Where the Yale Halloween Email Came From

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One interesting bit of context to the kerfuffle at Yale:

I was a student at Northwestern University from 2009 to 2013. During that time, a small number of students on campus did some pretty racist stuff. In 2009, two graduate students wore blackface to a Halloween party; a few years later, more than a dozen kids dressed up in varying types of redface and blackface for an outdoor “Beer Olympics” party. Both incidents produced student anger and campus discussions.

Incidents like these exist on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, they are offensive to many students, a betrayal of the idea of college as a respectful and enlightened place. On the other, they are very bad PR. So to head off both negatives, university administration began emailing students a week before Halloween, reminding kids not to dress in blackface or do something to mock other people’s race or religion. It included this set of questions:

• Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?

• Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?

• Wearing a ‘cultural' costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or sterotypes?

• Could someone take offense with your costume and why?

These emails felt unfortunate but necessary. Gawker wrote them up, but even the feeling among students was something like: Better an ounce of prevention-related headlines than, you know, a pound of the other type.

The emails became a part of the campus calendar. A week before Halloween? The please-don’t-be-racist email was going to go out. And usually they were signed by our old dean of students, Burgwell Howard.

Howard moved to Yale this fall. Students there received a similar email this October—and the email looked much the same to the one we got in 2010.

Emails like these aren’t uncommon. As Vox’s Libby Nelson wrote Monday: “Such emails are becoming an annual ritual on some campuses. The University of Colorado, the University of Minnesota, and Ohio University all urged their students to wear culturally sensitive costumes in 2013.”

But I do feel like that past plays into the current discussion of what’s happening at Yale. Administrators are proliferating at nearly every campus in the country. Many professors and graduate students resent their reach; they feel that the various vice associate provosts are doing little more than shuffling papers and making busy work for themselves. This is part of the subtext when critics sneer that 13 different administrators signed Yale’s Halloween email.

But the Yale Halloween email emerged from professional experience as much as anything else. I’m no defender of administrators everywhere, but in light of what happened at Northwestern (and countless other schools where blackface has been a problem), the Yale email looks less like administrative overreach and more like historically informed prudence.

Maybe that will let us move on a bit from one particular he-said-she-said incident—as one Yale student, Aaron Z. Lewis, has already asked us to do.