A Letter to Erika Christakis from a Silliman Student

by Christian White 

Dear Associate Master Christakis,

My name is Christian White and I’m a sophomore in Silliman College, a space I’d like to think you’ve made yourself familiar with.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t know you and I’ve never met you, even though we reside in the same space. With that being said, I don’t know what kind of person you are, your background or your views, but I’d like to extend to you the benefit of the doubt by assuming that you are a genuine and true person and that you’re intentions all fall in the boundary of good meaning. You seem like a truly educated woman, who is extremely knowledgeable about her field. So as a student in your college, and a student of color, I feel it is my obligation to educate you, and reveal the holes in the arguments that you made in your email.

In your words, “we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.” You use this to suggest that children should not be limited in their choice of costumes, be it offensive or not, because they have the right to exercise their creativity. But at what point do we sacrifice the respect to different cultures, religions, and ethnicities for the sake of allowing imagination to foster? At what point do we deem creativity a sufficient reason to disrespect the authenticity of different cultures?

I find it disturbing that you would imply forfeiting basic respect to people of different backgrounds in the name of creativity is acceptable in this day and age. By this logic, you suggest that if one of your preschool students wanted to dress up in black face and be the princess Tiana you mentioned before, that you have no qualms with allowing her to do so.

You proceed to ask in your letter, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” No, there is absolutely not any room. I don’t know how old you are, or what era you grew up in, but in this day and age there is downright no room to justify being outwardly offensive, inappropriate, or simply ignorant in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable.

Dean Howard’s carefully articulated letter to the student body suggested that we carefully consider our choice of dress. In your letter you say that this “censure and prohibition from above” is somewhat patronizing to the student body, that it suggests that we don’t have the capacity to make proper decisions regarding appropriate dress. I find that you have deeply mistaken the intentions of the university administration. You’re right, we’re all adults, regardless of how mature or immature we are. We are all highly educated adults interacting in a multifaceted community. So why did the administration feel the need to encourage students to think twice?

Because clearly some of the highly educated adults within this community can be as bigoted, as ignorant, as narrow-minded as someone not of their capabilities. Within our community there are those that have the “capacity” to make proper decisions but disregard them due to their own obliviousness. Associate Master Christakis, I must conjecture that you are of the same oblivious nature. That you don’t understand the bigotry these “adults” are capable of, that you do not acknowledge the disrespect and genuine hurt felt by the cultures appropriated.

Associate Master Christakis, maybe the most disturbing piece of your argument comes from your attempts to compare our student body to the preschoolers you are so accustomed to. Your attempt to extend your expertise a little further past the age gap simply doesn’t suffice. I know you must be quite knowledgeable in regards to younger children, but as you said, we are “young adults” who are fundamentally different in how we perceive, interpret, and interact with different things.

However, what irritates me more is how you trivialize the concerns of those appropriated by constraining this situation to the boundaries of preschoolers. I would hope that parents would have the decency to not allow their children to be openly offensive and culturally insensitive. But as young adults, we are not under the constant supervision of our parents, we must have the ability for ourselves to know when we have crossed the line of appropriation. This is exactly why we have to have this conversation, because some of us do not have this ability, some of us act as if we still need the constant supervision of parents.

While reading your letter, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and frustrated by your lack of validation on this matter. Dean Howard’s suggestions to be wary of our costume choices were well articulated and appropriately timed. For you as neither a dean or a master of this college to respond to his suggestions in the way you did was unjustified, excessive, and frankly unnecessary.

As a student of color in your residential college, I was very disappointed that somebody in your position was capable of alienating the sense of community we try so hard to build in Silliman. I was so disheartened that somebody meant to make us feel more comfortable at Yale can so easily perpetuate primitive ideas that continue to percolate our society. I was surprised that somebody could have the audacity to trivialize our issues and tell us to “look away” if we’re offended.

During my time at Yale, I’ve tried so hard to set my expectations high for our faculty and administration, hoping that they would be enlightened enough to effectively listen to and help us deal with our concerns. However, after reading your letter, I find my standards are still a little too high.

Finally in your conclusion you ask the question “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?” I must say, that if this is your final question directed to this topic, after we have spent so much time examining and debating the issue, then you have completely missed the point of this whole discussion. This is not about the administration’s viewpoint of the student body as young people, this is not about the administration attempting to limit our freedom of expression, and this damn sure is not about your “problem child concept.”

This whole discussion is about having the basic decency to show respect and understanding to all those ethnicities, religions, and cultures that have been so oft disrespected in the past. This is about being a responsible and culturally aware member of society, regardless of whether you are a child, young adult, or senior citizen. As citizens, especially those in such an elite and elevated community as Yale, we have an obligation to produce culturally responsible, educated people ready to contribute to the world.

How can we, as an institution, do that if we don’t have the affability to encourage students to make proper decisions about their dress. So to address your final statement, you are right, it is not your business to directly control the costumes of young people. But you especially as a figure of authority, whose job is to make your students feel comfortable in their respective communities, have a duty to encourage people to think twice about their costume decisions.

When we are young Halloween is all about collecting candy and dressing up as monsters. But, as we get older we realize the real monsters don’t have to dress up to be one.