The Vilification of Student Activists at Yale

The attacks on individuals have obscured the historical and contemporary injustices that sparked their protests.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The first time I saw a friend wearing blackface I was a freshman in college. I was stunned. I was hurt. I was enraged. But more than anything, I was confused. He thought it was funny, albeit controversial. But to me it wasn’t a joke; it was pointed mockery. I imagined him laughing and joking as his friends painted his skin. I couldn’t understand why he would so callously and easily disrespect me and those like me, for fun.

Now I have come to expect such acts, and the conversations that surround them, as routine displays of disrespect and cultural cluelessness.

The events at Yale over the past weeks have provoked a great deal of conversation, but little effort to understand or acknowledge the cultural and institutional biases at play. In their responses, many have made the same mistake that my friend did, assuming that individual actions can be divorced from their broader context, or from the larger and more troubling legacy of racial discrimination in America. But they can’t.

When Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent around an email suggesting that students, “Take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have,” it was asking students to be thoughtful about the choices they made, to think before acting, and to ask themselves whether what they saw as a fun or funny joke might make others feel hurt, offended, or even threatened. For students who already feel excluded at Yale, as at similar schools, the email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee likely felt like a small, but likely appreciated acknowledgement that everyone should feel safe and included on campus.

My colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote, “It is remarkable that no fewer than 13 administrators took scarce time to compose, circulate, and co-sign a letter advising adult students on how to dress for Halloween, a cause that misguided campus activists mistake for a social-justice priority.” It is unlikely that these students felt that way at all, or that they think that social-justice is a priority on a campus where the name of John C. Calhoun, a prominent defender of slavery, still holds a position of reverence.

Still, some students saw this note from administrators as a form of censorship. Responding to their concerns, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer and associate master at Silliman College, wrote, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious ... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

In her note, Christakis oscillates between presenting the students of Yale as responsible adults, fully capable of making, and taking responsibility for, their own decisions, and portraying them as young children whose minds need to be expanded through social experimentation and mistake-making, even at the expense of others. She says she is just as unprepared to rule on the appropriateness of a young white child dressing up as a black Disney princess, as a 20-year-old donning blackface. These are false equivalencies.

She goes on to offer advice from her husband, the master of Silliman, suggesting: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.” Christakis and her husband should both know that while that might be a simple enough response theoretically—like parents who tell a child to simply ignore a bully—in practice, coping with cultural offense can be much more fraught, especially for students who feel isolated and unsupported by the larger community. Christakis’s proposed tactic puts the burden of confrontation, education, and maturity on the offended, not the offender, asking them to quell their anger, hurt, or fear in order to have a rational and mind-expanding conversation with those who have hurt them.

Like many elite schools, Yale has a tense racial past and present, one that ensures that admission isn’t necessarily synonymous with full social acceptance. The reports of recent incidents, like swastikas painted on campus, or a frat turning black girls away from a party, are surely only a few examples where some students are implicitly told that they are less welcome than their classmates.

When you think about the email in the context of the minority experience at such schools, it’s not difficult to imagine how students could see such words allowing and even encouraging cultural insensitivity, written by a school representative tasked with building a community in their residential college, as a tacit endorsement to offend at will in the name of intellectual discourse. Such a request can easily empower some students while further marginalizing others.

Is there room to question and criticize Yale’s position on potentially offensive Halloween costumes and all of the subsequent responses? Absolutely. But at most, the disagreement over Halloween costumes was simply the tipping point for students of color. Their protests, remarks, and actions, however controversial they may be, make clear that they have felt unsupported and unwelcome.

Christakis invokes a “let kids be kids” defense when it comes to allowing students to select their own costumes, even when they hurt or offend other students. A similar “boys will be boys” theory has been used in defense of badly behaving fraternity members, whose posters and signs offend and frighten coeds, and their families. Yet when a group of largely minority college students rallied in protest against her letter, and behaved in a manner that some find hurtful and offensive, it seems that the “kids will be kids” defense no longer holds water.

The clashes that have ensued, between students and the administration, students and other students, and among outsiders, have been heated. There have been reports that those who disagreed with Christakis have taken to making personal threats, that there were inappropriate and offensive things said and done during protests, things like spitting and name calling. That is unfortunate and certainly objectionable.

But painting all students—many of whom were ostensibly trying to have the same types of dialogue Christakis encouraged—as irrational, spoiled brats feels unfair, and likely inaccurate. Many have been quick to say that the reactions—including calls for the ouster of Christakis by student activists—were outsized and inappropriate, but few have said that the reaction to the student activists has been equally outsized and inappropriate.

The actions of some of these protestors are regrettable. But focusing on individual instances of bad behavior misses the larger and more important conversation about privilege, race, and acceptance, and how they are dealt with at such storied institutions. That’s the more important conversation.