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Days before Halloween weekend, the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale, comprised of 13 administrators, circulated an email to students encouraging them to “take the time to consider their costumes and the impact [they] may have,” and suggesting that students shy away from costumes that their peers might read as offensive, racist, or culturally appropriative.
Soon after, Erika Christakis, Yale lecturer and associate master at Silliman College, composed a thoughtful follow-up email. Grounding her response to the first email in terms of her academic work on child psychology, she suggested that students wear what they liked, and work out with one another what costumes might be hurtful. In the intervening 10 days, some Yale students have called for Christakis and her husband Nicholas, the former master of Pforzheimer House, to resign.
Yale’s student protestors point to a string of racial incidents this semester at Yale, starting with swastikas that were found drawn outside a freshman dorm on Old Campus last October, and leading up to accusations that a member at the SAE fraternity turned dark-skinned students away from the group’s Halloween party.
It is impossible to take Christakis’ email outside the context of these dramatic events. But even still, they do not change the fact that both the deans’ and Christakis’ messages were appropriate. It is reasonable for the administration in a collegiate environment to encourage students to be mindful of each other and not go out of their way to offend each other, just as it is reasonable to point out that students are ultimately free to wear what they choose.
The question of race at Yale, and at most colleges, is a complex and painful one, and this editorial does not assume to offer a definitive survey. It certainly appears that much of the Yale student body considers the incident at SAE a symptom of an unacceptable racial status quo on campus. Yale President Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway, and the masters of Silliman were correct to hold dialogues with students about the email in the days that followed. It seems clear that the Yale administration can and must do more to create an environment where students of color feel welcome in the university.
But the possibility of fruitful dialogue is exactly what makes the out-of-proportion, disrespectful reaction to Christakis’ email so deeply disappointing. The students should have accepted the offer of more discussion, rather than meeting an outstretched hand with harassment and shouting.
Video clips, which appeared online late last week, show student protesters yelling and cursing. Yesterday, the Yale Daily News reported that several students protesting a visiting speaker, Greg Lukianoff, spat and cursed at several fellow students as they left the talk. While this behavior is not, of course, representative of a majority of the protesters, a pattern has emerged in which student outrage has taken increasingly aggressive forms.
Today Yale is in the spotlight—but hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country are undergoing their own equally dramatic conversations about race. Monday’s news from the University of Missouri that President Timothy M. Wolfe was stepping down in response to student dissatisfaction at his administration’s handling of racist incidents on campus is merely the latest example of the power of organized groups of students to effect dramatic change in the leadership of the universities they attend.
This is an awesome power, and protesting students must rise to the occasion and wield it responsibly and thoughtfully. Even as we wholeheartedly support those who want to make Yale, Harvard, and American universities in general more inclusive, we must protect our ability to speak freely about the changes that these protests have brought and are bringing.
This ability includes, on occasion, criticizing student protesters and the tactics they employ to achieve their goals. Couched in terms of shared ideals, this kind of criticism is not vilification, but the highest form of respect.
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