How a Yale Prof’s Defense of Offensive Halloween Costumes Reveals a Hostile Campus Climate for Students of Colour

Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This country’s prestigious colleges and universities have a serious race problem.

At the University of Missouri, student athletes have walked off the sports field in solidarity with other students of colour protesting numerous racially intolerant incidents, including Black students enduring racial slurs on the streets and a residence hall being defaced with feces in the shape of a swastika. At UCLA, a student was photographed attending a Halloween party in Blackface, only the latest of such incidents that occur annually. Multiple lawsuits alleging North Carolina Central University, University of Illinois, and St. Mary’s College created racially discriminatory environments for faculty and students of colour. University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members were videotaped in March singing one of the frat’s traditional songs that describes a lynching, and SAE frat members reportedly subjected a Black student to racist slurs at Duke University.

At Yale University, SAE members threw a “Whites Only” party last week with students reporting on social media that a person posted at the door of the party turned away visibly minority Black and Latino students, as well as someone rejected as “gay”, and openly said the party was only admitting “White girls”. Just days later, Professor Erika Christakis (wife of the Master of Silliman College) emailed Silliman residents with a jaw-droppingly tone deaf defense of offensive Halloween costumes. In her digital screed, Christakis lamented university “censure” of racist behavior, and argued that Halloween should be a time when offensive transgressions should be celebrated. She questioned if it was really “appropriative” for a White child to engage in racial cross-dressing as Mulan (yes), and if she was engaging in fetishism when she purchased a sari — because it was “beautiful” — on her last trip to Bangladesh (also, yes).

In a head-spinning display of White privilege, Christakis wrote: “Am I fetishizing and appropriating other people’s cultural experiences? Probably. But I really like them, too.”

Quoting her husband, Nicholas Christakis, Erika Christakis wrote:

Nicholas says, if 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.

Christakis’ email propelled Yale into mainstream news headlines as students took to the streets to confront Nicholas Christakis over the email. They also staged a mass demonstration before Yale’s first Black Dean of Students, Jonathan Holloway, issuing an emotional plea for him to do something, anything, about on-campus racial hostility.

“As a black man, you know where we come from,” said Ron Tricoche, of New York. “You need to act, whether it’s with Yale or without Yale. We need you.”

Staring back at the student, Holloway said softly: “I will.”

It’s tempting for those of us on the outside of the Ivory Tower to conclude that the simmering racial debate at Yale is all about a frat party and an insensitive faculty email. It’s not. The protests at Yale, University of Missouri, and other schools are pulling back the veil that has obscured for far too long how our institutions of higher education are openly hostile to today’s students of colour.

Most of our nation’s most prestigious schools can trace their roots to a time of unabashed exclusion, when only White, male, upper-income students were permitted entry. Time has seen an unbearably slow march towards racial and gender integration. Princeton University did not graduate its first Black undergraduate student until 1947, more than two centuries after the school’s founding. Yale did not enroll its first female students until 1969.

The protests making headlines at Yale University right now are about the continuing project of racial integration in higher education. More specifically, they highlight a lasting problem for colleges and universities: that racial tolerance requires more than the mere presence of a non-White student. After centuries of inaccess, our most prestigious schools have now opened their doors to students of colour, but they have extended those invitations without having entertained the far more difficult conversation about how to make those students feel truly welcome at institutions built upon a foundation of racism.

Today, students of colour live on campuses, and attend classes, surrounded by the scars of our schools’ more intolerant past, which now only serve to remind students that we do not truly belong. I remember being struck at Cornell by the campus’ historic Willard Straight Hall Student Union building – the center of non-academic student life – which was originally built with a segregated entrance for female students. The Union also contains a bank in the foyer that was installed following the landmark 36-hour takeover of the building by Black students in 1969 to protest an act of racial terrorism committed against a Black female co-op the night before. The bank’s presence at Willard Straight Hall is a silent condemnation of the struggle for Black liberation: it exists less than two hundred feet from another bank branch found in the campus store, and on-campus legend says that the bank was installed to discourage any future takeovers of the building by ensuring the act would be a federal crime. Cornell’s extensive gardens still bear the name Cornell Plantations, with nary a thought given to how this might impact the school’s Black students.

Most of the founders of our Ivy League schools benefited from chattel slavery, but rarely do schools challenge how preservation of that history can be painful for the school’s contemporary Black students. At Yale, a portrait of Elihu Yale that hung in Woodbridge Hall until 2007 included the school’s founder being waited on by a collared Black slave (see Snoopy for more exposition on how images of Black slavery are used to create visual power dynamics in early and contemporary art). One of Yale’s 12 residential colleges is named for John C. Calhoun, a vocal proponent of chattel slavery before the Civil War.

Portrait of Elihu Yale and others, which depicts the group of White men being served by a collared Black boy.
Portrait of Elihu Yale and others, which depicts the group of White men being served by a collared Black boy.

These structural reminders of racism (and sexism) persist (and are often vocally defended in the name of “preserving history”) while initiatives aimed towards helping students of colour combat the psychological impacts of campus intolerance are undercut. Affirmative action programs – necessary for higher education access for students of colour – face a new hearing before the Supreme Court this year, and some believe the conservative leaning of the Court’s current justices may lead to the dismantling of these diversity programs. Few campuses offer a community or cultural centre that creates a “safe space” for students of colour; those that do exist are profoundly underfunded. I wrote last week about the pending demise of Asian American Studies Programs at the University of Michigan, and how it’s time to step the fuck up in support of Asian American Studies and all other ethnic studies programs.

Our colleges and universities are supposed to be institutions of higher learning, yet for students of colour, we expect learning to take place for students adrift within an undercurrent of hostility. Stories of alarming racial intolerance and outright hate crimes filter out of the Ivory Tower on an almost weekly basis, and they have for decades; yet, as a nation, we treat these stories as isolated incidents, and turn a blind eye to the larger trend of racial intolerance that has plagued students of colour since the moment of our entry through the gates of these campuses.

Erika Christakis’ email last week reveals why: our most prestigious colleges and universities remain fortresses of White privilege where the most difficult racial conversations have failed to permeate into these schools’ upper echelons of leadership. Christakis’ email is telling with regard to the attitude schools take towards its students of colour. Christakis prioritizes the right to free speech over how that speech might be used to commit acts of overt racism towards students of colour; she urges the victims of such hatespeech to simply “ignore it”. This is, indeed, the traditional approach that colleges and universities have taken towards acts of racial intolerance on their campuses: whether a burning cross, or a noose, or a fecal swastika, or racist Halloween “play”, or structural celebrations of chattel slavery. Schools tell us to ignore these dehumanizing incidents, while they simultaneously embrace the delusion that respectful academic discourse can occur in a space where students of colour experience daily dehumanization and disrespect.

We endure campuses where the right of students to commit acts of heinous racism is valued more by school leadership than the hurt we feel because of it. We endure such a campus climate, because our schools were built upon a foundation of intolerance towards non-White students, and because we have undertaken few of the efforts needed to challenge that tradition of hatred.

Our institutions of higher education, indeed, have a race problem: they have imported the bodies of students of colour in pursuit of campus diversity, but they have not done the much more difficult and radical work of inviting in our hearts, our minds, or our souls.

Act Now! If you are a Yale student, please attend tonight’s community forum event on the campus’ racial climate, sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center.

Updated (11/9/2015): Minor corrections.

Updated (11/10/2015): This post is now cross-posted on Thought Catalog.

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  • ErickKwon

    Very aware he’s white, but he’s probably as vocal as any black activist that comes to mind.

  • Skeet Duran

    Being Liberal or being wealthy are just sub categories of race. In the next generation, by ratios there will be more wealthy white kids than colored kids around the world. White Liberals are also more privileged in general than colored Liberals.

  • Didn’t want to ignore your comment since you took the time to write it (thank you) but don’t think there’s any point in continuing the conversation elsewhere. I was just pointing out that not everyone agrees with the view of affirmative action you presented. Yes, it’s a minority view, but it exists even among non-conservatives (I don’t know if Dr. McWhorter identifies as liberal so don’t want to label him as such).

  • bigWOWO

    Again, you seem to fundamentally misunderstand the full background of this debate. The inciting incident here was never a university mandate against Halloween costumes. The vast majority of protesters are not mandating any standard of Halloween costumes.

    I never said that there was a mandated standard either, but there was a suggested standard. Should there have been? All Christakis said was that she wasn’t going to be a judge of what is and what isn’t appropriate. Which is another way of saying that she was not going to be pushing her ideas on other people.

    Now I know some people are angry over the “tone.” But I just don’t see it. I thought it was very thoughtful. I agree with this writer:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-new-intolerance-of-student-activism-at-yale/414810/

    No one argues that dialogue over offensive behaviour can’t happen. People are arguing that the offensive behaviour shouldn’t happen in the first place — that the same personal responsibility standard you are applying to these protesters should apply to White people too.

    Offensive behavior shouldn’t happen in the first place? Jenn….the only way to make certain it doesn’t happen is…censorship. And even that might not work! It’s further complicated by the fact by what’s offensive to you might not be offensive to me. And vice-versa. I personally thought it was highly offensive when the woman was shouting profanities at the professor, but hey, she’s got a right to say it. I’m not going to praise the obscenities coming from her mouth, but I’m not going to silence her either.

    Snoopy might (or might not) find a white kid in a ninja uniform offensive. I don’t–even though I’m Asian and Snoopy isn’t. Why should I be forced to adopt his standards?

    I think the bottom line is that time and energy are better spent on more productive activities. If you’re offended by something, discuss it. If the person doesn’t get it, fight back. Take a picture and post it on Instagram. But there’s no point in trying to monitor or control how people dress for Halloween.

  • Bob

    I agree with you that we should not be expected to segregate our clothing and food and art and music. Wish there were more to say on this topic, beyond the obvious.

  • Bob

    It’s really a terrible argument though to say that buying souvenirs causes anyone damage. This is a uniquely American objection, entirely academic. We should all be striving to make our world and world-view bigger, to participate in more of the world, to travel further, to meet more people from more varied places, to listen more, and to integrate that experience into who we become as we all continue to grow through life. As well, appreciation of beauty is a good thing and there needs to be more of it. We are living in a world of fake plastic and wars, while what we need is craftsmanship and peace and intercultural bridges.

  • 1maybeso

    I like your attitude. That is a path to good will and empathy that I prefer, instead of the predatory victimhood that many people practice in this country. There are too many cry bullies, desperate for attention, seeking evermore reasons to find offense and exploit it.

  • MelaninManson

    There’s nothing academic about the recognition that purchasing cultural material does not convey complete license to use that material however one wishes without objection in all circumstances. It may be easier for some to imagine the offense taken when Erika Christakis wears her Bangledeshi sari to the local mall as misplaced and hyperbolic, but I believe that results from the uniquely American idea that other cultures and their products should be continually up for sale at all times, without objection. This predatory capitalism where Americans treat the world like an online store deserves contempt.

    If yarmulkes became mainstream clothing the way some women use saris, where people with zero contact with and knowledge of Judaism wore them all the time as fashion statements, many people would decry that misuse with the same arguments I raise today. There’s nothing wrong with increased cultural interaction, but the attitude that purchasing items from cultures outside one’s origin exists above reasonable critique does not persuade.

  • Bob

    I wish it were true that most Americans believe the world’s culture are up for sale, but instead most Americans can’t see past their own borders at all. It’s a sadly insular society in need of outside influence. In any case, for those who do make the effort to travel and keep an open mind — when you go to a souvenir shop abroad, the buyer and seller have the reasonable expectation that the goods are going to be used/worn/given. Not held in a glass case in a museum. When you buy a day pack, for example, it’s expected that you’ll wear it. The same goes for shirts, pants, any other garb, and for the display of paintings, etc. None of the sellers is expecting the buyers to practice abstinence when it comes to the usage of the goods they are choosing to sell. The reason these critiques are problematic and unreasonable is that they suggest culture is some finite quantity that will dissolve in proportion to tourism, when in fact culture is infinitely deep and only grows stronger when it is shared and spread. I would not ask Japan to “give back” anime to Walt Disney because cultural cross-pollination very often has an overall positive effect. It enriches everyone involved. And I certainly wouldn’t offend at someone wearing a yarmulke if they prefer, being a Jew myself, since I also don’t object to Goys eating pastrami, drinking celery soda, or joining a Hanukkah celebration — or for that matter using a menorah as a paperweight. I wouldn’t even be offended by a person wearing a shirt that says “Free Tibet,” even if they just wear it for aesthetic reasons.

  • MelaninManson

    Bob, if you aren’t offended by non-Jews wearing yarmulkes or any number of outsider interactions with cultural Judaism, that’s completely permissible. It also illustrates that the sensibilities many apply to the barest possibility of cultural appropriation involve their personal taste, not any larger principles. I understand your lament of American insularity, but reject the idea that a capitalist interaction with the world is better than no interaction at all.

    Economic considerations in a worldwide capitalist system where Western citizens generally possess more disposable income than many people outside their borders establish a troubling dynamic. We don’t exactly know if the Bangladeshi sari vendor would sell to Westerners if Bangledeshi citizens per capita enjoyed a comparable standard of living to middle class Americans. Again, I support cosmopolitanism, but I don’t think multicultural ideals are best served by a dynamic where poor brown people sell indigenous wares and hand-woven clothing to White Americans on holiday for survival.

    Certainly no one suggests that the purchase of a sari is impermissible, but when we fail to consider reasonable concerns about that sort of act under the guise of cultural understanding or a single-minded trust in capitalism’s invisible hand, we literally pay the darker nations’ poor to remain silent while we clothe our bodies in their cultural distinctiveness.

    That’s difficult at best, and every Halloween this phenomena takes the extreme of Blackface costumes and Orientalist caricature worn openly on college campuses — the very thing Yale University suggested its students should probably avoid. Erika Christakis erred when she attempted to justify those who would use the honorable cultural interactions you support as an excuse for lampooning others’ humanity, but its telling that her defense of the offensive included her belief that nothing could possibly be amiss with her purchase of a foreign sari.

    When the only worldly interaction one has with the world involves money, it’s easy to confuse other people for cashiers. The customer isn’t always right.

  • Bob

    Fair enough. I don’t like making fun of people, or the distortions either. (And I don’t like restaurants with names like Wok ‘n’ Roll …) I get that what people are trying to do is a good thing, trying to avoid disrespect and lampooning. I also thought Christakis’s letter was brilliant, particularly the part about pretending being the foundation of cognition. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my Japanese bathrobe 🙂

  • Anonymous

    It’s easy to become a target when you work in the media. I grew up under the “ignore-it-if-you-want-to-make-it” banner. This is exactly why we need a variety in Asian media to combat concepts that we all are 1) model minority; or 2) lock-step progressives. Check out http://dailycaller.com/2015/11/12/asian-student-makes-safe-space-unsafe-black-people-can-be-racistvideo/ & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRlRAyulN4o

  • MelaninManson

    Fair enough! Be well.