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Inside the Racism Shitstorm at Yale

We talked to a student at the Ivy League school about the university's Halloween costume controversy and how students of color are organizing on campus.

by Gabby Bess
Nov 11 2015, 3:15pm

Photo via Wikipedia

Update: November 13, 2015: NextYale, the organization of students of color and their allies who have been fighting for racial equality at Yale University, has released a new list of demands. In a public letter to Yale's President Peter Salovey and Dean Jonathan Holloway, the students are calling on the administration to institute an ethic studies requirement for all Yale undergraduates and to employ mental health professionals at the four cultural centers on campus (with an emphasis on mental health professionals of color). The students are also demanding that the administration rename Calhoun College—a residential college at Yale that was named after President John C. Calhoun, who was a staunch defender of slavery and called it a "positive good." They are asking that the administration rename Calhoun college after a person of color and acknowledge that "Yale University was founded on stolen indigenous land." NextYale is still advocating for the removal of Master and Associate Master Nicholas and Erika Christakis.

By now, it's more than easy to forget that the public debate in which Yale University is embroiled was started by an innocuous email asking the student body to consider refraining from wearing blackface or redface on Halloween. "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 email from the Yale's Dean and Intercultural Affairs Committee read, in advance of the holiday. The memo also included questions that students could ask themselves when getting dressed for Halloween. (E.g., "Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?")

In short, the email was a symbolic gesture of the institution's acknowledgement of the alienation, awkwardness, and labor students of color experience on October 31st when they are confronted with the inevitable white dude (or woman) who smears a dark substance on his face, adds a teardrop, and says he's Lil Wayne. What the email did not include: any mention of punishment for students who chose to file the suggestions straight to the trash bin, or any directives at all, really.

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But three days later, Erika Christakis, the associate master at Silliman College, one of the university's residential groupings, sent out an email of her own to Yale students. Arguing that students should be able to wear costumes that offend, Christakis offered up her thoughts "as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood." In the email, she mused about the appropriative nature of "a blonde-haired child's wanting to be Mulan for a day" and how she enjoys mimicking accents. That is to say, she missed the point completely. She even advised students who are offended by another's costume to simply "look away." In her role as associate master, a role that has come to serve parent-like function at Yale—the master and associate master even throw Halloween parties—Christakis is meant to foster an encouraging environment for students. But in standing up for the ideal of "free speech," many students argue, she turned her back on the students of color she is also supposed to represent.

We really prompted university response.

Since that fateful email, students at Yale have stood in protest against Christakis and her husband, Nicholas, for their perceived racial insensitivity. In turn, dozens of op-eds have been published online about how "oversensitive" students—black students, it is implied—are jeopardizing free expression on campus. A video of a girl "shrieking" her concerns at the master of Silliman College has been held up as an example of this.

In the video, the frustration in the student's voice is noticeable. The recent incidents at Yale—including allegations that one of the frats on campus, SAE, denied black woman entry to their Halloween party—are not isolated; students of color on the campus have come forward with similar stories of feeling marginalized and unwelcome. These feelings culminated on Monday, when students at Yale walked in solidarity during what they called a March of Resilliance. Last week, a group of students released a list of demands that include mandatory diversity training for faculty and students, acknowledgment of the fraternity incident by the administration, and for the administration to encourage fraternities to read black feminist texts. They also call for the removal of the Christakises and plan to release a more "comprehensive" list of demands this week.

Over the phone, Broadly spoke to Shirley Paxton Fofang, one of the students at Yale who has been a part of the movement, about the recent happenings on the college campus.

Photo by bonninstudio via Stocksy

BROADLY: When did you start getting involved in with the fight for racial equality at Yale?
Shirley Paxton Fofang:
A lot of students became mobilized this past week. The group of students who drafted the list of demands, organized by the Black Students Alliance at Yale, was made up of a lot of students who didn't usually come out, or weren't necessarily involved in organizations. They were students who just wanted to say how they were feeling and offer solutions. I'm probably more in that group of people.

What was your first reaction when you saw the email that the associate master sent out to students?
I thought it was odd that she chose to send out an email, in part because the original email [sent out by the Intercultural Affairs Committee] was just a list of guidelines that were fairly tame. There's been a lot of discussions of free speech, but the email didn't indicate that anyone would be banned or prohibited from wearing a certain costume. It just encouraged students to be culturally sensitive. So, I thought it was odd that she was speaking out against the university's suggestions to begin with.

I also didn't find anything she said particularly persuasive. I thought it was weird that she would speak out against basic suggestions that were trying to foster community—which is what the master and associate master at each residential college are tasked with. That's another aspect of this whole discussion. She's not just a professor who said something in class. She's an administrator, whose job is to be the leader of Yale's dorm system and be a person that students can turn to.

Read More: Protesting for Basics

Yeah, and the dominant media conversation regarding her email that went public has been hyper-focused on the idea that students in college are coddled and want to censor others. In my mind, that has allowed everyone who doesn't want to address institutional racism to completely side-step the issue and go straight to yelling about free speech. Was the March of Resilience that took place on Monday about bringing attention back to the issue of racism on campus?
I think what a lot of people don't understand is that this isn't just about one email. There's been a buildup over the past few years—at least since I've been here, I'm a junior now—of students mobilizing on campus for a number of different, but interconnected, issues. There's a lot of intentional intersectionality in that activism. Last year, there was a rally that was simultaneously about four different issues: fossil fuels, mental health reform, the state of the cultural centers, etc. There's been a huge concern about the retention of faculty of color on campus, and there's been a history of years and years—basically ever since Yale has started admitting students of color—of people feeling alienated, having grievances, having professors say inappropriate things, and having classmates harass them. There's a buildup of feeling. The march was about resilience. It was about having students realize that they have classmates who feel the same way that they do. We even had students who graduated last year, who spent their whole time feeling alienated from the school, come back for the march to have a moment to express that. The march was born out of a need to do something public, something organized, and something healing. I think it was telling that it ended with a big dance party to "We Are Family." It was way of having something communal, healing, and productive.

Has the administration responded to the march at all, or acknowledged that students of color on campus feel this way?
On Friday, the dean of Yale College came out and listened to students speak after we chalked Cross Campus [in protest]. [Ed. note: Students wrote out messages like, "Our culture is not a costume" in chalk last Thursday.] And the president of Yale invited students to come and meet with him to talk about what's been going on later that evening. But this only occurred after the mobilization of students of color. We really prompted university response.

That really shows how necessary protest is to evoke reactions. It's not just students taking things too personally—it really does effect change.
I also think it's cool how much this movement has been about standing in solidarity with black women, especially in regard to what [allegedly] happened at SAE. I found it so inspiring.

You said previously that you weren't really involved in campus activism until recently. But are the events like those in the past week something that has been common to your experience?
I don't think any of this is new to me. I've definitely been having these conversations. But I'm hesitant to say more about my own experience because it's just a drop in the bucket. I feel like my personal experience isn't the important thing here. Thousands of students are mobilizing in protest—that's the important thing here.