THORNTON: Acceptance doesn’t fall into the roommate assignment algorithm, but prejudice can fall through it

Fully university-matched first-year housing puts the safety and comfort of marginalized students at risk in the name of diversity.

Miquéla Thornton, Opinion Editor

Editor’s Note: This piece will contain references to racism and racial slurs

Coming to Vandy my freshman year, I wanted a Black roommate– or rather, I didn’t want to run the danger of being assigned a racist roommate. As I posted all of my #Anchordown pictures to Instagram, and added #Vandy22 to my social media bios (with the anchor emoji of course), I couldn’t ignore the countless stories on my feeds of students detailing the racism that came along with their random, university-handpicked roommate. Twitter reminded me of the 2017 incident at Hartford University, in which a white student rubbed bloody tampons on her Black roommate’s belongings, thus contaminating her living space. Of course, this one incident wasn’t the only story of roommate aggression that resurfaced as I packed my bags to head off to college. Among many others, the most jarring I saw was in the form of a short text-message, sent to a Black student at Georgia Southern by her roommate as they were getting to know each other. It read “Her insta looks pretty normal not too ni—–ish.” Allegedly, the text message was intended for their third future roommate, according to the post that was trending on Twitter. Quickly, the roommate responded, blaming autocorrect, for obviously, she meant to use the word triggerish

As the post went viral, the Black Vandy 2022 Groupme buzzed as roommate-less rising first-years scrambled to find roommates that looked like them. After seeing the post, I turned my social media notifications off for the day, attempting to clear my head as I went dorm shopping, looking to furnish my room teal, white and gray: the colors my self-selected roommate and I had our hearts set on. Not only did my first-year roommate and I agree on dorm colors, but we also went to the same high school, had the same taste in music and attended each other’s trunk parties. We both showed up on the first day with braids, her’s cornrowed and mine boxed– in other words, we shared a cultural experience. And Vanderbilt has no right to rob minority students of roommates that they have almost everything in common with, including race and culture. 

Last October, Vanderbilt introduced a new policy for the class of 2024: a fully university-matched system for first-year housing, thus removing the option for student requests. In previous years, if students opted for random roommate selection, they would fill out a survey detailing their preferred noise level, sleep schedule, study habits, etc. Other students who requested their roommates would find students with mutual interests via class Facebook groups/Groupme’s, Tinder-like roommate pairing sites, or like me, room with an acquaintance or friend they already knew. Over the past five years, an average of 54 percent of rising first-years chose their roommates. 

This coming school year, that number will fall to zero in the name of diversity. According to a Hustler article published in Oct. 2019, the new change is intended to align the residential experiences with Vanderbilt’s goal of fostering an inclusive campus community. The article also notes that “university-matched first-year roommate pairings don’t request roommate changes at a higher rate than student-selected roommate pairings,” thus indicating roommate satisfaction under the university system. However, what Vandy’s administration fails to account for is the fact that of the 54 percent that choose their roommates, there are Black students like me, who would rather not code-switch from AAVE with the person they have to live with. Many are Black students like me who would rather not be the first Black person their roommate has ever held a conversation with– nevertheless seen in real life. Many are Latinx, Asian and international students who cross their fingers their roommate isn’t xenophobic. Many are Muslim students who proudly don hijabs and members of other religious minorities. They shouldn’t have to fear that their roommate-to-be is religiously prejudiced. Many are LGBTQIA and non-binary students who shouldn’t potentially be their roommate’s lesson in tolerance 101. And while Vandy hopes to admit accepting and welcoming students of all backgrounds and identities, we need to face it: not every student is as accepting as Generation Z as a whole is. 

Although the aforementioned incidents are rare, minority students should be able to pick roommates who they can fully be themselves around starting move-in day, rather than be the token minority, prepared to educate and answer any and all questions their new roommate has about their culture and identity. However, I expect to be asked those questions in relevant class settings. I expect my hallmates to confuse me with the other Black girls on my floor (as many did my first year), and I expect them to stare as I braid down my afro in the bathroom (they did that too). However, what I don’t expect is to deal with the same uneasiness in my own room.

Roommate etiquette is taking turns to take out the trash, putting a sock on the doorknob and not blasting music at 2AM on a Wednesday. Code-switching and tolerance education shouldn’t have to fall in that category.

The benefits of randomized selection are substantial. It allows students to meet new people they might have not met otherwise, and branch out from the ideas, politics and cultures they’ve been around their whole lives. Despite the benefits, Vanderbilt owes it to its incoming minority first-years to reinstate the former roommate selection system. Changing it, only makes it easier for a Hartford or a Georgia Southern-level incident to happen here. To a smaller scale, it could make minority students become self-conscious of their skin, race, religion, gender and sexuality in the one place they shouldn’t have to be. 

There’s already enough anxiety that comes with leaving for college, and that level of anxiety is significantly larger for minority and LGBTQIA students. Roommate selection adds to that stress, and the Vanderbilt administration should do everything in their power to ameliorate it.