and at Indiana University, discovered an intriguing academic effect. In a study analyzing data on thousands of Ohio State freshmen who lived in dorms, he found that black freshmen who came to college with high standardized test scores earned better grades if they had a white roommate — even if the roommate’s test scores were low. The roommate’s race had no effect on the grades of white students or low-scoring black students. Perhaps, the study speculated, having a white roommate helps academically prepared black students adjust to a predominantly white university.
That same study found that randomly assigned interracial roommates at Ohio State broke up before the end of the quarter about twice as often as same-race roommates.
Because interracial roommate relationships are often problematic, Dr. Fazio said, many students would like to move out, but university housing policies may make it hard to leave.
“At Indiana University, where housing was not so tight, more interracial roommates split up,” he said. “Here at Ohio State, where there was a housing crunch, they were told to work it out. The most interesting thing we found was that if the relationship managed to continue for just 10 weeks, we could see an improvement in racial attitudes.”
Dr. Fazio’s Indiana study found that three times as many randomly assigned interracial roommates were no longer living together at the end of the semester, compared with white roommates. The interracial roommates spent less time together, had fewer joint activities and were less involved with each other’s friends than the white pairs. And, the study found, whites’ pre-existing negative racial attitudes predicted which roommate arrangements would break up.
Several studies have shown that living with a roommate of a different race changes students’ attitudes. One, from the University of California at Los Angeles, generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.
Professionals who watch over roommate relationships say that interracial roommate assignments are an important part of campus diversity.
“Most of them do fine, and I think it can be more interesting, because they have more to learn from each other,” said Phil Badaszewski, a hall director at Ohio State. “When there are conflicts, it’s usually different ideas about property sharing, or music, or cleanliness, or coming in late at night — the same things that can be problems for same-race roommates.”
Sometimes, such disputes mask underlying racial issues.
“I had one student who chose to move out, who said they just didn’t like the roommate’s friends, who were too loud,” Mr. Badaszewski said. “I thought there was a racial piece to it, but I didn’t bring it up and name it. It’s one of those topics — race, religion and politics — your parents tell you not to talk about at dinner because it can be explosive. And in this case, I knew it wouldn’t make things better.”
Occasionally, there are explicit racial problems.
“I had a black student who heard racist remarks being made in her quad,” said Gina Kozlowski, another Ohio State hall director. “She said she didn’t want it being made into a spectacle, and she didn’t want to be the person who had to educate her roommates about race.”
One new study, of Princeton students, used daily questionnaires to monitor roommate interactions and perceptions.
“In the earliest weeks of the relationship, the positive emotions declined for minority students with white roommates,” said Mr. Trail, an author of the study. “It wasn’t that the white students started being mean or negative. Instead, it was a drop-off in positive behaviors, like smiling or making eye contact, that led the minority students to feel worse.”
A study of students at Duke University, using lists of their close friends before college and at the end of freshman year, found that white students, the least likely to have had close friends of a different race, were the most likely to develop more diverse friendships as freshmen — while black students, who came in with more interracial friendships, had a decline in cross-race friendship freshman year. The study found little change freshman year in the diversity of Asian and Hispanic students’ friendships.
Freshmen with roommates of a different race — or those who lived alone in a dorm — were the most likely to diversify their friendships.
“Just having diversity in classrooms doesn’t do anything to increase interracial friendships,” said Claudia Buchmann, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State and an author of the Duke study. “But the intimacy of living together in residence halls, with no roommate, or a different-race roommate, does lead to more interracial friendships.”
Minority students in a predominantly white environment, she said, often cocoon themselves by clustering together. Both black and white resident advisers at Ohio State said it was common for black freshmen to seek out other black students.
“There are organizations on campus specifically designed to help minority students, and oftentimes minority students try to find their friends through those groups,” said Ellen Speicher, an Ohio State resident adviser who is white and a rising junior. “It makes sense, on a predominantly white campus.”
Mr. Boakye, a resident adviser for two years. said there was comfort in clustering.
“Being a minority at Ohio State, we try to stay together, to build ourselves as a community,” Mr. Boakye said. “It’s different for white guys.
“A lot of them come here without much exposure to diversity,” he said, “so when their first experience with a black guy isn’t so bad, they go and make more black friends. I think I made a good impression on my freshman roommate. When I saw him this year, he said, ‘Hey dude, you’re not the only black friend I have.’ That felt good.”