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Yale speaker says comment about killing White people was meant to spark deeper talk about race

Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University in 2019. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)
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A psychiatrist who told a Yale School of Medicine audience that she fantasized about killing White people defended her April comments this week and called them hyperbole that underlies a frustration about minority mental health and a desire to have more serious conversations about race.

Aruna Khilanani’s April 6 live stream “Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind” was billed as a way to contextualize the “Karen” and “right to not wear masks” videos circulating on the Internet.

Khilanani told her audience about her own rage and that she “had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any White person that got in my way, burying their body and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step.”

She bemoaned the emotional labor that many racial minorities in the United States say they must perform when talking to White people about race, and she declared that talking to White people about the topic was “useless.”

After the talk made headlines, commenters called her statements racist and “evil” while some declared her speech to be important. The controversy comes amid debates about critical race theory and free speech, while some call for an increase in the number of non-White mental health professionals in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

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The Yale School of Medicine said Khilanani’s lecture would not be made available to the general public after medical school leaders found “the tone and content antithetical to the values of the school.”

“In deciding whether to post the video, we weighed our grave concern about the extreme hostility, imagery of violence, and profanity expressed by the speaker against our commitment to freedom of expression,” the medical school said, noting that it would allow access only to those who could’ve attended the talk when it took place.

Khilanani told The Washington Post that the murderous fantasy she shared in April was a “metaphor to evoke emotion.”

“My style of language is different and expressive, with fluidity between conscious and unconscious, time, and uses Masala (exaggeration) for punch and comedy,” she said in an email. “It’s why we love Richard Pryor, telenovela forms and rap. I believe it makes this conversation more relatable across generations.”

She said her statements weren’t for shock value, which she called “pointless,” but for a deeper engagement about race.

Khilanani said her comment about talking to White people about race was about feeling that way and not acting on it.

“If I really believed talking to White people was futile, I wouldn’t devote my time to writing a series about race and healing our country — starting with the conscious mind of White people,” she said. “I am doing it because I care.”

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Khilanani’s talk was part of a weekly forum in which faculty members, staffers and others affiliated with the university gather to learn and discuss mental health. Her words spread when former New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss posted an audio recording of the lecture on Substack, a platform where journalists publish their work.

Sebastian Gorka, an adviser during the Trump administration, tweeted that Khilanani was the “definition of a psycho.” Rod Dreher, senior editor for the American Conservative, wrote a story that called her an “anti-White racist psychiatrist” and tweeted that she was an “appalling example of woke totalitarian capture of elite U.S. institutions.”

In TikTok videos about how she was surprised by the medical school’s action, Khilanani depicted the response as textbook White aggression.

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Her comments and the negative feedback she’s received are more revealing about white supremacist thoughts than about Khilanani’s view on racism, said Nikki Coleman, a psychologist and consultant on diversity, equity and inclusion.

The anger is more directed at a woman of color talking about her vivid rage than a woman of color talking about the years in which she went to therapy, which should be one of the safest spaces for a person, Coleman said, only to have her truth and experiences doubted.

“We would call that abuse,” Coleman said. “In a heterosexual relationship where a man gaslit and denied the reality of the woman, we would tell her it’s emotional abuse.”

Studies have shown that most psychology professionals in the United States are White even though the field as a whole is slowly becoming more racially diverse.

Most institutions require at least one class on multiculturalism, experts told The Post, and many states require continued learning about multiculturalism once people have obtained practice licenses.

The imagery Khilanani evoked was also aligned with the psychoanalysis school of thought, Coleman explained, which is rooted in Freudian doctrine and exploration of the conscious and unconscious mind.

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Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor of social and natural science, tweeted that having disturbing fantasies and sharing them in a classroom wasn’t problematic because they could be a strong topic for discussion.

“People’s actions are more important than their thoughts or words,” he said. “Rather, it is the other arguments this speaker makes, and their pejorative generalizations about people based on their race, that are worrisome and often unfounded. It’s her line of argument, leaving aside her sharing of her fantasies, that is problematic and racist.”

The meaning of Khilanani’s words appeared to miss the intended target for her audience, prompting Nancy J. Brown, the dean of the Yale School of Medicine, to issue a statement Tuesday.

“Why was a speaker without an academic affiliation invited to give Grand Rounds and did the inviters understand the nature of the talk? Once the speaker sent the title of her talk and the learning objectives, why was the talk not cancelled?” she wrote. “Why did no one intervene when the speaker began to use images of violence against a specific racial group?”

Khilanani “crossed the line when she spoke about imagining violence against others,” Brown said, condemning racism and emphasizing the school’s value on human life.

While the school contends with the blowback from the lecture, Patrick R. Grzanka, a University of Tennessee at Knoxville associate professor of psychology who studies racism, says the negative responses to Khilanani’s words highlight the White lens that filters who is allowed to have free speech and who is afforded an explanation for their words or actions.

“Whose speech do we view as dangerous?” said Grzanka, who is White. “I think it’s pretty clear and excessively evident that when [people of color] articulate anger in the public that is one of the fastest way to activate White outrage machine.”

Some violence by White people, he said, had been rationalized or given idiosyncratic leeway in a distorted framing of real violence versus the threat of it from a person of color.

Coleman said the school should be asking itself questions about why the speech made everyone uncomfortable and how to deal with that discomfort, and examining its policing about who should be silenced.

“That’s the real work of equity, inclusion and anti-racism,” she said. “It’s very easy to read Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibrahim Kindi [instead of] saying ‘I may have been messing up a lot.’ ”

Sharon Elise, a sociology professor at California State University at San Marcos, said that Khilanani’s lecture was not “constructive” and that her comments ignore the international and cross-racial unity that occurred after Floyd’s May 2020 murder.

“They’re provocative. But what are you provoking?” she said. “I just don’t feel that’s how most of us feel. … Engaging with each other about race has to happen for it to change.”

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