By Stacey Askew and Lia Van Baalen
One glance at the Ryerson Students’ Union’s groups day suggests that all groups on campus are ethically, racially or culturally-based, but each group prides itself on welcoming new and diverse types of people. What draws these birds of a feather together?
If you’re the colour of one parent but not the other, who do you identify with?
Shane Milne is a member of the Indian Student Association (ISA) at Ryerson. His mother is Indian and his father is Caucasian. When he met the vice-president of the ISA at a club event, she didn’t know what to make of him.
“When Sahar (the vice-president) first met me, she thought I was white, or at least anything but Indian. I face the same experience every day with people of Indian descent,” said Milne.
“I define myself as Indian. Living in Canada, you can’t really experience the entire culture because even your own family has changed to fit in.”
Sahar Zainab said people like Milne join ISA because they have some understanding of the Indian culture and want to reconnect. People of other cultures join simply because they are curious. At Ryerson’s Club Day during Frosh week, she found that people who are not Indian join the group with prior knowledge of the Indian culture.
But one expert thinks people who enjoy ballet might not enjoy Banghra dancing.
“It’s clear that people are especially inclined to spend time with folk who are similar to them in ways that are psychologically salient,” said Mark Schaller, a UBC professor of psychology.
“I suspect that one reason why people join groups based on cultural identity is because that common cultural identity is a reasonably good indicator that the people in the groups will share many common interests,” Schaller added.
Ethnic clubs (not including religious ones) make up nearly sixty per cent of Ryerson’s recognized clubs.
They are meant not only for students of their respective culture, but for the entire school population. According to RSU regulations, anyone is allowed to join a club.
Alam Ashraful, RSU vice-president of student life and events, said the school is lucky to have “the opportunity to know and learn about different cultures and religions.”
Yet in the Globe and Mail’s university rankings, Ryerson did not do as well under Acceptance of Diversity and Opinions, in which it received a B+. Western on the other hand got an A.
Western sociology professor Wolfgang Lehmann thinks he has a theory to explain this.
“The fact that Western ranks high in the G&M ranking has more to do with an overall satisfied student body rather than a particularly diverse one,” said Lehmann.
The reason students are “satisfied” could have a lot to do with the range of extracurricular activities and clubs available to them, he adds.
According to the Globe and Mail rankings, Western earned an A for its variety of extracurricular activities while Ryerson got a B-.
University of Calgary sociologist Madeline Kalbach said it’s possible cultural groups could disrupt school unity.
“If a group is very strong and they have very strong divisions, it could separate them from other students.”
Kalbach thinks second-generation Canadians are better connected with white society than those who are new to the country.
“(Clubs) offer people of similar ethnic groups a place to go,” she said. “It’s the same as living in an ethnic community when they first come to this country. It helps them integrate into society.”
This, along with interracial marriages, explains why few Western European ethnic groups exist at universities, she said.
The Vietnamese Student Association of Ryerson (VSAR) had an event with diverse members. Caucasian, Korean, Indian and Chinese students went to their welcome party.
“Even though we are an ethnic group, we have events that cater to everyone and are very inclusive. We speak English at our events,” said Linh Le, president of the association.
But not everyone feels the same. Le’s boyfriend, also a VSAR member, signed up for the Chinese Student Association. He felt he didn’t belong, in part because his Chinese wasn’t proficient enough. Most Ryerson cultural clubs have two languages in which meetings can be conducted – English and the country’s dominant language.
Ashraful said the apparent language barrier is not usually an issue in cultural clubs. If an English-speaking person wished to join, the group would likely adapt to include them. Besides, he said, if you join a cultural club it is likely you are interested in being exposed to the language.
But Michael Howard, a professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University, disagrees. He said language can be a major barrier to join cultural groups.
“If you don’t speak the language you feel left outside, although you may go to the event if you know somebody,” Howard said.
Leatrice O’Neill, campus groups administrator, said students shouldn’t feel unwanted by a group. Since she took her job in 1992, she has not received one complaint from a student who felt uncomfortable in a culture group.
O’Neill remembers when a non-Chinese student was the president of the Chinese club a few years ago.
“It shows when you have an interest in something you don’t have to be part of that ethnicity or group. You just have to share the same goals,” she said.
June Yee, a Ryerson social work professor, believes cultural clubs are important for a campus.
“It is a myth to think that the campus is one homogeneous place,” she said. “People feel alienated from themselves and from other people when they cannot express their diversity within the dominant cultural norm.”
While clubs might be a good way to meet new people, Howard thinks it might be too late for some schools because cultural groups are too fragmented.
“Children need to learn appreciation for other cultures early on. By university, maybe it’s a little late,” said Howard.