By his own account, graduate student and alumnus Paul Kendrick is about as stereotypically white as they come.
With blue eyes, pointy bangs and an unmistakably pale complexion, he isn’t one you’d expect would be intimate with the black experience.
But since coming to GW almost five years ago, Kendrick has been one of the most active members of the school’s black community, serving last year as the head of GW’s chapter of the NAACP and co-founding a black living and learning community last year.
If some find that unusual, he respectfully disagrees.
“I didn’t see it as a really big deal when I got involved because I just started in something I cared about,” Kendrick said. “It’s always something I’ve felt very comfortable in.”
Kendrick is one of a number of students who have made themselves minorities within a minority. With the dozens of student organizations and Greek-letter houses geared toward ethnic minorities, a few students have embraced groups representing cultures with which they share no heritage.
The given reasons for their involvement range from mere happenstance to a deliberate effort to learn about other cultures.
Kendrick, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2005 and is now a part of the presidential administrative fellow program, traces his interest in the black community to a black best friend he had as a child who felt alienated and found himself in prison. The experience got him thinking about how different races are treated in the United States.
Since then, Kendrick has made black and civil rights issues his life pursuit. He is highly conscious of the so-called “Vanilla Ice perception” and realizes some might view his efforts as phony. However, he said he has been able to prove his sincerity over time by never trying to be someone he is not.
“I think part of it is just being comfortable with who you are,” Kendrick said. “I think that’s important. People can tell someone who’s trying to be fake really quickly, but if you’re yourself, people are more willing to accept you for who you are. I’m very clearly a white kid from Connecticut.”
For others, the out-of-culture experience has been part of an overall passion for exploring different communities. Nate Hayward, a junior who is of white European descent, joined the Asian-American Pi Delta Psi fraternity partly as a way to promote diversity in what he sees as a segregated Greek-letter community.
Also a member of several other ethnic organizations and a former president of the Multicultural Greek Council, Hayward said he views his involvement first as a social opportunity, but also as a way to expand his knowledge of the society he lives in.
“When I joined this fraternity, it changed my life,” Hayward said. “I learned about things that other people had to face, and I had no clue about it. I had a real sense of guilt and anger about the unfairness about it at first, and that motivated me even more that things have to change.”
Though he may have felt like an outsider in the beginning, Hayward said his fraternity brothers have been less likely to judge him than anyone. In fact, that early discomfort allowed him to better understand how racial minorities feel every day.
“My having to prove myself is frankly not a problem to me, because people of all different ethnic and religious minorities in the United States have to prove themselves on a daily basis,” Hayward said. “As a white male in the United States, I have a lot of benefits over other people. My fraternity brothers and a lot of my friends don’t benefit from that.”
While some have been compelled to join organizations of other ethnicities as a way to encourage social unity, others have simply found their niche in a different cultural context.
Shirli Tay, a senior of Malaysian descent, joined the traditionally black sorority Sigma Psi Zeta last year after declining an invitation to an Asian sorority. While the sorority’s administrators were a bit surprised to see her at first, Tay said she felt more comfortable with them than any other organization.
“They were just so friendly, and I just felt really comfortable with them,” Tay said. “It was really the only sorority I ever considered joining.”
Since becoming a member, Tay said her sisters have gotten her hooked on step dancing and soul food, while she has introduced them to Malaysian curry and rice. It’s the kind of cultural exchange that she says the Greek-letter community could use more of.
“I would just really encourage people to be more open to other minorities in sororities and Greek life,” Tay said. “A lot of sororities are very segregated. They don’t interact that much.”
Indeed, it’s a sentiment expressed by many of the students who have crossed over ethnic boundaries. As much as they’ve gotten out of the experience for themselves, they don’t want it to be considered extraordinary, and they wish others would try the same.
“I just wish it was normal,” Kendrick said. “I wish more people (who) understood the issues we work with were more comfortable getting involved. I wish it didn’t have to be different.”