Unconscious Separation: Racial Segregation in Our Friend Groups

In the classic 2004 film “Mean Girls,” two high school students show a new student a map of the cafeteria’s sacred arrangement of cliques. Each clique has a label. To name a few, there are the preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, and sexually active band geeks.

At Stuyvesant, things are a little different. It’s not a typical high school like the ones you see in movies. Social groups are not nearly as straightforward. While labels for cliques do exist (like “white squad,” “Queens squad,” “Slav squad,” and many others), the cliques themselves are often less rigidly defined than their names suggest. Many people float from group to group and some groups flow into one another.

What is immediately apparent, however, is that people tend to stick with people who share their ethnic backgrounds.

The small numbers of black, Latino, Native American, and multiracial students prevents groups made up exclusively of students with these backgrounds from forming. These students are often mixed into groups that, for the most part, are either predominantly Asian or predominantly white. And, among the white and Asian students, there exist countless sub-groups.

The causes of this de facto segregation is complex, and they extend far beyond the walls of Stuyvesant. What follows is an exploration of this phenomenon, along with possible reasons for its existence.

Where Friendships Start

Some of us, like senior Jonathan Mikhaylov, started high school with friends from middle school. Mikhaylov went to Mark Twain Middle School, which is widely considered as a “Stuyvesant feeder school” because of the large number of students it sends to Stuyvesant each year.

Mikhaylov’s middle school friend group, which he described as relatively diverse, eventually dissolved into various groups that are more ethnically homogenous.

One thing that accounts for the creation of new friend groups is each student’s commitment to academics, Mikhaylov said. He noted that he has stayed closer with friends from his classes because he sees them daily. Freshman Thomas Chen also said he is mostly friends with students from his classes.

Students also get to know each other through extra-curricular activities, where they spend hours together after school and bond over common interests.

“The football team was the first group I was close to,” senior Michael Joh said. “I was forced to be with them every day. Eventually, I grew close with them.”

Similarly, Grace Quispe (‘16) made most of her friends in the two clubs to which she devoted most of her time: the Stuyvesant Theater Community and Aspira, Stuyvesant’s Hispanic culture club.

Additionally, commuting draws people together. Some students’ journeys can be up to 90 minutes long. This gives them ample time to bond with their train buddies.

“I made my core friend group based on commuting,” Mary McGreal (‘16) said. “I take the LIRR [Long Island Rail Road], so it takes me a very long time to get to school.” One day at the beginning of her Stuyvesant career, McGreal approached a girl from one of her classes on the train platform, and this girl subsequently introduced McGreal to all of her friends.

The train serves as a staple in the social lives of many students. “The first friends I met were through the same train, and we still take the same train every single day,” said senior Han Nway Oo. “Because you get so much work at Stuy, the train serves as a transition in between the school and home stages,” a junior student pointed out.

Mikhaylov said his subway commute home has strengthened his friendships with one friend group in particular: his “Russian squad.” Every day, the members of this group take the train to Barclay’s Center before transferring to either the Q-train or the D-train, because they all live in a part of Brooklyn (in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, and Kings Highway) heavily dominated by the Eastern European immigrant communities to which they belong.

Mikhaylov’s situation illustrates that, when students make friends on their commutes, they often befriend people who live nearby, and these students often share their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

New York City is racially segregated across the boroughs. White students are associated with Manhattan, while East Asians, South Asians, and Eastern Europeans are associated with Brooklyn and Queens. The neighborhoods within these boroughs are often dominated by certain ethnicities. Many students live in ethnic enclaves, such as Kensington (predominantly Bangladeshi), Brighton Beach (predominantly Russian), and Flushing (predominantly Chinese).

Because at least some friend group segregation can be accounted for by New York City’s segregation, it likely comes as no surprise that no one reported actively avoiding other students of races. However, the majority of students reported that most of their friends do share their racial backgrounds.

Junior Sophia Azaraev is white, and most of the friends she made at Stuyvesant are white, as well. But that’s not why she befriended them. “They were usually the first people to talk to me,” she said. “I usually become friends with the people who approach me first.”

Freshman Samina Zaman concurred. It wasn’t race that drew her to her friends. “You find common ground, and that’s how you bond and develop a strong connection,” she said.

Zaman, however, does believe race can play a significant role in making friends. “A majority of people, when they are first making friends, tend to approach people of their own race because they feel like they will find some common ground,” she said.

“It’s easier because of culture, tradition, and religion—because you can relate,” said junior Rachel Sah. Sah bonds with her fellow Korean friends over their shared affinities for Korean dramas and food, as well as going to Korean church. “I just feel more comfortable around people who like the same things as me, and that just so happens to have a certain race attached to it,” Sah said.

Mikhaylov said his friend groups are more often brought together by ethnicity than by race. “I don’t think race makes that much of a difference,” he said. “But a lot of Russians are brought up the same way. We’ve watched the same movies. We know the same characters from everything.”

He and his friends are also brought together by common concerns deeply rooted in their culture. “We talk about what we’re up to at the gym, or who got the most recent haircut,” he said. Speaking of his Russian friends, he said, “They’re very conscious of their appearances. It’s very much a Russian thing to do. In Brooklyn, they’d rather have a great car that they can show off to everyone than have an amazing apartment that no one would really see. The car would make everyone say, like, ‘Oh, he has money.’ It’s about showing class, that you’re doing better than the other immigrants that came to the U.S.”

Charlotte Ruhl, a white junior, attended predominantly white elementary and middle schools. “And I live in a predominately white neighborhood, so those are the people that I’m used to socializing with,” she said. “Those are the people I went to when I was trying to make friends.”

In class, however, it seems that the racial divide lessens. “There are some people I have a lot of classes with, and they are Asian or they are black, and we’ve become friends,” Ruhl said. “But I don’t really spend a lot of time with them out of class.”

Senior Judy Li—who is Chinese, but part of a white friend group—described this, as well. “I definitely have a lot of Asian friends in my classes, but I’m not friends with them outside of school,” she said.

It is these outside-of-school friends who students consider to be their real friends. Outside of school is where students can choose people to spend time with and truly get to know one another.

What Does Everyone Do For Fun?

Senior Niels Graham often shops at J. Crew with one particular friend group. The members of this predominantly white group are male, live in upper Manhattan, and come from upper middle class backgrounds.

“A larger disposable income makes it easier to treat shopping as a luxury rather than a necessity,” said Graham. “It’s very easy to stop into a J. Crew and buy an extra shirt, even if you already have a similar shirt at home.” He noted, however, that he would not be nearly as inclined to “stop into a J. Crew” with friends of a different socioeconomic background.

Senior Matthew So said his friends’ socioeconomic backgrounds also occasionally affect what they do when they hang out. “There’s one group of my friends who can eat out whenever they want to, and another group of friends who can’t afford to do that,” he said.

Every friend group spends Friday nights differently. Not only is there variation in the amount of money spent on each activity—some groups are more likely to favor a chill night in, while others prefer a raucous night out.

“We watched Netflix or played GarageBand or hung out at someone’s house and slept over,” said McGreal, who had mostly Asian friends during her time at Stuyvesant. She contrasted this with what her white friends did. “They are like, ‘Friday night is our night to go out on the town,’” she said.

While Asian friend groups are associated with more tame activities, such as shopping and eating in restaurants, white students are associated with party culture, which usually entails drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and hooking up.

“Someone from Asian crew might only go to, like, five frees, while white people go constantly,” said Eli Lleshi, a white senior who has been a part of both primarily Asian and primarily white squads.

Graham said the frequency with which students host and attend frees usually has to do with how often they have a free house. The richest parents—often white, and born in this country—are the most likely to leave town.

Not every white student’s main activity is partying, however. Azaraev socializes with her friends by “watching movies, doing homework, or talking about our lives,” she said. And not all Asian students refrain from more taboo activities.

But it seems that hardcore party culture tends to be dominated by white people. “Asian parties are more chill,” Joh said. “They don’t do as many crazy things. You’ll just see an occasional beer and that’s it. But once you go to a white person party, they go crazy.”

The typical high school stereotype that students who party are perceived as popular is, to some extent, true. “Especially in high school, the general atmosphere around popularity is who goes to the parties,” said senior Richard Lin. The definition of “popular” in this case isn’t being well-liked or having the most friends. It’s about being the most notorious.

After a massive party like SAP or Homecoming, many people know about it and talk about it, bringing more attention to the partygoers. But people who socialize in a more private, less wild way are rarely on the gossip radar.

“No one’s going to talk about a bunch of 16-year-old girls watching ‘Pretty Little Liars’ in their pajamas. That’s just not interesting,” McGreal said. “But people will talk about how this person hooked up with that person, or this person went to this party. People are more interested in these stories because they can relate to them less.”

So, if people who party are perceived as “cool,” and the people who attend more parties are white, the white group has a “cooler” vibe.

Senior Sosonia Ma became aware of this reputation after her sister gave her advice about starting high school. “My sister was like, ‘Go to high school and make friends with white people, and you won’t have anything to worry about. You’ll be more social, you’ll have more friends, you won’t have bullies,’” Ma said. However, when Ma got to high school, she befriended mostly Asian students. “I was shy as a ninth grader,” she said.

Shyness is another factor in the separation of the two races. “I’m more cautious around people who I think party more often,” Sah said.

A Korean alumna, Joyce Lee (‘16), discussed her reasoning for not befriending some white students freshman year. “It wasn’t just the fact that they were white, but the fact that they partied,” she said. “I didn’t associate with people—whether they’re Asian or not, whether they live in Queens or not—who do that stuff, just because I didn’t want to participate in that.”

How We’re Raised

It’s not simply a matter of basic physical differences in skin color or eye shape. Students gravitate toward those who have been raised with similar values, and parents from different cultures tend to raise their children differently.

Quiet vs. Outspoken

Lee discussed how the way she behaved tended to clash with some white students’ behavior. “In Korean culture, parents bring you up to be subservient toward elders and authority instead of outspoken,” she said. “White children, but also upper-class children, are raised with the sense of entitlement to stand up to authority, to speak their opinion, and to take the system and work it in their favor.”

Li said the same of Chinese culture. She observed that Chinese families tend to be quieter than white families. “I’m the most outspoken person in my family,” Li said.

Li described going to an amusement park each summer with her family and being the only person to ride on roller coasters. “No one actually does anything because it’s too dangerous,” she said. “They’re really closed off. They don’t like to do anything that’s outside of their comfort zones.”

She also talked about how, when she was growing up, her mother told her to always respect what a teacher says, even if it’s wrong. “Because, when it comes to Asian culture, older people are more respected, and that’s the way it goes,” Li said. This explains the stricter, more rigid roles parents play in Asian families.

White people, on the other hand, seem to be more outspoken. Senior Michael Holmes, who is black and Latino, has socialized with both white and Asian groups. Of white people, he said, “They are more outgoing and outspoken about things. Asian people—not to be stereotypical—are more timid in terms of expressing themselves.”

Strict vs. Lenient

Asian parents, specifically those who immigrated to this country, are known to be stricter. They want their children to succeed, and are either unaware of or disavow the idea of being more lenient with their kids.

Lin described how his mother gets angry if he stays out too late. And he understands where this firmness comes from. When he was younger, his mother worked at a restaurant, and she had to take him with her so she could look after him. “I had to sleep in a broken freezer because hours would get late and my mom didn’t want me going home alone,” Lin said. “It’s stuff like that that you don’t want your children to have to deal with.”

To help Lin avoid these obstacles in life, his mom pushed him to work. “Instead of drinking or going to parties, you go home and study, go to Harvard, and get a job,” he said.

“The fact that we are first generation meant that there was more pressure to succeed, but also that we were more sheltered,” Lee said. “We were raised to think of partying in a negative light and to focus more on school. Our social lives are different because of that.”

Mikhaylov said the children Eastern European immigrants face pressures that are similar, but also different. “If your parents grew up here, they’re more lenient, because they’re like, ‘Oh, I did that and I was fine,’” he said. “But immigrants, like my parents, are like, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that. What if someone blames this on you? Then, right away, your whole life is ruined.’ They’d rather be more conscious than have to deal with the consequences later.” For this reason, he said, his Russian friends are more likely to only attend the big parties, like Homecoming and SAP, instead of going to weekly frees.

Joh’s situation is different in that his parents simply aren’t aware of the fact that Stuyvesant students party. “My parents don’t think anyone in high school drinks or smokes,” he said. “They’re very in denial about that.”

Some South Asian parents are stricter than East Asian parents, or at least believe that they are. Senior Tasnim Ahmed, who is Bengali, noted a distinction between herself and her East Asian friends. “I’m pretty restricted compared to my East Asian friends,” she said. “Something my Bengali friends and I can all relate to is that our parents don’t let us stay out that late. My parents say things like, ‘You’re not Chinese. You can’t do all the same things they do,’” Ahmed said.

Another aspect of this disaffection from party culture is religion. Islam forbids drinking and drug use, so many Muslim students do not participate in those activities. Senior Jannat Hossain, who is Bengali and Muslim, said that, while her parents are not controlling when it comes to school, they are strict about illicit activities, which are against her religion.

“Since a lot of us are Muslim, we don’t drink alcohol,” she said. “We’ll get apple cider in shot glasses and act like we’re doing that. But we still have a lot of fun.”

Hossain also acknowledged that there are Muslim students who drink and do drugs. “I know a lot of them are males, so we may have been raised differently,” she said. Muslim boys often have fewer restrictions than their female counterparts do.

Houssain also mentioned that the South Asian students who participate in these activities are generally not in the same social circles as the South Asian students who do not.

White parents, on the other hand, are known for being easy-going with their children. They may let them stay out later at night, be more understanding about lower grades, and forgive their children for spending a night out drinking.

“My white friends are much more likely to tell their parents exactly where they are, while my Asian friends are more likely to say, ‘I’m just hanging out,’ Graham said. “The word ‘partying’ is much more a part of the white lexicon.”

Senior Lowell Weisbord is white, and his family has been in America for many generations. His parents are more at ease with teenage party culture in America. “My parents are not okay with me making poor decisions, but I know for a fact that my parents did stupid things,” he said. “I was raised in this culture where certain means of socializing are socially acceptable.”

Holmes described what he observed when visiting a white friend. “His family dynamic is different,” he said. “He has a different demeanor towards them. It’s more of a laid-back, informal kind of attitude that they have.”

It is not simply that white parents are more at ease with their children being out late—many white parents can afford to be more at ease in general. Families that have been in America for generations—and a lot of these families are white—have had time to establish themselves. They have built up money and attended American colleges. Life is often relatively easier for students who have grown up in these kinds of families. This creates an aura of privilege that further divides the cultures.  

“This is not just a Caucasian people thing,” McGreal said. “It’s an American thing.”

This helps explain why certain people are drawn to each other, even if they’re of different races. When Lleshi first came to Stuyvesant, she befriended Asian students. Her parents immigrated to America from Russia. “While I can’t relate to being Asian, I can relate to the struggle of being a first generation child,” she said. “And that’s something that, when I hang out with white people, they don’t get.”

Those with stricter parents who might not be first generation also bond with first generation students. That is how McGreal found herself befriending mostly Asian people—her parents are strict.

It goes the other way, as well. Non-white students with more relaxed parents, or parents who have been in this country for generations, are likely to fall in with white students. “There are some students who have more freedom, because their parents are not first generation immigrants and have grown up with these American ideals, and that makes them a lot more free,” Li explained.  

The Outliers

Not everyone in every squad is of the same race, and not everyone has a single racial background.

Two non-Asian interviewees who are friends with mainly Asian people reported that there were times when they did feel the difference.

McGreal described how, freshman year, she experienced a Korean culture shock. “I tried to immerse myself in Korean culture,” she said. “I just really wanted to be a part of them.” Though she gave her best efforts (and even tried to learn Korean), the racial divide was still apparent.

For example, her friends would tease her for wearing Ugg boots, which are associated with white girls. “The discrepancies in our cultures is apparent and talked about more frequently than I would have liked,” she said.  “But I did not feel excluded or uncomfortable. My friends were very accepting of me.”

Holmes also mentioned how, occasionally, he feels the distinction between his race and his friends’ races through references or ideas he cannot grasp. But he doesn’t feel separated. “I think I’m just open to accepting things,” he said. “I try not to be close-minded.”

The more controversial outliers are the Asian students in the white squads. Part of this has to do with the fact that Asians are more likely to be otherized in society, where white people outnumber people of color and always have.

Freshman Hiro Kimura noted that speech can make these differences especially apparent. “If you’re the only one talking off-kilter, it might seem weird,” he said, referring to students who have accents because English was not their first language. “But if everyone else is speaking this way, and you’re the only one not, it’s less weird.”

It is not simply that these people feel the cultural difference in their friend groups. It’s that others perceive them as whitewashed, which means they left behind their cultures to assimilate into white America.

“White” seems to be less of a race and more of an image. People who “act white” are defined by white stereotypes.

Li said white people are seen as outgoing, fearless and personable, while Asians are categorized by their timidity and introverted behaviors. Li sees herself as nothing like this Asian stereotype and said this is part of the reason she has mostly white friends, though it’s not a consciously racial matter. “I talk to people who are as outspoken as me, and they are usually white kids,” she said. “I’ve grown up always making white friends because I’ve been a social person all my life.”

Li finds it very hard to find friends of her own race because of her label of being whitewashed. “Asian kids don’t usually want to be my friend,” she said. Li is seen as a betrayal to her own race, but, to her, it’s all a matter of personality. And being called whitewashed stings. “I know people always associate me with the white kids. And I don’t like that, because I’m not white. I’m Asian.”

A white person in an Asian squad does not have to deal with similar situations. “There is a difference between being the only Asian person in a room and being the only white person in a room,” Lee said. In America, white is the norm and people of color are seen as “others.” It’s acceptable to Americanize the “others.” But it’s weird to see things the other way around.

“Non-Caucasian girls who hang out with the white girls are considered whitewashed,” McGreal said. “Am I Korean-washed? What does that even mean?”

An Asian in a white squad is assimilated, and it’s noticed because it’s an infiltration of the norm. On the other hand, a white person is already accepted as part of the norm, so it takes a lot more than hanging out with people of color to reverse that.

And perhaps this contributes to why the Asian students at Stuyvesant tend to socialize within their own race. Befriending white people draws attention and criticism.

Lee feels that this attention is perhaps why she wouldn’t naturally go up to a white person. “When I walk into a room of white people, just as I know that I’m the only Asian person, they would notice that I’m the only Asian person,” Lee said.

It is also worth noting that not all students are only white or only Asian. Some are also black, Latino, and/or Native American, and some students are both white and Asian (or any mix of any other races). People who are both white and Asian are called “halfies” at Stuyvesant.

Even though Stuyvesant is famously 74 percent Asian, most halfies here identify with their white backgrounds more than their Asian backgrounds. Graham and So, who are both half-Chinese, attributed this in part to living in America, where being white is the norm.

Kimura, whose Asian half is Japanese and Korean, said he primarily identifies as white because of the negative stereotypes associated with being Asian. “If you asked me if I’d rather be born completely white or Asian, I’d say white,” Kimura said. “Because no white person ever gets called a ‘chink’ on the subway.”

Graham added that most of his friends at school are white, and also, “I just look so white,” he said.

However, So’s appearance makes his racial background more ambiguous. White people are more likely to think he is Asian, while Asian people are more likely to think he is white, So said. And people’s perceptions of him are not limited to his appearance.

“When I’m with a group of white friends, I’m like the ‘Chinese specialist,’” So said. “When we go to Chinatown, I order for them. But when I’m with a group of Chinese friends, they order for me. To my white friends, I’m infinitely more Chinese than they will ever be. But to my Chinese friends, I’m only half as Chinese as they are, and I’m infinitely whiter.”

So is an outlier in more ways than one. “Nobody is the same race as me, and nobody lives near me, either,” said So, referring to the fact that he lives on Staten Island. He, however, is not ostracized by his differences. “It’s just forced me to be more social,” he said.

When the Worlds Collide

For the most part, single-race squads rarely fraternize. And when they do, the atmosphere can be tense.

Lee described a party to which the host had invited a number of different cliques. “It was a very interesting party to be at, because there were all of these different squads there,” she said. “And it was very uncomfortable.”

This type of party was uncommon. “Freshman year, once you’re divided into your freshman race groups, you’re not really going to intermingle because you’ve found your friends already—unless you have a falling out with them,” she said. “But if nothing happens to sway that natural equilibrium, you’re just going to stay there. And you’re not going to have parties where you invite other people.”

In response to a hypothetical situation where racially-defined crews had to mix, Lleshi responded, “Oh, it would be awkward. It would be extremely awkward.”

So agreed that attempts to mix groups are largely unsuccessful. He often tries to bring his squads together, only to be reminded that, “It never works,” he said.

There are times, however, when these groups occasionally intermingle. For example, during SING!. “During SING!, people talked to people that they wouldn’t normally talk to. Because of that, there are crossovers,” Lee said.

Is This an Issue?

Getting to know people solely of our own races is considered negative, especially in New York City. In fact, it’s the antithesis of our city. Weisbord recalled something his friend’s (white) mother said after she met many of her son’s (white) parents: “All the parents tried to raise their kids in diverse NYC, and, last night, we realized that all of the kids they’re friends with are exactly the same.”

However, this isn’t an imposed segregation, so the morality of the issue is blurry. If this happens so naturally, can it be so wrong?

“Naturally, people with similar backgrounds, and that includes similar races, will group together,” Lin said. He does think, however, that it would be beneficial if the races mingled more than they do. “Everyone wishes that everyone could be friends with everyone, and that’s entirely possible,” he said. “We do have Asian people who are friends with white people. But I do think it would be nicer if it was more heterogeneous.”

Though people nonchalantly used labels such as “white squad” or “quiet Asians,” it was clear that they were not at ease with the segregation among social groups. In interviews, people were often flustered, constantly backtracking, and pausing to develop their thoughts. The sheer number of times we heard the phrases, “um,” “like,” and “I don’t know,” indicates how difficult it is to discuss race at Stuyvesant.

Though it is a tricky issue, it’s not something to shy away from. By starting these conversations, we can make progress.

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