Hole in Barrows Wall Speaks to Cultural Differences within Communal Spaces

I live in Barrows Hall. It may not be the most luxurious, modern, or beautiful dorm, but it is still the place I’ve called home for about six months, and I’ve come to enjoy it. A week ago, someone punched a hole in the kitchen wall. Ironically, this isn’t the first time someone has punched a hole in the kitchen wall during my time in Barrows. This time, though, because it was the second incident and there was no clear culprit, all Barrows residents received an email that if the perpetrator did not step forward, we would all have to pay a small fee to repair it. This incident made me think more about dorm etiquette, specifically what it means to share living necessities like bathrooms and kitchens with a large group of people.

Barrows is a first-year residence hall. The students who live there are notorious for partying hard and making mistakes typical for one’s first year of college. Sometimes, the living situation can feel untenable. After several particularly party-heavy weekends, every single one of the toilets in the bathroom on my side of the floor were filled with vomit. The showers and sinks have also been known to be regularly clogged with vomit, dirt, and cigarette ash.

For many students, college is their first experience living away from home, without any specific and intense rules. It’s up to the students to maintain their living spaces, which creates a unique social dynamic. More than 100 students, most of whom are unfamiliar with one another, must now share everyday necessities like bathrooms, kitchens, and hallways. We must have respect for each other without even really knowing one another. I’ll admit it can be strange sometimes, but I think for many students, including myself, maintaining respect for shared spaces has not been a difficult task.

Initially, I chalked this disparity in ways that students treat communal spaces up to unique parenting tactics that differ between students. Upon thinking about it more, I think there may be other factors at play.

Cultural difference is an important factor to consider. Communal living, respect, and generosity are valued highly in some cultures, whereas in others, individualism and self-preservation are paramount. As an Indian person, I’ve been taught from a very young age that selflessness is one of the most important qualities to have. Indian people share a lot — food, sleeping space, living space — in order to feel close to one another and because the average home in India is much smaller than in other countries. 

Sharing and respecting communal space has never been a challenge for me. My family and culture’s stress on the importance of generosity was impressed upon me from a young age. I assume that there are many other cultures that also stress the importance of sharing, communal living, and generosity.

Without delving too far into identity politics, it’s important to note that greed and selfishness have been historically inherent to whiteness. In fact, the American Dream is built on the foundational principles of following one’s desires — usually implying a disregard for others. As a half-white person, not only do I understand Indian core values, but I understand white American core values as well — generosity and selflessness are never high on the list.

Additionally, many white American Oberlin students — and non-white American Oberlin students — come from wealthy backgrounds. In an American context, this typically means a large house, fewer family members, and separate bedrooms. As someone who comes from an upper middle-class household and has also had the unique privilege of visiting my country and integrating it into my culture, I’ve seen both the large, spacious, self-kept lives that many white Americans live as well as the close-quartered, family-oriented lives that many Indians live.

I think it’s important that white students in a predominantly white space remain conscious of their privilege. White people have been historically elevated in this country, which translates to contemporary contexts — America still operates to uphold whiteness, white supremacy, and white desires. White people have to think a lot less than non-white people about the space they take up, the way they treat space, and what space “belongs” to them.

Besides the potential causes of this disparity in the ways that students treat communal spaces, it’s important to consider the implications of disrespecting these spaces. Much of the work that goes into dorm upkeep falls on the custodial and maintenance staff. When people vomit on the carpets, the custodial staff has to come and clean. When people clog the toilets, break the microwaves, or punch holes in the walls, maintenance staff work hard to fix it. The argument could be made that custodial and maintenance staff are employed to clean and fix the dorms. Still, if we as students can make their job less gross, irritating, or tedious, shouldn’t we try?

Ultimately, people treat spaces differently for many reasons. The way they were raised can influence how they operate in the world, and their own cultural and racial identities can shape their actions. Still, it’s important to understand that people can change. Consciously thinking about ways to treat communal living spaces with respect can go a long way in making people feel safe and comfortable in their homes and making the jobs of custodial and maintenance workers a bit easier. We are all influenced by our experiences and backgrounds, but at some point, we need to grow up and realize it’s time to start acting like adults.