I don’t recall how I learned this term, but I know it was very early in my undergraduate career. I can remember walking around campus freshmen fall trying to figure out who everyone was. When explaining to my (now) best friend who someone in the dorm next to mine was, she said ‘oh, she must be an incog.’ I blithely agreed and we kept it moving to dinner.
As a 17 year old freshmen at an Ivy League college I wasn’t dumb or naïve. I knew that label was wrong, inappropriate, judgmental. But frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because another part of me—a larger part—was annoyed at these students. Why with only 350 Black students on campus would you choose to disassociate? I felt like we needed to ban together. We needed to support the African American Society and other affinity groups on campus. Yet these particular students never showed up to meetings, events, and they certainly didn’t speak to us in the cafeterias.
And we didn’t speak to them.
As an adult I wonder if the ‘Incogs’ consciously chose to not associate with the Black community or if they were simply forging friendships with whom they’ve always befriended. I hope it is the latter because why would anyone purposely choose to not speak to an entire racial group, especially when to everyone else on campus, you are a part of that group?
I know now that most of these students were doing what everyone does: staying in their comfort zone. I can admit that it is difficult to connect with people you’ve never had the opportunity to get to know. You don’t know the social norms of that group, and it takes a lot to learn them past the age of 8.
But there is hope.
My research takes me into middle schools, but my volunteer work allows me to closely work with high school students. During my weekly practices with my high school students, I notice a stark difference in their school compared to my own high school: friend groups are significantly more diverse. The social clubs and organizations, along with the sports teams are also more diverse. There is not the age old White soccer team and Black football team. Even my step team has males and females, freshmen through seniors, and at least 5 racial groups represented. I love it!
But I don’t see this on my campus. It may be the small numbers of ethnic minority students to begin with, but having lived on campus in faculty housing last year, I still did not see many diverse friend groups hanging out on campus. If in fact high schools are more socially integrated now (which may not be the case in most cities—I have no idea), why isn’t this trend sustained in college? What is it about college that pushes students to prioritize their identities and make relevant social connections? And what can I, as a faculty member, do to encourage interracial student interactions?
Or is this even a necessary battle to fight?