A Dialogue on Race and Speech at Yale

An undergraduate and staff writer at The Atlantic exchange contrasting perspectives on the protests that roiled the campus last fall.


Last semester, as Yale students engaged in activism about race on campus, The New Journal, a student publication, dedicated a portion of its print run to three essays on being black at the institution: “Skin Like Soil” by Dave Harris, “Look and See” by Taylor Eldridge, and “On Shame and Moving Forward” by Bria Godley.

The final author wrote, "A lot of white people have asked me what they can do to be a good ally to the women of color on this campus and my typical spiel is that they should just talk about race. It seems small, but it is not, because white people can choose to ignore race. They are so afraid of saying something wrong when it comes up that they don’t address it." I've found conversation of that sort useful in the past, so I wrote Godley to see if she'd be interested in talking with me about race, via email. I asked her to kick off the conversation in whatever way she found most useful.

Bria Godley: Thank you for that introduction, and for this opportunity. To start off, I'd like to hear more about what your initial reaction was to news of the student protests last year. When I hear students protesting institutional racism and unfair treatment, my initial reaction would be to sympathize with them. But then again, I am coming from a completely different perspective. Even if my own experience with racism in the Ivy League (at least until recently) has been fairly subtle, I am very attuned to instances of institutional racism because I see it everywhere.

I'm curious as to whether negative media is driving the public to minimize student concerns. Yale students are extraordinarily privileged, but a person can be privileged relative to the rest of the country and still suffer from the same system of oppression.

Conor Friedersdorf: I react to most news stories with sympathy for the people in them. And since my social bubble is disproportionately made up of college grads, campus stories are particularly easy to internalize as "people like folks I know and love are hurting," even if their problems don't approach the level of Ferguson's poor or Syria's refugees or West Virginia's opioid addicts. When I first saw headlines about student protests at the University of Missouri I flagged the story to do deeper reading. Then the football team announced that it wouldn't play unless the head of the university resigned. My gut reaction was, "Wow, I can't recall another big-time Division I sports team putting itself on the line like this. A bunch of athletes must be risking scholarships. Things at Missouri must be really bad."

I try to never write based on gut reaction. As an opinion journalist, the first question I ask myself is, “Do I have anything useful to add to the public discourse around this story?”

At that point, I didn't. I was thinking through the costs and benefits of student athletes asserting themselves. What would it mean, for good and ill, if football players at marquee programs started to wield significant power in the governance of a university? Lots of people had already written eloquently about the awfulness of racial epithets shouted from trucks, cotton balls left on a lawn, and an excrement swastika on a bathroom wall. That last one made me ponder how a campus ought to react to it. On one hand, it's important to denounce racism, to reinforce the social norm that it's abhorrent. On the other hand, an excrement swastika seems like a sign of either a mentally ill person or a troubled provocateur. Are they given too much power if their literal shit becomes the focus of a campus? I didn't feel I had enough insights or clarity to come down on either side of those narrow questions. And the bigger, more important subject––the overall campus climate at Missouri as it relates to race––cried out for deeper reporting.

Fortunately, I think that's been happening. From my perspective, the media hasn't minimized the concerns of students. Opinion journalists have written on all sides of these controversies, sometimes very critically and dismissively, but a tremendous amount of resources and attention is being spent investigating the complaints of college students relative to other people who are asserting that they're being treated in egregiously unjust ways by American institutions. Journalists and people who read journalism are extremely invested in higher education.

Had my introduction to the Yale story been a headline about a protest aimed at institutional racism generally, I'd have started reporting with the hope of identifying specific grievances and figuring out optimal remedies. (Whereas I know almost no one with institutional ties to Missouri, I know lots of people with past and present ties to Yale, so that project wouldn't have required dropping all my other work and traveling across the country.) But my actual introduction to events at Yale was a number of Yalies alerting me to the controversy over the Halloween email.

They know me as a big believer in the importance of maintaining a culture of free speech. Briefly, I believe that when people with differing opinions earnestly engage one another in the crucible of public discourse, everyone benefits, whereas norms that discourage those same sorts of exchanges are harmful to everyone.

I won't rehash my whole article on that controversy. My conclusion was that Erika and Nicholas Christakis were wronged by some students in that particular instance in a way that posed a larger threat to the free exchange of ideas on campus––but that student protestors at Yale most likely had a number of legitimate grievances as a general matter, and that at Yale and elsewhere, the mere fact that so many students feel unwelcome and assert that there are injustices warrant sympathy, open-minded inquiry, and efforts to improve their experience. I agued what I felt sure about and bracketed questions that required deeper reporting.

I've been working on that deeper reporting ever since, at Yale and beyond, hoping to understand student grievances as fully as possible and to help facilitate the public conversations that I regard as vital to figuring out the best way forward. Among other things, I spent a day talking to people at Yale, where I stumbled onto a print version of your essay. Its power is due in part to the evocative way you detail how racism can function as a daily trauma for black students. I know that some Americans still need to be persuaded that racism of that sort still happens and matters.

Without preempting any thoughts you have on my answer, or anything else that you want to discuss, I have a question for you: Among folks who agree that racism persists, that race still matters on campus, and that those facts demand some sort of response, what are the significant disagreements, in your view, whether at Yale or more broadly?

And how do we resolve them?

Godley: I appreciate your viewpoint on Professor Christakis’s email. But surely you do not intend to imply that Christakis’s right to express her opinion is only "free" if there was no adverse reaction? I know that we agree that the free exchange of ideas should include gradations of discourse, ranging from civil to spontaneous and emotional. Christakis’s email sparked a campus-wide conversation on race, culture, and white privilege, but as we know, it wouldn't be a real conversation without the heartfelt and unfiltered responses from everyone else involved.

In saying that students wronged Christakis, you're not saying that Christakis deserves free speech; you're saying that she deserves free speech with impunity, and that does not exist. Rather than posing a threat to free speech, the events following her email were more of an affirmation of an academic community working through difficult issues. Christakis may indeed believe that students wronged her, but we should not forget that she is the one in a position of power. The powerful do not get to tell powerless how to protest them.

In any event, the right to free speech is already written into the Constitution. I worry that in this zeal to reaffirm rights that no one even intended to question, we lose sight of why people are protesting in the first place. The real issues here are the grievances expressed by the student protestors. People of color are tired of the marginalization and the flagrant disrespect we have experienced. Unfortunately, the situation is far more nuanced than the media’s portrayal of the controversy. Many people have yet to understand that Yale students were not simply protesting an email. The email catalyzed a movement that highlighted the disconnect between how Yale presents itself––and the reality of what it is like to be a person of color at Yale.

Christakis’s email reflected a popular opinion in conservative cultures—cultural sensitivity threatens freedom of expression. However, the right of some people to express themselves does not trump the right of people of color to live free of harassment. Not only that, but when a person dons an offensive symbol of another culture, they reduce that culture to a caricature and perpetuate negative stereotypes. If someone dresses up as a “gangsta,” while they might not mean any harm, their costume is based on the stereotype of the black man as dangerous and threatening––a bias so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it enables police officers to execute unarmed black men. This is a critical and often overlooked point: Stereotypes have real consequences in the real world.

Last year I wept with the rest of the student protestors, not because I am a particularly sensitive person, but because I have to worry every time my brother goes out at night that some police officer might make yet another mistake, and assume that the phone in my brother's hand is actually a gun. It's easy for Christakis to tell people of color to "just look away" from costumes they find offensive, as there is no equivalent situation for white people. But that is exactly why we need to emphasize empathy and understanding. White people tend to avoid talking about race, perhaps because they believe these conversations always end up condemning them. But the time has come to push past our discomfort, confront implicit biases, and acknowledge their devastating effects.

Honest discourse will help pave the road to reconciliation.

Friedersdorf: You're right that most student protestors didn't intend to focus on free speech. And while I think safeguarding free-wheeling discourse is hugely important, I also think the core grievances held by students deserve attention in their own right. You put it aptly: "People of color are tired of the marginalization and the flagrant disrespect we have experienced." For myself and my readers, I want to know more about "the disconnect between how Yale presents itself––and the reality of what it is like to be a person of color at Yale." I don't doubt the disconnect.

But I do not yet understand what causes it.

Do you have a theory? Or particular changes that you'd like to see? One grievance I've heard is that many black students feel campus police officers ask them for their student IDs more often than they ask white students to show their Yale credentials. That seems amenable to study and reform. I'm eager to identify other concrete injustices that can be addressed. Legacy admissions preferences strike me as one of the ways that historic discrimination shapes today's institution.

And I nodded in sympathy when you wrote, "Last year I wept with the rest of the student protestors, not because I am a particularly sensitive person, but because I have to worry every time my brother goes out at night that some police officer might make yet another mistake, and assume that the phone in my brother's hand is actually a gun." That context is very useful for outsiders trying to understand students who were reacting to much more than a discrete kerfuffle about an email.

But sympathizing with student protestors and believing that they have legitimate grievances worth hearing and addressing is, I think, compatible with believing that some student activist behavior is wrongheaded, or unjust, or counterproductive, or some students began with legitimate grievances and mapped them onto other issues in an over broad manner. You're absolutely right that a professor writing an email and getting an adverse reaction from critics is totally in keeping with the culture of free speech. Let me clarify my position: I have no problem with students offering spirited, intense criticism of professors. And if Yale ever tried to punish a student for forcefully disagreeing with a professor I'd speak up for the student.

What alarmed me were calls to remove a professor and a lecturer from their positions in residential life (and their campus home) as a consequence of their viewpoints. To me, that demand crossed a bright line separating heated disagreement from intolerance of dissent. Elsewhere at Yale, student activists spat on people as they left a lecture. That struck me as intolerant, too. You wrote, "the powerful do not get to tell the powerless how to protest them." But Yale students are hardly "the powerless." And even assuming that folks attending that lecture were more powerful than the student activists who spat upon them, it's nevertheless legitimate for the lecture attendees to say, "Hey, please don't spit on me! That is morally wrong!" If you return to Yale at age 40 to guest lecture about your high-powered career, wouldn't it be okay for you to object to an undergrad spitting on you or calling you disgusting? I wonder if college altercations like these have less to do with theories of power dynamics than undergrads who can't quite conceive of people twice their age, whether parents or professors, as regular human beings.

Something else I've pondered while reading up on campus controversies and interviewing students is what it means for a white person to treat black college students with respect. A lot of black students felt disrespected by Nicholas and Erika Christakis. I think I understand why. As some students saw it, the pre-Halloween email sent out by Yale administrators was a modest, unobjectionable effort to make Yale's campus a little bit more inclusive for students who too often experience flagrant disrespect. "It's easy for Professor Christakis to tell people of color to 'just look away' from costumes they find offensive," you wrote, "as there is no equivalent situation for White people." And I take your point about the asymmetry.

In fairness, though, that's an incomplete rendering of their counsel. Here's the relevant language (which was aimed at any Yale student who might be offended by any costume, not just black students): "Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other."

To me, that’s compatible with your belief that "honest discourse will help pave the road to reconciliation."

The email's broader thesis was that collegians benefit from shaping their own community norms; that doing so without input from helicopter administrators confers important skills; that acquiring those skills quickly is important for people who'll graduate in four years or less, entering a world of offensive Halloween costumes that Yale deans won't be there to preempt or punish. Is that thesis correct? How will students learn to engage in honest discourse without handholding if not in instances like these? Those strikes me as a much more important questions than whether a white professor finds the thesis "easy" or "painful" to articulate.

If Erika Christakis’s research leads her to believe that black Yale students would be better off under the approach to Halloween that she urged, doesn't she have an obligation to them to say so, even if that upsets or offends some students? To me, right or wrong, the forthrightness of Erika and Nicholas Christakis is far more respectful than disingenuous deference. In drafting her email, I believe she was treating Silliman students as she would've wanted to be treated. Had she held her tongue, I believe that she would've been patronizing black students or selfishly sparing herself controversy. What if the Yale administrators who sent out that Halloween email wanted the best for black students; Erika and Nicholas Christakis as earnestly wanted the best for black students; and they simply disagreed?

In such situations I believe frank dialogue is the best way forward, not only because I value freedom of expression, but because I don't think that any ideological group has perfect knowledge of how colleges can best serve historically marginalized groups. To arrive at the best solutions we need a diversity of participants in frank conversations about race. Do campus activists share that view?

My impression is that some do but others do not. They feel that they know the best way forward already, so they formulate lists with demands rather than calling attention to problems and urging study. Some see those who disagree with their demands as disrespecting them.   You wrote, "White people tend to avoid talking about race, perhaps because they believe these conversations always end up condemning them. But the time has come to push past our discomfort, confront implicit biases, and acknowledge their devastating effects." I agree with all that. But I think that the task before us is much bigger than confronting implicit biases.

When I talk to black students on different campuses, I find tremendous diversity of opinion about the protests roiling colleges and the best way forward. If you and I held a summit and sought advice exclusively from prominent black intellectuals about how best to respond, or what student activists are getting right and wrong, Henry Louis Gates, Melissa Harris Perry, bell hooks, Glenn Loury, Cornell West, John McWhorter, Thomas Sowell, Roxanne Gay, William Darity, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama, Ward Connerly, Jamilah Lemieux, Michael Eric Dyson, Salamishah Tillet, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Janice Rogers Brown, and Randall Kennedy would have enough honest disagreements to span a decade of debates.

I perceive far less diversity of opinion among last semester's campus protestors. And I fear the result will be inadequate solutions of the sort that are inevitable when the conversation shaping them lacks breadth, rigor, and the crucible of debate. I don't blame progressive campus activists for all of this. Indeed, I laud them for caring more than most about addressing racial injustice and lament that they aren't joined in that effort by more of their peers. But I do believe that they do real harm when folks with different views do try to enter the conversation, only to be met with screams of "You're disgusting." To me, that inevitably dissuades other people from speaking up and many valuable contributions are lost as a result.

Godley: I suspect that the disconnect between how Yale presents itself and the reality of racial strife at Yale is partly due to students’ tendency to academically self-segregate. For example, many students graduate from Yale without taking a single African-American Studies or Women’s Gender or Sexuality Studies course. Students are naturally going to avoid these classes if they do not believe that they relate to their interests.

As a result, black students are overrepresented in Af-Am Studies classes. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, I cannot help but roll my eyes when white students defend themselves by saying that they simply “don’t understand” what it is like to be a minority, as if the minority experience is not well documented in current events and in literature. The people of color at Yale can articulate injustices, no matter how nuanced, not only because of their lived experience but also because of the vocabulary and theoretical framework that these classes and the articles they read have given them. But, it seems as if white students tend to shy away from the topic of race because they not only lack the experience, but the educational and theoretical foundation to address it. Although Yale projects this image of a diverse community in which people are smart enough to avoid offending others with their ignorance, due to this self-segregation, many students of color at Yale feel isolated and disrespected by the majority population.

Your strong reactions to calls for the Christakis’s removal are surprising to me. You assign noble intentions to Christakis when she sent her email: Erika and Nicholas Christakis “wanted the best for black students.” But you attribute heinous intentions to the predominantly minority protestors, citing their “intolerance of dissent.” Could you not imagine that the protesters wanted the best for the students of Silliman College, which would include Masters with a perspective that is more in tune with a diverse student body?

You reference Erika Christakis’s research as a rationale for her sending her pre-Halloween email. Her expertise as a child development psychologist and former preschool teacher is a little distant from the Halloween experiences of Yale students of color—as the heated response to her comments indicates. So in keeping her own counsel, I don’t think she would have been either patronizing black students or selfishly sparing herself controversy, as you suggested, nor would she be depriving the world of a particularly insightful perspective. Moreover, I disagree with your interpretation of Christakis’s email.

You assume that the original IAC email implied some sort of disciplinary action for offensive costumes. It was merely a reminder to be respectful of other cultures. A single email cannot be equated to “helicopter parenting.” And to say that “acquiring those skills quickly is important for people who’ll graduate in four years,” suggests that students of color have not already lived at least 18 years in a world that routinely portrays them as stupid, unwelcome, incompetent, and ghetto. We already know what the world thinks of us, and we have learned how to adapt to the situation.

But Yale has portrayed itself as a haven from ignorance, and while I was not particularly surprised by the events of last semester, like many other students, I was disillusioned.

Regarding my brother, I appreciate your sympathy, but the fact is that I would much prefer your empathy. If you were to empathize with me—which is to say, if you were to imagine yourself in my position—you would understand that there is nothing unjust about declaring that you have been hurt. You say that the protesters lack a diversity of opinion, but I question the utility of diversity of opinion when the goal is to present a clear, unified front against an oppressor. Yale students undoubtedly have a diversity of opinions about a broad range of topics, but most of us are opposed to the marginalization of people of color. And your comparison of a group of 20 year-old Yale students to a list of black intellectuals is flattering, if not a little unfair, especially given that that list includes the current president. I would ask that you think about that comparison in terms of respectability politics—you welcome dissent as long as it is calm and measured, but recoil when any sort of emotion emerges. This is where some empathy would be useful.

Still, I understand that you were off-put by video clips of a student calling Christakis “disgusting.” It’s easy to distance yourself and intellectualize this discussion, which certainly exists on an intellectual plane—but what you might not yet understand is that moments like those involved real emotion for that student, and for me as well. That emotion is the source of a word as volatile and provocative as “disgusting.” In that moment, I empathize with her. For an administrator to put their pride and “intellectual position” ahead of the safety and wellbeing of the students they promised to protect is reprehensible. Those in positions of power must understand that their words have a greater consequence than the average American, and with that power, choose their words carefully.

Friedersdorf: One clarification up top: while I do believe that the students who called for the resignation of the Christakises acted intolerantly, I do not doubt their good intentions—they did believe themselves to be acting in the interests of Silliman College students. Most collegians who call for punishing speech do so out of a belief that it would be "for the best."I disagree, but acknowledge their good intentions.

Most are really good people, too. And while I agree that it would be reprehensible for a faculty member to put pride "ahead of the safety and wellbeing of the students they promised to protect," I vehemently reject that characterization here. The email in question did not threaten anyone's safety. Its readers were not in any danger of anything. And, of course, we've disagreed at length about whether the Halloween email enhanced the well being of students or was a detriment to it.

You're right that students of color have already lived 18 years in a world where some people routinely portray people of their background "as stupid, unwelcome, incompetent, and ghetto," and have coped with that racism, often displaying impressive resilience in the face of abhorrent prejudice. I'm saying that most collegians of all colors need to learn a distinct skill set: They need to gain and hone the ability to shape the norms of a community where they're adult members, and to do so without coercion or recourse to sympathetic parents, teachers, or administrators.

I thought your point about academic self-segregation was interesting. I wonder if there would be less racial strife at Yale if more students took the sorts of courses you mentioned. And I'd be curious to know why more students don't take those courses. Perhaps a study on that question is in order. (Yalies, if you're reading, emailed answers are welcome, too.) In the meantime, I wonder if there are particular concepts that you would most want all students to read up on, whether in class or not?

With regard to your brother, you write, " If you were to empathize with me— which is to say, if you were to imagine yourself in my position—you would understand that there is nothing unjust about declaring that you have been hurt." And I agree completely. There is nothing unjust about declaring that you've been hurt.

I want to emphasize that we've never disagreed on that point.

You go on to write:

You say that the protesters lack a diversity of opinion, but I question the utility of a diversity of opinion when the goal is to present a clear, unified front against an oppressor.

If we're speaking about a subject like police reform, the law-enforcement unions that press for contract provisions that make it extremely hard to catch and prosecute cops who assault, rape, or murder people strike me as an oppressive force to unite against.

But is there "an oppressor" to unite against at Yale?

I cannot identify one. It would be easy to know the way forward if the woes of students of color at Yale could be attributed to a Bull Connor heading up the administration, or Jim Crow-like policies segregating campus. Instead, as you note, the Yale community is basically "opposed to the marginalization of people of color."

There is, however, disagreement about the best way forward.

To me, diversity of opinion is useful because it taps the wisdom of all the people who want to improve the campus climate at Yale, rather than imagining that any one activist movement or ideological group has somehow divined an optimal course. And I expect we can all glean wisdom from the course that you want to set!

I want to give you the last word in this exchange.

I hope, in addition to whatever you want to say in your final installment, you share your wisdom with me, my readers, and folks at colleges all over the United States. Among other things, you've said that people should seek out dialogue with students of color and listen to their concerns; that students should take ethnic and gender studies classes to become familiar with concepts that will help them understand the lived experiences of marginalized groups; and that people with power should be attentive to how historically marginalized groups will hear their words.

Are their other insights that you want to convey to people who are unlikely to converse with any college students themselves? Articles or books that you wish more people would read? Reforms that you wish Yale would implement? Anything else that might help to increase the empathy or understanding that you wisely see as fuel for a better world? I'm grateful that you've lent your thoughts and voice to this exchange. Bring us home with anything you've left unsaid that you think we ought to hear.

Godley: I am glad that you brought up your inability to identify an oppressor at Yale because this misunderstanding is central to our thinking about racism in the 21st century.

It seems that what we’re struggling with today is so much more subtle and nuanced than the racism of 50 years ago. There is no one person or system responsible for the oppression of people of color; institutions like Yale can simultaneously marginalize and uplift minorities. The Calhoun College naming debate is a perfect example: While Yale strives for a diverse student body, the administration has anguished over whether to rename a residential college originally named after one of slavery’s most famous proponents.

This contradiction is exactly why discussion is so important. You suggest that rather than confronting professors, I should spend my time fighting for police reform, but these issues are all related. There is always going to be a more important crisis to tackle that completely overshadows our concerns. But our environment contributes to the implicit biases that influence behavior. If we want to change our behavior, we have to address the injustices in our environment, regardless of how trivial they may seem relative to the big picture.

As for what people should read to improve their understanding, I do not think there is any one book to explain how racism works. A partial list of important authors includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, Eugene Robinson, Michelle Alexander, and Elijah Anderson. But maybe even more important than any reading is being observant and talking to the people around you about race, regardless of what race they are.

Correspondence about this exchange is encouraged—write to conor@theatlantic.com