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Libertarian Counseling
Hanna Chung• Are you "ethnic"?
Commencement 2002

Recently, the Yale administration considered a proposal to eliminate the ethnic counselor program. Had the proposal been accepted, freshman counselors and student organizations would replace the services of the eliminated ethnic counselor program. However, Yale rejected the proposal due to pressure to create an ethnically-sensitive appearance; in its desire to show the minority student body that it cares, Yale inadvertently turned down an effective solution to minority discrimination and maladjustment.

Broadly speaking, there are two methods for dealing with minority issues. One solution involves the Yale administration taking an active role in drawing up speech guidelines, educating students about cultural sensitivity, and providing ethnic counselors. The other solution — the libertarian approach — is to have the administration step back from the situation almost entirely, and let students work out racial issues for themselves. In the libertarian paradigm, the individuals closest to the concern acquire and exercise the power to solve the problem at the most localized level. Despite its unassuming grassroots approach, it succeeds where more elaborate plans fail because it recognizes that every sweeping epidemic actually exists at the level of its viral components. This sort of understanding of the situation is especially necessary to resolve the problems that currently accompany racial differences.

Yale has identified two particular problems which arise from racial diversity— the difficulties faced by minorities in adjusting to student life and the lack of cultural awareness on the part of Caucasian students. To remedy these issues, Yale has employed ethnic counselors to advise minority students and serve indirectly as visible, representative minorities who would send a message to the racially apathetic mainstream of Yale.

These are legitimate concerns for an institution which cares about the social well-being of its minority members. However, both of these concerns are rooted in the personal and relational level. Macroscopic administrative policies cannot change the problems of maladjustment or apathy, problems which require a change of attitude within each individual. When regulations and token counselors alone, who administer to groups of students en masse, battle against prejudices and the great complexity of each individual minority student’s concerns, the bureaucratic artificiality of the treatment will be overwhelmed by the brute reality of the virus.

Perhaps the administration intended ethnic counselors as a more individualistic approach to problems of cultural difference. After all, the counselor is a real person, who is more equipped to respond flexibly to individual needs as they arise. However, the ethnic counselor program largely fails in its objectives since it is tied to the formal institution of Yale. The logistics of dealing with administrative hierarchy render ethnic counselors no more personal than, for example, freshman counselors.

For evidence, note the following. Ethnic counselors are appointed with the intended purpose of aiding ethnic minorities with the particular problems which arise from their ethnicities. The constraints in budgets and number of potential counselors that the administration is willing to employ prevents realization of this initial purpose: each college has one ethnic counselor who is responsible for all the diverse ethnic backgrounds to which the students identify. It is debatable whether freshmen, who are assigned to ethnic counselors remotely of their background (one chooses from counselors of Asian, Latino, and African descent), have any particular advantages in sympathetic counselorship, considering that members from all three categories span wide areas, financial backgrounds, and even run the full gamut of world religions. The administrative restraints of the ethnic counselor program prevent an adequate number from being hired for each residential college or ethnic group.

Administrative limitations cause serious problems which defeat the original purpose of helping the particular problems of ethnic minorities. That the ethnic counselor program tries to justify itself by claiming it serves the minority communities is misguided at best and insulting at worst. The small number of official ethnic counselors creates a student/counselor ratio which effectively reduces the individual to a statistic. The program condescendingly camps all of the races into three neat groups: the Latino, African, and Asian ethnicities. The Native American students are only assisted by a peer counselor, and are officially under the Latino division. Multi-racial students are automatically classed into one of their several ethnic heritages. Analogously, consider the outcry that would occur if public schools began to teach “politically-correct” religion electives divided into the three major world religions, assuming all others to be derivatives or “similar enough to relate.” This sort of generalization betrays an utter disregard for the very diversity of experience which the program claims to acknowledge.

More dangerous, however, is the excuse that is often given in response to this blatant generalization— that the program actually intends this generalization because it encourages solidarity among minority groups. That both the counselor and the counselee share their “minority”- ness, regardless of how diverse their actual backgrounds may be, is meant to put the ethnic counselor at an advantage in understanding the particular minority issues of the particular ethnic background of the counselee. This assumption seems to contradict experience: from racial slurs to the exact nature of prejudices involved to cultural homesickness, every culture seems to have its unique problems. Administratively sanctioning the ethnic counselor program creates more harm than good by creating an impression that a student is easier to relate with by simple virtue that he or she is not white.

When proponents tout the solidarity of minorities, one wonders what they are really trying to achieve. One would think that they ought to be more concerned with the solidarity of common humanity, a truer antidote to the problems of racial strife.

Given the limitations of an officially enofrced ethnic counselor program, grassroots initiative would prove more successful. True change begins with an acceptance of individual responsibility within the community and a redefinition of the problem as one best solved by individual effort rather than a macroscopic administrative process. Those who are tempted to reform the current institutionalized ethnic counselor program rather than attempt personal conversions do not realize that the problems of generalization and impersonal staffing will exist as long as constraints in financial resources and time shape the couselor program policy.

Instead, the burden now assumed by ethnic counselors should be absorbed by the ethnic constituency they are trying to reach. The many ethnic clubs and religious communities at Yale are examples of fertile soil for these “natural counselorships”; they provide a context in which genuine friendships, unhampered by official obligations and the awkwardness of a paid position, more precisely meet the needs of students in their community than an institutionally assigned counselor. If the community is both large and concerned enough to provide particular counselorship to other members within it, this community-appointed counselor will be far more acquainted to the needs of students in that ethnicity than an arbitrary, assigned counselor.

Apathy regarding minority issues is another concern which the ethnic counselor program seeks to remedy by its visibility. Yes, apathy is a legitimate obstacle and concern for an administration that wishes to educate a more culturally-savvy student body or for a minority advocacy group which wants to create a more supportive environment for the ethnic students. However, to solve the problem of apathy, these groups ought to begin by adopting and spreading an attitude against self-segregation. Cultural houses ought continue not only in services for their respective ethnic backgrounds, but also for gatherings that integrate their ethnic communities with the community at large— something that is already being done, but could be expanded.

Students who do not consider race a defining factor in their identity, whether they are or are not minorities, often have no interest in these primarily ethnically-themed activities which are publicized by these ethnic clubs. Those who genuinely want to establish a level of common understanding between ethnicities must denounce all superficial shortcuts: the only solution that will truly address this goal is that of opening one’s life in the fullest sense. That is, students should not be content with invitations between cultural boundaries merely to talk about cultural issues, but instead explore the common interests in all those areas outside of race, whether they be academic and extracurricular pursuits or life goals. It is nonsensical to battle racial problems and the injustice of being judged solely by ethnicity by always talking about everything in terms of race. Such a remedy only feeds the sickness of stereotyping individuals by ethnicity; rather, ethnic communities should deemphasize their preoccupation with ethnicity, but rather show the full richness of their common humanity.

While the Yale administration’s eagerness to create a nurturing environment for all students is admirable, the administration needs to realize that the most effective way to achieve this end lies in officially staying out of the problem. Removing administrative competition and encouraging individuals and cultural organizations to address these problems on the relational and individual level will more effectively help minority students at Yale. Minority students, in turn, must realize that their ethnicity does not damn them into being mindless approvers of all sorts of programs just because they claim to be “ethnically-considerate.” Perhaps most essentially, they must realize that ethnicity need not be a preoccupation of the minority student unless he or she chooses it to be as such. The ethnic counselors do not speak for them; they must claim their prerogative as independent individuals— they must evaluate the options before them for themselves, and not as the racial masses they have been construed to be. They, as individual agents in the community, must conscientiously ponder what initiatives they themselves can do to triumph over the problems of apathy or prejudice which they see. Only then can the body of Yale develop a true immunity against racial problems— in its very life blood.

Hanna Chung is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.


 
 

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