Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in the “Why Are College Houses So White” discussion panel held at Reed House. A fellow panelist did a wonderful job of explaining how and why they thought students of color could possibly feel isolated in a College House setting. Though we touched on many aspects of the topic, I worry that one important one went unaddressed: Mascoting. “Mascoting” is when an individual is accepted as a part of the group because their difference makes them entertaining. These terms of social acceptance provide said student with incentive to employ a form of minstrelsy. Unfortunately, this is not rare. In fact, I personally have seen this occur first hand throughout much of my life.
My first experience with mascoting was during my years in middle school. I was always one of the only black students in the school, and around fifth grade it started to become part of my social identity. My classmates pushed me to engage in stereotypical activities and would reward me with praise and attention if I complied. Often, this meant my peers encouraged me to be black as they understood it, through the employment of racialized vocabulary and mannerisms. If I didn’t comply, they were less likely to take an interest in me and less likely to include me. Of course, I am responsible for allowing this to happen to me, but I had no one to warn me of these issues. The nature of my position left me to handle this on my own with no supervision or direction. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized how racialized my social role truly was.
The second place I witnessed this occur was at the Trinity-Pawling (TP) School, the all-boys boarding school from which I graduated. A considerable portion of TP’s student body consists of international students from various parts of Asia. Of course, cultural differences and language barriers made socially integrating the students, at times, rather difficult. For the most part, students remained in their comfort zones; domestic students and international students usually kept to themselves, respectively. That being said, it was not uncommon for international students to be made into “mascots” by their domestic counterparts. The Asian students that sounded the “funniest” and stood out in the most absurd ways always found the most social success. The more opportunities the token student provided the other students to laugh, the more likely they were to keep him around. It was not what they said, but rather how they said it, that evoked a reaction from the domestic students. This effectively meant the domestic students, when engaged with the international students in this way, were always laughing at them. The token student laughing along, also at himself, is him making a decision to fit in.
If there is a mascoting problem here Bowdoin College, it has not been as apparent to me as it has been in other environments. In regard to the question of why College Houses are so white, I do not live in a College House so I cannot say whether or not this occurs in those settings. That being said, I do believe College House environments could potentially support “mascoting.” It would be easy for inhabitants to fall into similar habits of communicating as my former classmates in both elementary school and high school. The culture of assimilation within College Houses places pressure on the members to establish a sense of community. When cultural differences arise and make meshing difficult, it is easy to resort to simple means of inclusion. Any form of tokenism—and especially mascoting—is an easy social fallback because it allows us to ignore the complicated aspects of diversity. Instead of doing the work to understand difference, we employ a shallow understanding of it. Of course, it is going to be awkward at times, but if we all agree not to go through process then we are all agreeing to know each other from a distance. Any friendship that comes out of mascoting is founded on this removed understanding of difference that cannot be transcended unless people find better ways to perceive each other.
Moving forward, I suggest people pay particular attention to how they perpetuate otherness through both their interactions and perceptions of difference. In an effort to avoid mascoting and tokenism in general empowered groups should make sure they understand others for who they are rather than what they are. This of course goes beyond race, but also extends to gender, sexuality, class, religion and any other social distinctions separated along a hierarchy. If your interest is not in who someone is but rather what they are in any sense, then perhaps it is best you do not extend a false friendship. Confining people to a finite idea is, after all, very much so an act of prejudice.