The protests at Yale, where students of color have staged public confrontations with administrators to express their feelings about discrimination on campus, are not just about an email.
Here’s a CliffsNotes version for anyone who has not been following the controversy in New Haven, Connecticut: The email in question was written by the assistant master of Silliman College—one of 12 residential communities around which Yale organizes undergraduate life—in response to a university-wide email sent by the Intercultural Affairs Council that asked students, in advance of Halloween, to “take the time to consider their costumes and the impact [they] may have” on peers, and to avoid things such as “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.” This smacked of PC overreach to Erika Christakis, a child development researcher and wife of the Silliman College master, who sent out her own email on Oct. 30, telling students: “[I]f 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.”
For some minority students, the suggestion that they themselves—not the university—should be responsible for policing Yale’s pavestone paths for blackface on Halloween night, and for gamely re-educating their peers, was painful and outrageous. Some students began calling for the Christakises to step down. The furor on campus has been heightened by the fact that, that same Friday night, brothers at the Yale fraternity SAE reportedly turned some black female undergraduates away at the door, claiming the party was for “white girls only.”
There have been some dismaying moments in the campus PC backlash over the past year. It was distressing to watch as students at Northwestern filed a Title IX complaint against professor Laura Kipnis for an article she wrote expressing her concerns about contemporary feminism; as students at Mount Holyoke shut down the school’s annual production of The Vagina Monologues because “the play excludes the experience of transgender women”; and as students at Wesleyan cut the funding for their campus newspaper after it ran a critical op-ed about the Black Lives Matter movement. In each of these cases, the students’ primary objective seemed to be to drown out a voice that they disliked, to erase a representation of the world that wasn’t rigidly congruent with their own views.
But the student protests at Yale are different. They are not primarily about censorship; they are about students who feel disenfranchised and vulnerable using the language of “safe spaces” to claim a very basic right—the right not to face discrimination in their own homes. They are a call for the university to treat racism (and sexism) on campus the way it would treat most any other overt threat to the mental health and well-being of its students. These sentiments have been expressed in the words and articles of actual students experiencing the controversy on the ground at Yale, but they have been absent from most of the coverage in the professional press, for whom it’s easier to cover this according to a script we already understand: as just another student tantrum attempting to infringe on free speech.
As one senior, Aaron Lewis, explains in his essay on Medium, “What’s Really Going on at Yale,” for the protesters, the email, and even the alleged racism at SAE, pale in comparison to the university’s nonresponse to both. “Last year, there were swastikas found outside a freshman dorm. The Yale College Dean, Jonathan Holloway, sent an email to the entire student body condemning this ‘shameful defacement’ within one day,” he writes. “It took almost a full week for Yale’s president to formally acknowledge students’ legitimate concerns about racism and the incident at SAE. … Students should not have to become community organizers just to receive acknowledgment and respect from their administrators.” The campus paper, the Yale Daily News, cited the same example in a strongly worded editorial that ran on Friday: “[I]n a week following two major racially charged controversies, it is unacceptable that the University has not issued a formal response. If there were ever a time for the University to come out as an ally for students who continue to feel as though they occupy a space not meant for them, it is now.”
Meanwhile, the Christakises have not been censored (a fact that would change if Yale heeded calls to fire them). The surprising thing is that, on this rare occasion, minority students haven’t self-censored, either. The intensity of the feelings unleashed has to do with the distinct role that college masters play at Yale. As David Rossler, the editor of Yale’s student weekly, the Herald, pointed out on Facebook: “[T]he master’s role is one of community leader. … This incident is not analogous to a professor offering an unpopular view, or a controversial speaker coming to campus.”
When students marched in the wake of Kipnis’ article, they were carrying pillows to echo Emma Sulkowicz’s protest of the administration’s handling of her alleged rape at Columbia—which felt like an overwrought piece of symbolism considering the gulf between Kipnis’ words and an act of actual sexual violence. When students surrounded Holloway in the middle of campus on Thursday, however, they were chanting a far more literal-minded question: “Where’s our email?” Universities send email updates about holiday schedules and weather forecasts. In the face of allegations of a blatantly racist incident, and many hurt and angry students, why the silence? (Holloway and Yale President Peter Salovey finally emailed the university community on Friday.)
This fall’s racially charged incidents are not one-off events, at Yale or most any other American university. Last year, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, then a junior at Yale, was held at gunpoint by campus security on his way home from the library. A current junior, Briana Burroughs, wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News last week in which she described being “harassed in dining halls, at fraternity houses and on New Haven streets by Yale fraternity members and male athletes” who called her a “charity case” and a “ghetto black bitch.” The university has long met calls for the renaming of another residential college—Calhoun, named for America’s biggest proponent of slavery—with silence. (Salovey did use his annual speech to incoming freshman this year as an opportunity to broach the topic and start a dialogue.)*
It’s a common criticism of today’s youth activists that they’re too busy demanding protection to prepare for a lifetime of fighting their own battles: that they want to be able to whine about their feelings when they should be cultivating resilience and learning to debate. But the social structures of campus life—and the violations of its norms, from offensive Halloween costumes to “white girls only” frat party admissions policies—are in fact a university’s concern. I believe in universities as spaces where students are confronted with difficult ideas, where they grow through discomfiture—and I believe that this function is dependent on the slightly utopian illusion of the university as a bubble, inside which even the heaviest debates have a little less gravity than they do out here in real life. Hopefully, Yale is starting to realize the extent to which many students of color feel they have been denied participation in this idyll. When these students use the language of “safe spaces,” it seems to me that they’re not demanding to live in some happy place where they never have to hear or read another word of dissent. It seems to me that they’re asking for a level of acceptance, and ownership, that the majority of students at Yale already feel.
In a video of students confronting Master Nicholas Christakis, one enraged young woman shouts, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman … Do you understand that?” When he tries to cut in, to say that he has a “different vision” of the college and sees it as an “intellectual space,” she yells, “Be quiet! … If that is what you think about being a Master, then you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!” I can’t watch this video without feeling sick for both parties involved. But I do agree with the student that the administrators, rather than defending their own position (Erika Christakis has reportedly been responding to critics with links to an Atlantic article called “The Coddling of the American Mind”), need to listen to the voices telling them that, in this instance, they have not managed to create a space for students of color, intellectual or otherwise. Yale certainly bills itself as both a home to its students and an intellectual space. It’s fair—and useful—for students to question whether the university can succeed at being one when they believe it’s failing at the other.
*Update, Nov. 10, 2015: This paragraph has been amended to clarify that Yale President Peter Salovey addressed this topic in his speech for incoming freshmen this year.