Controversy at Yale

10 Nov

I graduated from Yale in 2010.  There’s a fairly sized controversy going on at Yale right now, and I wanted to write down some thoughts and link to some articles about it.  Regular math post coming later this week.

I. News and background.  Gawker has a notably good and unbiased summary of what’s been going on over the past two weeks.  The New York Times has more details, but is more editorial (word choice matters; here’s an article unrelated to this topic that really says why).  If you don’t feel like clicking, the short story is that a committee of Yale people from all over the school (athletics, LGBT coop, various cultural organizations, various religious organizations) sent out a pre-Halloween email suggesting that students be considerate of others when choosing their costumes.  Quick excerpt:

Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

 The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
In response to this, an associate master (wife of the sort of head of student life) of one of the residential colleges (super-dorms) sent out an email to all the students of that college.  Another quick excerpt from that one, though I’d like it if you’d read both of these emails in full (they aren’t that long).
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
Also (though I won’t discuss this here), an undergraduate was turned away from a frat party where the brothers said “white girls only.”  It’s funny how the story sounds completely different with the same quotes: Daily Beast doubts it and wants a 19 year old to remember exactly what happened when she was a drunk 18 year old, USA TODAY gives the headline to SAE denies claims… instead of giving active voice to the accusers (another instance of grammar mattering), and WaPo gives the headline to the accusing students (also significantly more in-depth article than the other two).
And of course people are in a huge tizzy about this.  You can read articles for hours representing “both sides” of the issue, which is either “safe spaces vs. freedom of speech” or “systemic oppression.”
II. My personal intellectual thoughts- the gist of this is that people are very upset about two separate issues.  So I’ll just try to articulate those two issues.
First, a September article from the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” really primed the stage for one issue- the idea that creating overly safe, even unrealistically sheltered, spaces for discourse on college campuses in fact ruins the chance for an open discourse because it stifles what people can or can’t say.  An example of a reasonable-sounding article on this side is from Katy Waldman at Slate, who also graduated from Yale in 2010.  Here’s the last op-edy paragraph of her mostly news article:
But horrified emotional responses aside, it’s troubling to see the Christakises scapegoated for defending the crucial liberal tradition of free speech. That’s not to dismiss the pain of students of color; I’m sure Yale proves far less hospitable to them than to the wealthy white scions it was founded to serve. Nor should anyone mourn the days of good old college fun, when wearing a racist Halloween costume was considered a harmless bit of white wing-spreading. But in censuring the Christakises for wanting to create “an intellectual space,” students are vociferously exercising the very rights—to speak out against people and practices they find objectionable—that the Christakises seem to want to protect.
But no one asserted that students should not be questioned about offensive costumes––only that fellow Yale students, not meddling administrators, should do the questioning, conduct the conversations, and shape the norms for themselves.
So in both the Slate and Atlantic pieces, the authors are defending the right of intellectual discussion and the right of Christakis to send an email with her thoughts on meddlesome administrators.  They think that a safe intellectual space is one where students can speak freely to each other and engage in meaningful dialogue, rather than one where all controversial words have been edited out.
 A further branch of issue 1 is the infantilization of Yale students (the meddlesome administrators, the coddlers).  So there have also been a few articles suggesting that Yale students need to learn to be adults to figure out issues amongst themselves, which is in line with Christakis’s email.  Not gonna lie, these articles are really long and I only skimmed.  Also they come from the same publication, and I’m clearly trying to post a diversity of articles.
My thought on issue 1 (not the further branch): sure, it’s an issue.  But it’s not the issue at hand, as much as it may appear to be.  People talking about this issue are talking about something entirely different from the people they’re supposedly reacting to.  Also, snarky facebook post sums up my feelings on issue 1.
The second issue is related to the first, but requires more context than I’ve given so far.  This rather powerful piece on medium written by a Yale senior gives a good feeling (if not specific examples) of this second issue-systemic and chronic racism.  Excerpt:
The reality is that students at Yale have been speaking up about serious racial issues on campus for many, many years — long before Erika Christakis even set foot here. But chronic racism isn’t newsworthy. It quietly whittles away at the hearts and minds of people who feel like they’re not being heard.
This second issue is what protesters are actually protesting about, rather than just the email (so more along the lines of the party).  If you read the email above by itself, great.  Now read the annotated version of it, by a Yale alumna of color.  Regardless of if you agree with her reading or not, you can, I’m sure, believe that she and others do in fact read the email in that manner.
There’s been a fair amount of back and forth between the people talking about the two issues.  In response to issue 1 saying that students should self-regulate, an article about whose burden education is (not the non-white people).  Excerpt:
And while there are many students of color willing to actively engage with their white peers on issues of race, there are many for whom this is little more than unpaid and emotionally taxing labor. Ethnic and racial minorities have every reason to believe that white peers will be hostile to the idea that they’re behaving in racist ways.
III. So Yen, where do you stand?
If you’ve been keeping up with my blog the previous excerpt might sound familiar to you- I’ve said before that it’s not my job as a woman to represent all women and help men figure out how to deal with women.  I’m going to use an anecdote to let you know where I stand.
On Nextdoor a neighbor was upset that two separate women he had passed had not said hello back to him, and he thought they were being rude.  Several people agreed that the neighborhood is going down the tubes (ha!).  A woman responded with a thoughtful and long post about what it’s like being a woman walking down streets- a lifetime of catcalls, propositions, harassment, and the occasional kind hello.  Suppose these passerby women had, like me, just moved to these suburbs from a major city and constant harassment.  We are taught (by experience) to not engage men who try to engage us on the street.  [Fun fact I have been mugged with a knife!]  This is obviously different in my sleepy suburban neighborhood, where the offended man lives.  Anyways, the point is that we engaged in some useful dialogue and most people were understanding of different cultures once they listened/asked questioned/mostly listened.  And also, that a woman chose to compose a long post to explain this to someone.  And also, this comment thread ended up being 46 comments long and, being in Texas, guns showed up.  And it was long and difficult and people got really pissed, but the end result was good.
Here’s where I stand: depending on if you’re an issue 1 or issue 2 person, you’ll read my previous anecdote differently.  But hopefully you’ll agree that at least one person changed his mind on something.  Yes, there’s a lot of crazy going on.  But this is how change happens (hasn’t everyone at Yale taken an amazing history class?)- through discourse and dialogue and, yes, conflict.  And yes, people will disagree on the method of discourse/protest, and spend a long time dissecting the “right” way to engage instead of actually engaging.  But change is happening at Yale, and it’s thanks to these protests and discussions and crazy articles.
Sigh.  I realize that the previous paragraph does not actually tell you where I stand.  Bill Clinton was our amazing commencement speaker for graduation, and I still remember him saying this:

The only place where we’re bigoted now is we only want to be around people who agree with us. You think about it. And in our media habits, we go to the television stuff, we go to the radio talk shows, we go to the blog sites that agree with us. And it can have very bizarre consequences. Hawaii, the State where President Obama was born, has done everything they can to debunk this myth that he wasn’t born in America. They’ve done everything but blow up his birth certificate, put it in neon lights and hang it on the dome of the Capital. But 45% of registered Republicans still believe that he is serving unconstitutionally. Why? Because they’ve been told that by the only place they go to get information.

I force myself to listen to people who disagree with me, and to try to get into a fact-based mode. So I will say again, I think that this is an enormous opportunity for you, but you have to understand just about anything you think is wrong with the world can be categorized as a result of too much inequality, too much instability, or too much unsustainability.

So the mission of every citizen, not just in the United States, but every empowered person in the world in this time has to be to build up the positive and reduce those negative forces of our interdependence. Whenever anybody asks me, what’s your position on x, y or z, I have this little filter that automatically runs the question through and I ask myself will it build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence? If it will, I’m for it. If it won’t, I’m against it. And I think it’s really important to think about that.

I try to seek out opinions different from my own, and I want to understand where others come from.  That’s why I have so much written up there for issue 1, and almost none written for issue 2.  My thought: this email/party situation is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, and people are focused on the straw instead of the camel.

IV. Related topics/keywords: There is so much to unpack here and y’all, I’ve got to get back to math!  But if you’re interested, think about what is cultural appropriation vs. appreciation (Macklemore? Dressing up as Tiana?  Dressing up as Tiana with blackface?), intersectionality of gender and race issues, the whole Calhoun college thing and while you’re at it calling people at Yale “Master”.
V. Personal Yale anecdotes
My first week at Yale, our freshman counselors (some seniors in the college) threw us a welcome party with the theme “Linen and Seersucker.”  You were supposed to wear your linen or seersucker clothes.  I did not know those were clothes terms at the time.  It was uncomfortable.
Before that student-run party was the official Freshman Dinner at our college.  We dressed up, met the Master at his house, and walked through the courtyard to the dining hall.  I should mention that our architecture is Georgian and people have remarked that it looks like a Southern plantation.  [Our rival college with identical architecture was once called the Pierson Slaves.] Once in the dining hall, we sat and were served by the dining staff, who were all black.  Let me underline this for you: we were dressed in our finest, walked from the master’s house to the dining hall in a beautiful plantation-looking building, and then were served by a bunch of black people.  Yeah, it was uncomfortable.
My anecdotes are crappy (I did leave Yale for an entire year and have a remarkably poor memory), so I suggest you go look for more if you are interested.  In fact, I’ll leave you with thoughts from people on the inside, op-eds from the Yale Daily News written by people who obviously love Yale:
(Oh and a facebook post from the Yale Herald, diversity of publications yo!)

7 Responses to “Controversy at Yale”

  1. Edward November 10, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    This is a great post. I wrote something similar to my SY list, although much shorter and much less eloquently.

  2. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen November 10, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    You referenced a facebook post that said, essentially, if you haven’t gone to jail your free speech rights haven’t been violated. And while I think in this case (people being made to feel guilty because they were assholes) free speech isn’t in much danger, I can’t agree with that as a general principle.

    There was a time in the United States, well within living memory, when many Americans lost their jobs or their status because they refused to sign loyalty oaths. Those who continued to speak their minds were attacked by organized mobs; those who didn’t join in the attack were often attacked themselves as suspected fellow-travelers, to the extent that even speaking up for free speech could get you on the blacklist. The result was 10-15 years of the most repressed, conformist, and dangerously conservative society the country has known since the Civil War.

    So I don’t want to sign my name onto the idea that free speech is safe as long as no one goes to jail. The real distinction between McCarthyism and modern anti-hate-speech or anti-appropriation movements is one of power. McCarthyism was defending the existing power structure, and so once it became socially acceptable to enforce that power in that way there was nowhere to hide and no real possibility of speaking out against it in the mainstream. What’s happened at Yale (and we saw something very similar at Tufts) is precisely the opposite: challenging the power structure. And as we can see from all the articles you quoted and linked, the powerful people have lots of other outlets. Challenging them publicly limits their actual free speech about as much as blowing on a statue makes it more likely to fall down.

    • yenergy November 10, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

      Ha about the statue! Thanks for this eloquent and thorough comment, Anschel. To say “free speech” without referencing power structures is definitely quite limited.

      I meant to say this in my post, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it: to actually enact societal change, hyperbolic language and extremes are almost necessary evils. For instance, I felt real crappy about the breastfeeding thing, and I’m sure lots of people do, but I think my crappy feeling was a byproduct of an ultimate good-a tidal wave of acceptance and even encouragement of breastfeeding vs. the previous chilly climate (my MIL breastfed in the face of so many people asking her why she didn’t want the best for her kid, formula) [Not literally in their faces but that would be hilarious].

      So I believe in this back and forth, in this facebook post which thinks about now and ignores the past, and your comment which reminds us all of history and the dangers of ignoring the past. This is great!


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