During the week of Halloween, Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Council sent a campus-wide memo, appealing for students to be sensitive about their costumes. Days later, a faculty member opposed the minority conglomerate’s memo in a letter, invoking free speech. On Halloween Eve, a frat brother allegedly denied entry to women of color at a party by telling them, “white girls only.” Those three events in combination, for many students of color, were less an incitement than the last of many straws. Campus erupted over the week that followed. Students begged Yale to fight with them against campus racism: 1,200 people marched for justice on November 9, with signs that read “Support students of color” and “Your move Yale.”
The mood had been much different on November 5, in a fancy boardroom at Woodbridge Hall, where about 50 students sat around a big round table, crying for four hours. By all accounts, the meeting—arranged by Yale President Peter Salovey—was surreal. At one point, Lex Barlowe, the president of Yale’s Black Student Alliance, looked at Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and told them the institution was at a point of no return: “Yale for a really long time has chosen to prioritize the majority white community,” she remembers saying. “We’re in a moment where we need Yale to actively choose us.”
In the room, students openly grieved, sobbed, and shared stories with faculty, hoping for answers about their school’s apparent failure to provide a safe environment for minority students. At the head of the table were Holloway, Salovey and his Chief of Staff Joy McGrath, and Yale Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly M. Goff-Crews. According to Barlowe, emotions were one-sided. And this, she says, was the precise problem—that after multiple accusations, complaints and petitions about racist incidents, it took a sit-down meeting for administrators to listen, and that even the students’ discernible pain in the room sparked no visceral empathy.
“People were having breakdowns in this room. People were out of control of their bodies,” says Barlowe. “There were accounts of really deep trauma and pain, everything from outright racism to micro-aggressions to discrimination and also feelings of invisibility. And the administrators were not emotional at all, which was part of what was strange and difficult for us. They were calling on people as if we were having a regular meeting.”
Another student told the Yale Daily News that Salovey was “mostly listening” and apologetic, but that she still felt a lack of urgency. Earlier in the day, during an ad hoc encounter on campus, Dean Holloway told a crowd of students, “I’m here for you. I do have your back. Please know that I have heard your stories and I’ll leave here changed.” But the emotional disaffection at the closed-door meeting, to Barlowe, felt like evidence that Yale was unwilling to understand the minority experience—even when it was right there in front of them, in tears.
The students were asking for specifics: ethnic studies requirements, a budget increase for their cultural centers, and more minority professionals in the mental health program. The faculty’s hesitation, combined with their delayed reaction to previous complaints, may have been more telling of an intimate knowledge of Yale’s bureaucracy as it was of any failure in empathy; either way, the students felt the punch in the gut twice.
Salovey said after the meeting, to the Yale Daily News, “I would say that to have about 50 minority students in a room with me saying to me that their experience was not what they hoped it would be, I take personal responsibility for that and I consider it a failure.”
While students at Yale have long battled campus racism (in separate instances, swastikas were found on the Old Campus building and inside Vanderbilt Hall last year) many outsiders, including myself, were made newly aware after what allegedly happened on Halloween Eve at Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon. According to student accounts, the SAE member turned away black and Latina students, saying “white girls only” at the door. Barlowe says she heard about it through GroupMe texts the next day.
After launching an investigation, SAE (which has a history of racism across its various chapters) concluded that the incident was unfounded. SAE’s national spokesman Brandon Weghorst wrote to me in an email I sent asking for an update:
No, Clover, there is no new additional information. Based on what investigators have found so far, the facts show there was no “white girls only” party nor have they been able to validate the allegation.
“Yale, for a really long time, has chosen to prioritize the majority white community. We’re in a moment where we need Yale to actively choose us.”
After I covered the initial Halloween frat party story on this site, I got a text from a friend whose close relative is a Yale sophomore: “Call me,” she wrote.
She’d been having conversations with her relative about the protests, vigils and prayer meetings on campus. He was forwarding her email updates from faculty. He also mentioned having trouble focusing on classwork; he told her he felt emotionally drained.
What’s happening at Yale, and at the University of Missouri, and now Claremont McKenna—it feeds the curiosity of older, non-collegiate Americans who wonder what it’s like to be a growing young person in college in a time of social unrest. I personally wondered what it must feel like to be a black college student in the age of Black Lives Matter, to be constantly reminded of your marginal existence—but now, with a movement behind you.
My little brother, a high school senior, was set to tour the school exactly two weeks after the Halloween party. Yale is one of his prospects. He had no idea about the system of exclusion that potentially awaited him, or about the toll it might take. Hearing accounts of some of the brightest, most together college students in America being reduced to tears in front of unfeeling faculty, I felt a need to protect him. So I called my friend.
In the sphere of the media, the Yale narrative has since been jumbled, politicized and churned into essays on oversensitivity and the merits of free speech. In some cases, student activists have been reduced to being called privileged millennials; there’s been a stunning lack of empathy that perhaps stems from a lack of knowledge that the burden of living with institutionalized racism is legitimate and real. It’s true that college students are melodramatic, and it’s also true that the world is a racist place. Questions come up at the intersection, inevitably: were these students overdramatizing their experiences? Did they, in a selfish but earnest way, just want to feel part of something bigger? Was there validity to criticism of their tactics as over-policing campus freedom?
That type of trivialization is instinctual. It’s also possible to debate the various levels of intent without discrediting the students’ concerns. But what I found impossible to ignore—and what so many reports did ignore—was the aura of grief at Yale and Mizzou. What’s happening at these schools, as well as many more to come, is the sound of systematic ostracism that had formerly operated covertly being unable to do so anymore. Animosity has boiled for centuries at Yale, a university with a 72 percent white student body, 20 percent Asian, 9 percent black and 9 percent Latino (all according to 2014-15 stats). Small moments evolved into movements that lump into an even larger Black Lives Matter umbrella—this era’s echoing civil rights crusade.
Yale’s minority students have no reason to ignore their feelings of invisibility and isolation in the middle of a nationwide social climate that appears to finally be validating their experiences on a significant level. It’s may be even worse, in this context, for their actions to be so easily dismissed—by the media, and by Yale itself. In turn, they’ve magnified their actions in the past week to avoid being suppressed.
Barlowe credits women of color on campus as the dominant voices in speaking up, organizing marches and facilitating action plans. “What happened with the fraternity party,” she says, “that sort of immediately became a conversation about whether or not women of color feel welcome or safe on campus and the ways in which Yale allows that.”
This raw form of open dialogue—and, of course, the ensuing criticism and online threats—wasn’t possible in the past. Which isn’t to say the dialogue didn’t happen privately. In many ways, the conversations about racism among students of color at Yale (or any university) are old ones that are just now hitting public domain, a lot of it due to social media, petitions and Facebook posts like the ones that Yale students shared about the SAE party. “Those kinds of conversations, we would have one-on-one,” says a 2011 Yale graduate who preferred to remain anonymous. “Someone would scribble the N-word somewhere and you’d have a conversation about it and everyone would forget.”
Movements like Black Lives Matter and the palpable threat of police brutality have empowered college students to express their internalized feelings without apology—to understand that the marginalization they face extends, dangerously, all the way up the chain. After a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Mike Brown, Yale’s Black Student Alliance organized a Hands Up Walk Out event on campus to march in support of Ferguson. Less than two weeks after the Charleston church shooting and consequent protests over the Confederate flag, Yale students drew up a petition calling for Calhoun College—named after white supremacist John C. Calhoun (a Yale graduate)—to be renamed.
Barlowe says BLM has undoubtedly influenced Yale’s black students, who feel a strong sense of social duty. “It’s really set a tone and created an expectation that young black people have what it takes to create change and to build movements,” she says. “It’s about young black women in particular being able to determine the future they want.”
Hearing this, I felt impressed and also overwhelmed. It was hard for me to fathom being an 18-year-old today and feeling the gravity of oppression on both a personal and national level, and then having to articulate that confusion. At 18, I was studying statistics and peeing outside bars.
Yale students are well aware of how the media is portraying them. In their eyes, many outlets turned a story about structural racism into an opportunity to preach about freedom of speech. In an Atlantic article titled “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” writer Conor Friedersdorf critiqued Yale students for being “bullies” and “behaving more like Reddit parodies of ‘social-justice warriors’ than coherent activists.” National Review called the students “Yale’s idiot children.”
Responding to the protests at Yale and Missouri, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, a Yale alumni, spoke as if the Constitution should trump a student’s right to exist in a space without caustic threats. “We’re being a little bit too tolerant, I guess you might say, accepting infantile behavior,” Carson told Megyn Kelly on Fox News.
The effect of this line of thinking is essentially the same as ignoring the students altogether. In a sharp piece for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb broke down the problem:
The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights. This is victim-blaming with a software update, with less interest in the kind of character assassination we saw deployed against Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown than in creating a seemingly right-minded position that serves the same effect.
Yale junior Cathy Calderón, a student organizer for La Casa, the Latino cultural center, told me that what’s happening at Yale isn’t about free speech—or even about the Halloween party.
“Media sources are trying to say that the students are totalitarian or fascist,” Calderón says, noting that she understands that plenty of people think that Yale’s minority students are just complaining. “I doubt the people who are saying these things understand the nuance of lack of institutional support. They think that because we’re students here, we have this great privilege—which we do—but that that encompasses the experience of being a student at Yale.”
“The issues we’re dealing with here are really just manifestations of the same issues that they’re dealing with at Mizzou.”
People only say “complain” when they find the complaint trivial, anyway, and in my conversations with her and Barlowe, I could tell they felt drained. Barlowe, who lives in off-campus housing, sounds exasperated while explaining that the emotional aspect of the protests does not discredit them—rather, it’s the opposite. “Having so much of that pain out there is both hard and empowering,” she says. “People haven’t been able to go to class or do homework. People haven’t been able to even eat meals. Many of my friends don’t feel safe being on campus right now.”
Barlowe points to the March of Resilience on November 9 as a turning point from sadness to action. Two hours prior to the march’s beginning, the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe had resigned in the midst of criticism of the school’s response to its own racist climate. The situations are not parallel between Yale and Mizzou, but similarities keep appearing. Two suspects have been arrested for making threats on Yik Yak at Mizzou, and on November 12, Yale Police also investigated a racist phone threat to the African American Studies department and added patrols.
“The issues we’re dealing with here are manifestations of the same issues that they’re dealing with at Mizzou,” says Barlowe, adding that a few black students she knows have received online threats. “To find out [Wolfe] resigned on the day of the march gave us a lot of hope that students organizing and mobilizing could actually work.”
Naturally, the identity formation (and crises) any college student faces in their most formative years is getting mucked up in all this. There are likely students at Yale still forming a concrete idea of what they’re fighting for, but that’s par for the course. Calderón says, “Every student is at a different stage in understanding what’s going on. You look at the freshman who just came in and they’re like, ‘What is going on? Where do I stand in this issue?’”
But, as for Calderón and Barlowe, they were eloquent and clear about what they want moving forward. I specifically asked them what a “safe space” (what many students say they’re seeking) would look like.
“There’s a lack of institutional support and funding to have a variety of ethnic studies courses on campus. If we had that as a requirement, that would translate into so much more awareness and understanding,” says Calderón. When I tell her she’s not the one getting paid to propose solutions, she sighs and says, “Exactly. Yeah.” She proceeds to do so anyway. “As an Ethnicity, Race and Migration major, we don’t get a lot of support,” she says, meaning both financially and in terms of faculty. “There are faculty who are actively trying to end the program.” Calderón suggests, instead, building the major out into a true department (which it isn’t right now) and adding full-time professors.
Calderón, an aspiring Chicano Studies professor, has felt the weight of having to represent her race in classes. “If you don’t have students taking classes in gender and sexuality studies, race and African American studies, you’re sending people out into the world who lack an understanding of how this nation functions,” says Calderón. “I know I’m not going to see or benefit from all of the change that’s going to come out of this. But there’s a saying that the Zapatistas have in Chiapas: You have to create a world where many worlds fit. That’s what’s necessary.”
Barlowe, for her part, has discussed specific proposals with faculty members, some of which she outlined in the aforementioned meeting, which she still refers to as “traumatic.”
“I would love Yale to have mandatory cultural training. I would love Yale to commit concretely to building out the ethnic studies departments and retaining and hiring faculty of color,” says Barlowe. “Another specific is mental health programs for communities of color, by communities of color.”
Chart via Yale’s 2014 Faculty Diversity Summit Report
In 2013, Yale’s Department of Arts & Sciences employed 15.8 percent faculty of color and 74.4 percent white. By 2015, that number had increased to 19.9 percent non-white faculty, and 22.5 percent in the university overall. In a November 3 memo, President Salovey announced a $50 million initiative to broaden faculty diversity, mirroring the belated, often clinical initiatives of workplaces nationwide, including Gawker Media.
Holloway, in an interview with The New Yorker published on November 15, brought up the divide between faculty members, which poses a major bureaucratic setback:
“On the free-speech thing, there’s plenty of faculty who themselves are either free-speech purists, or who believe deeply in civil discourse and don’t want to disrupt it, or see a friend of theirs being treated discourteously—it could be any number of these things—and feel that the master and associate master have been thrown under the bus, because no one has come to their defense. The fissure is between the faculty who are upset at the way that the master was treated and, well, the faculty who feel quite differently.”
These faculty divides are irrelevant to students, perhaps hidden to them. In this case, their naïveté when it comes to organizational management works in their favor, at least initially. On November 12, Yale students created a new alliance dubbed Next Yale, to represent minority students. That same night, Barlowe and a group of about 100 people—including allies, BSA members and community organizers from New Haven—delivered a list of demands directly to Salovey’s President’s House and read them to him, before handing it over.
The discussion is ongoing about the costume practices that provoked the IAC’s cultural appropriation memo the day before Halloween, as well as the response email from Erika Christakis, who stated that costumes should not be policed. Some students found her “free speech” insertion confounding, since the IAC’s memo was barely critical in tone; it focused on suggestions rather than imposing harsh punishments.
Christakis supported the IAC’s sentiments, but disagreed with the idea that costumes can be regulated even via implication. “I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students,” she wrote, adding:
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.
Many students of color felt that this was, yet again, a way of centering white privilege over minority rights. “It was basically saying you’re excusing people who wear costumes that offend individuals—students of color predominantly, from historically marginalized backgrounds,” says Calderón. “You’re trying to make this point about it being imaginative and transgressive. Or, just look away if it offends you or try and start a dialogue, which is a ridiculous concept.”
Now, No. 5 on Next Yale’s list of demands calls for: “Immediate removal of Nicholas and Erika Christakis from the positions of Master and Associate Master of Silliman College.”
Considering that dimwitted grown folks still wear blackface on Halloween, it seems impossible to regulate costumes on a college campus. Banning them is even more unrealistic. But asking students to rethink their racist choices (as the IAC’s memo did) is far from unreasonable. Some Yale students, regardless, wore outfits that generically stereotyped Native Americans and Mexicans, as Calderón said she expected them to. “A lot of students of color understand what this means. We prepare ourselves for this yearly,” says Calderón. “There’s always gonna be people who don’t care. Sometimes I ask myself whether or not they know they’re being offensive.”
I ask her if she poses those questions to her white peers. She says it depends, and makes the smart point that a university functions to educate its young intellectuals and hopefully undo latent prejudices. “It’s a lot about the university doing its job of teaching students these histories. If students aren’t learning about this, then people are going to get offended and emotions come into it. You have to look at that moment and understand why it would happen on both sides.”
Anyway, for the students who protested, the bigger problem wasn’t the costumes, but Christakis intervening. Her letter meant once again protecting the offenders at the risk of alienating the school’s most marginalized students.
Dean Holloway’s office didn’t respond to an email request for comment, and neither did Goff-Crews. When reached for comment, Christakis replied in an email (italics emphasis hers):
I’m sorry I can’t speak with you now, but good luck with the story. My take, for whatever it is worth, is captured very accurately in this Atlantic article (specifically vis a vis my intent).
The article refers to Christakis’ original email as a “model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement.”
When founded, Yale was only the third collegiate institution in the U.S. It took them a mere 313 years to instate a black person as head of its liberal arts college: Dean Holloway in 2014. There’s a research paper stating that initial scholarships were funded with slave trade money. Eight of the school’s 12 colleges are named after ex-slave owners. Heads of Yale colleges are still referred to as “masters.”
“This is something that Yale has seen before,” says Calderón. “Especially in the ’90s. There’s a group of students of color who understand that this is not new and that the administration knows that this is not new—that the facts are historically significant, of how these universities were built, and by whom and for whom.” In other words: by and for privileged white Americans. “It’s so deep, the understanding of not being meant to be in this space. Of this space not being built for you.”
The Yale alum who wished to remain anonymous said she purposely avoided using the “master” language around her parents. “I remember using the word for the first time around my parents and they jumped out of their skin for a minute,” she says. She ended up switching her major from the Yale School of Music after a white student yelled out during one of her classes: “All African drumming is shit!”
Another Yale alum I spoke to who graduated in 2012, Ms. Johnson (she asked that we not use her first name), watched the online video of a student yelling at Yale professor Nicholas Christakis (Erika’s husband, who’s also a master) during a face-to-face meeting with him on campus. The student is referred to as the “shrieking girl” in one YouTube video. Because she couldn’t quite articulate her torment, she showed it explosively. The Daily Caller smeared her for yelling at faculty and doxxed her for her “privileged background.”
What they and others disregard is the dangerous implication that minorities at Yale should feel lucky, when the circumstances outside of their school walls have consistently proven otherwise. Yale is not nearly as visible a badge as their skin. You can’t see Yale from a distance. In the past few years, seeing their teenage peers gunned down, these students have been forced to confront the fact that their so-called privilege is limited.
Talking about the girl in the video, Johnson got choked up over the phone. “It seemed like she felt the same exact way that I did when I was there years ago. Nothing has changed,” says Johnson. “I didn’t yell at my dean. I worked really hard to earn the respect of the administrators and faculty and nothing changed. I understood exactly why she was yelling. Because every other avenue has been exhausted.”
Johnson remembers leaving the school’s library during her freshman year and seeing three people wearing white capes and hoods in her path, and hoping it was a practical joke. No one believed her when she retold the story. She also recalls walking into her boyfriend’s dorm room and seeing that his white roommate had a Confederate flag on his wall.
“I remember looking at the guy I was dating and thinking, Is he gonna say anything? He didn’t. He was white; his roommate was white. I remember telling our dorm about it and everyone being like, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a symbol,’” she says. “That same guy sophomore year dressed up as Robert E. Lee for Halloween and I was so upset, I left the party.”
Years later, she’s still broken up about a dumb boy with a racist flag who would never get punished as much as Yale’s current students are being critiqued for their demonstrations. Out of all my interviews, hers gave me the most chills. It reminded me of the type of Otherness that follows and eats at you, and often feels too personal to bother vocalizing. After our interview, I sat in the tiny phone room at Gawker for several minutes and stared at a wall.
At this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not an SAE member said “white girls only.” It matters, in a practical sense, that the students have called on Dean Holloway for reforms. The faculty has since responded in emails, with statements to current students and alumni, some of whom have sent around an open letter to administrators.
In a November 11 email that was forwarded to me, President Salovey wrote, in part: “We are working now to develop a suite of initiatives focused on improving our campus climate and fostering diversity, and will write again next week to share further details. In the meantime, I send heartfelt appreciation for your care and concern for Yale.”
In a separate message to current students, Salovey wrote, in part:
As Dean Holloway wrote this morning, Yale belongs to all of you. Yale must be a place where each person is valued automatically, without having to demand or labor for that recognition. I do not want anyone in our community to feel alone, disrespected, or unsafe. We must all work together to assure that no one does.
Our community also shares a commitment to free expression and an open exchange of ideas free from intimidation...Now is a time to work toward healing and mutual understanding.
For Barlowe, the diplomatic language in the emails is disappointing. “They’re like: We want to respect diversity and we value all the different people of our community and we also value free speech. They’re trying to make everyone happy. For me, that’s actually not going to work anymore. We need to be explicitly prioritized.” That would mean seeing her administrators react swiftly to racist incidents, as well as support mental health programs that acknowledge that students of color have a different experience at schools like Yale.
My interview with Barlowe happened before November 12, which is when Next Yale handed President Salovey their list of demands. In an email to me afterward, she wrote, “We will see what happens with that.”
Yale has four cultural centers on campus, one each for black, Latino, Asian American and Native American students. Barlowe says these places have been crucial sites of comfort.
“They’re safe spaces for us to be with our people and not have to deal with all the tensions and difficulties of our identities in contrast to the whiteness of Yale,” she says. “But there are people at Yale who don’t think that they should exist. There are people who don’t necessarily see the value of those centers.” (Just look at the Mizzou responses on Yik Yak, where one person wrote, “Why the fuck is all this black equality bullshit coming up right now?”)
“After four years, I feel like I don’t know any person of color who came out at the end like, Yeah that was a healthy place to be as a person of color.”
In hopes of spurring dialogue, the cultural centers organized a teach-in called “A Moment of Crisis: Race at Yale Teach-In,” held on November 11. Discussion topics included: Valuing Women of Color at Yale, Mental Health and Its Impact on Communities of Color, Addressing White and Male Privilege, and The Importance of Taking Ethnic Studies.
Over 1,000 people attended, including white male students who participated in a panel on white privilege. Yale senior Molly Zeff told the Yale Daily News, “This is a fight that’s only going to be possible if the people who most benefit from systemic racism, which include myself, are fully aware of the people who most suffer from systemic racism.” That the teach-in was organized by the cultural center—and not the university at large—highlights where Yale ultimately fails at initiating discourse from the top down.
The same week as the March of Resilience, the hashtag #blackoncampus started trending on Twitter, encouraging people to share their experiences of being a black student at a predominantly white college. Reading it, I remembered how, as a transfer student at NYU, there was rarely a day that I didn’t feel like a minority. Almost every class reminded me of it. Professors would occasionally mix up the names of me and the one or two other black women in the room.
I chose to live at home with my parents, which allowed me to avoid ridiculous housing costs and, in effect, much of the entire campus culture. When asked, I say NYU was a great educational experience with a great journalism program. It was not so much a great personal experience. In comparison, my freshman year at Temple, a much more diverse school, was one of the best ever. And it was my avoidance of campus life at NYU that allowed me to dodge much of the structural racism that permeates everyday existence at a small or isolated college like Yale. Johnson says it’s normal for minority freshmen to turn a blind eye to seemingly minor racist incidents. Head down and focused.
“It’s different the longer you’re at Yale. But the first year, people are really quiet about racism because you’re just so happy to be there. As it goes on, the micro-aggressions pile up,” says Johnson. “This is an amazing place with amazing minds, so you let a lot of stuff slide when you first get there. You’re like, That can’t possibly be what they’re doing. And then after four years, I feel like I don’t know any person of color who came out at the end like, Yeah that was a healthy place to be as a person of color.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Images via Christopher Melamed, a photographer and student at Yale