Yes, these students — my students — are making demands. But not because they’re pampered or looking for shelter from opposing points of view. It’s because the Yale they’ve found isn’t the Yale they were looking for.
In the 21st century, Yale admits students from all over the world and from ethnic, racial and socioeconomic communities that have had scant representation on its campus for most of the university’s 314 years. This shift is similar to the one that took place in 1969, when Yale first admitted women and began broadening the admission of students of color. Today’s incredibly diverse student body makes me proud to be part of the Yale community. The makeup of our faculty, though, has not kept pace with the student body. In the events on campus this week, students sent a clear message to the administration: Another Yale is possible.
By now you know how we’ve arrived at our current crossroads. A campus committee sent a university-wide e-mail asking, not telling, students to consider others before donning potentially offensive Halloween costumes. In response, Erika Christakis, one of the college masters — Yale’s version of a faculty dorm adviser — sent her own e-mail challenging the idea that it’s anyone’s business to “control the forms of costumes” students might opt for.
On Monday, rather than letting the controversy devolve into a zero-sum grudge match between black and white, over 1,000 students and faculty from all campus communities came together in a “march of resilience” to hear upbeat speeches and musical performances that eventually segued into an impromptu dance party. In my nine years as a Yale professor, this “teachable moment” was one of my proudest, because our students, not we professors, were the ones doing the teaching.
Our students’ aim isn’t to suppress the free expression of their classmates, but to press the university that recruited them, and that they chose, to provide an academic environment where they’re afforded respect. When young students of all backgrounds join a community where they’ll compete academically with the brightest minds in the most intellectually and culturally rich environment possible, some of them wind up finding a campus that sends mixed messages about race despite its stated commitment to diversity, inclusion and, yes, providing a safe space.
For example, our campus is also in the middle of a debate about a reported racial incident at a recent frat party, where a member is alleged to have said, “We’re only looking for white girls.” To minority students, that reflects a systemic feature of Greek life at Yale, in which students of color are discouraged by their peers from rushing particular sororities and fraternities with reputations for racial preferences.
A month ago, on Yale’s anniversary, student activists displayed a poster with statistics and graphs detailing the school’s diversity gaps, which read: “A 1% increase in black faculty per century! The students are waiting. Your move, Yale.” (Last week, Yale’s administration finally did announce its multimillion-dollar initiative to diversify its faculty.)
Though I’m a Muslim, in 2009, I opposed the decision by the Yale University Press to censor the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — I was offended, but did not believe the cartoons should be suppressed. At the same time, I was disappointed when a colleague chose to honor the cartoonist, who had depicted the prophet as a terrorist, with a special invitation to our campus, casting aside regard for how such an invitation might marginalize Muslim students who felt deeply betrayed.
Then, just as now, the right-to-offend crowd showed that it can be tone-deaf when it comes to understanding the point that the unquestioned freedom to mock the powerful is qualitatively different than the freedom to, effectively, bully the most vulnerable members of our community.
Enter the college masters of Silliman residential college, who, you’ve been told, have been attacked by a mob of students who can’t seem to understand that blackface and other forms of provocative racial caricature as Halloween costumes are merely “transgressive” forms of free speech, and that if they find such garb offensive, their solution should be to simply “look away, or tell them you are offended.”
In the garish viral version of this debate, our campus has been polarized into the “good” intellectual side that believes in free speech and nurturing personal fortitude, versus the “bad” identity politics side populated by “little Robespierres,” quasi-intellectuals who want their hurt feelings indulged and campus scrubbed of triggers and micro-aggressions. It casts our students as whimpering, fragile minority activists, based on a stray quote from an op-ed taken out of context or a few seconds of viral video footage of a black student shouting at a calm, white professor. That last one, in particular, appeals to many because it fits so easily into two preexisting stereotypes that fuse together: the angry black woman and the entitled millennial.
Yes, a student wrote about wanting a space, outside of class, not to argue, but “to talk about my pain.” (After the reaction off-campus to the piece, the student requested that the Yale Herald unpublish it.) And yes, the widely-viewed video in which a student curses at Nicholas Christakis, one of the Silliman masters and an esteemed sociologist, is difficult to watch. But the antipathy directed toward our students from afar has been disturbing — it’s been less widely reported that the woman in the video has received a death threat. The tone has obscured both the specific set of circumstances involved and what the discussion at Yale right now is about.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf went out of his way not only to disagree with the students but to portray them as crying wolf. Central to his critique was a description of the amenities of the dorm in which they live: “safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?”
The implication there, of course, is that living in such environs must mean students couldn’t possibly have cause for complaint. But frustrations over race issues at Yale extend far beyond hurt feelings and stretch back over years. Students realize that it’s an enormous privilege to be at a world-class university, but they also know that a dorm with two Steinways is worthless if you don’t feel welcome there. They want to be treated as full members of our community at Yale — and not tenants who should be happy to have access to a few hammocks. Tuesday night, students discovered more signs with racist messages in a campus courtyard. How safe can you feel when threatening messages are left on the lawn outside of your bedroom window?
These students aren’t oversensitive; they’re “sensitive to that which is not over.”
To acknowledge that does not undermine the basic point expressed by Erika Christakis, that sometimes being provocative has its place. But what was missing from the analysis in her e-mail was any understanding of the history and politics of blackface minstrelsy. It’s not the same as the example she used of “a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.” And one college student asking another not to wear a sombrero or feathered headdress, as Christakis also suggested, isn’t exactly a straightforward conversation: So, we haven’t met, but I’m in your econ class. Would you mind not making a complete mockery out of my heritage?
It’s possible — necessary — that we figure out a way as university communities to avoid censorship and at the same time acknowledge that there is such a thing in college as collegiality. Led by students, Yale has already seen a model of how to build community and transcend political differences over divisive issues. Last fall, swastikas scrawled in chalk were discovered in a courtyard that connects several dorms. The university administration responded swiftly, with a moving e-mail from Dean Jonathan Holloway: “There is no room for hate in this house.” And in a display of solidarity, two pro-Palestinian student activists who have differed with some Jewish students on contentious questions related to the movement to boycott Israel, led an effort to erase the swastikas and cover them over with chalk messages of love.
That is the spirit of a recent faculty letter in support of our minority students acknowledging that “calls for diversity do not themselves resolve the experience of racism.” I signed it, and I am heartened, but not surprised, that Nicholas and Erika Christakis did, too.
Like them, I believe the edge of learning must sometimes be an uncomfortable place. I do not coddle my students in class. I do not teach around an inexhaustible list of trigger warnings. And my students and I understand the paramount importance of free speech.
But we shouldn’t demand that our students coddle professors or administrators. They are voicing an uncomfortable truth: Despite its vast resources, Yale is stunted on the issue of race. They are asking us to grow. As sophomore Ivetty Estepan told the crowd Monday, “Healthy communities don’t just happen, they are made. We are showing Yale University how to make that community today.”