Purpose of cultural centers questioned

by Sascha Matuszak

Most student cultural centers are said to have dual purposes: to provide a place specifically for that minority culture, and to spread knowledge and awareness of their particular culture.
However, many centers have had problems keeping the two roles distinct without appearing to be an exclusive organization.
In fact, some cultural center officials have come to realize that their center’s effort to cultivate their culture in a predominantly white University society has defeated its purpose and done more to exclude themselves from the University.
Furthermore, it might seem that minorities spending more time at the center than in the larger population contributes to an increased inclusion among their own culture at the costly price of an increased exclusion from the larger society.
Although center officials say the exclusion is not their intention, they are recognizing the need to reach out, while dealing with a lack of interest.
“We cannot make people be interested in us, but it is our responsibility to get out and interact with our community as a whole, to get the word out,” said Jill Sanders, an Asian-American cultural board member.
However, some cultural groups feel the lack of diversity within an individual center is not necessarily their fault.
“I do not see it as a problem because our center is open; we will welcome anyone,” said Sanders. “People feel that we are exclusive, that we don’t want people who aren’t Asian-American to come, but that isn’t true.”
American Indian Student Cultural Center members recently re-wrote the group’s constitution, and one of the topics of discussion was the role of the center.
Some members of cultural centers feel that the centers should be exclusive, but the need to increase awareness compels centers not only to allow everyone in, but to reach out, as well, said Maymangwa Flying Earth, an American Indian Student Cultural Center board member.
However, Dave Burkum, a member of the Christian Fellowship, feels that it is a natural development that groups with a focused purpose and identity have a focused membership.
“No one can turn you back, but they might question your motives,” Burkum said.
“We do not fit into that pattern. Our mission is to lead people to Christ, or to help Christians grow; it does not matter who you are,” he said.
But many white students do not feel comfortable walking into a cultural center, said Jennifer Molina, a La Raza Student Cultural Center board member.
“The comfort zone is a real issue,” Sanders said.
White students are not used to being the only white person in a room, and this might make them feel insecure, Sanders said.
“That’s everyday life for us,” she said.
Not only are white students wary of being the minority, but centers are often faced with a lack of respect and basic discrimination, Sanders said.
And this seems to make cultural center members unaccepting of visitors who are not of their particular race or background.
Among the different cultural organizations themselves, the relationship is better than with the University at large, Sanders said.
The different cultural centers in Coffman Memorial Union actively support each other with organizing events, passing out flyers and mobilizing marches, Molina said.
The American Indian Student Cultural Center in Jones Hall, however, is less visible than the other centers.
“We are labeled as being very exclusive,” Flying Earth said. “It is easier for (the other centers in Coffman).”
Although interaction between cultural centers is good, the relationship with the rest of the University is not respectable in many eyes.
“Every person on campus pays for us,” Molina said. “Even new Latinos are nervous about coming to La Raza, but the longer you go (there) the more comfortable you are going to the other centers.”
During the day, the centers are full of people eating lunch, doing their homework or just hanging out, Molina said.
But these people are either Latino, African-American or Asian-American.
“It takes a certain type of white person,” Molina said, to feel welcome at the cultural centers.
“We are not a high priority at the University,” Sanders said.
If the cultural centers become a priority, non-minority students might feel more comfortable about visiting the centers, she added.
Along with these projects, individual centers are planning open events that will hopefully attract a diverse crowd.
The American Indian Student Culture Center, for example, has a pow-wow every fall and spring quarter, which will include competitive singing and dancing this spring. The center is also planning some events with a blues band, Indigenous.
“Indians sing the blues, too,” Flying Earth said. “I’d like people to see the image we want to put out, instead of having you go see Pocahontas.”