It seemed to be just like any other meal at Leo’s Late Night: They had run out of milk, a blockade of chairs cut off half of the room and I was about to eat pasta for the third time in 12 hours. That’s when I happened to find myself in a most unusual discussion.

Looking around the room, one of my friends pointed out a curious situation: Although it wasn’t true at any other meal, it often appeared that at Late Night, students tended to sit almost exclusively with members of their own race. It suddenly became one of those awkward conversational moments in which one wanted either to change the topic to the weather or duck and run for cover. Race tends to be a topic that rarely makes for good, casual conversation.

But as each of us peered across the sea of tables and students, we realized that – at least on this particular evening – my friend was completely correct. And being an avid Late Night attendee, I had plenty of past experience to realize that this wasn’t a one-time occurrence.

Another student suggested that perhaps people were simply more comfortable with people of their race and that it was natural. Yet another suggested that perhaps it was pure coincidence. But I was unwilling to accept either of these answers, at least not until I looked into the situation further.

I wanted to see what someone outside my circle of friends thought, so I found some students who I had never met but who considered themselves to be Late Night fanatics. I explained my inquiry, and the only one to respond simply said that he had no idea what I was talking about. Not exactly the philosophical breakthrough that I had been looking for.

As I began to doubt our original findings, I returned to Late Night another night, only to find that the racial polarization we had all experienced was gone. The lower level of our dining hall looked just like any other room, with what seemed to be a natural blend of diverse persons.

The more that I thought about things, the more I realized how bizarre the whole idea was. Why did we think that we could even tell what race people were just by looking at them? There are general characteristics, of course, but in the end no one can be certain unless you know a person’s history and heritage. And even then, is it really possible to categorize even ourselves as being of one race or another?

My grandparents, for example, are all of European descent, but suppose that one had come from Japan. Would I then be a Japanese- or Asian-American? Or would I still be Caucasian? What if one grandparent had been from Burkina Faso? Would I then be African-American?

The problem, I realized, had nothing to do with my friend’s observation or with some inexplicable Late Night mystery. The problem is that we live in a society in which we learn from an early age that there are several groups of people and that we all have to fit into one of those groups. When we apply for scholarships, college acceptance and even jobs, we’re forced to place ourselves into one of about eight little boxes, categorizing ourselves as whichever type of person we feel represents us best. When we do this, we severely limit who we are. It may not be with foul intent, but our school, our society and our own minds – having been exposed to this way of thinking since birth – all create a culture of division, rather than one of unity.

So when my friend looked around Leo’s, she was only doing what Americans seem to do best: putting people into imaginary checkboxes, because it’s easier than accepting the fact that race isn’t about groups, but rather one’s personal and unique identity. Maybe if we didn’t have to place ourselves in one box or another – and, in effect, “box out” those that we perceive as being different – the idea that people are just more comfortable with their own racial group would become a thing of the past.

Perhaps the best we can do for now is not only to stop seeing other people in broad groups but also not to see ourselves in that way. We must all be proud of our heritage and of our pasts, but it is possible to have both history and unity.

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