In anticipation of the Halloween weekend soon to arrive at Yale, an email was sent out by Dean Burgwell Howard and the Intercultural Affairs Committee in which they implored the Yale body to “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 also encouraged Yale students to “take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have.”
What was simply a request from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee for students to reconsider culturally insensitive costumes was met with criticism when an email was sent out to the students of Silliman College by the Associate Master, Erika Christakis. She wrote her email, as she says, in response to “students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear.”
Associate Master Erika Christakis,
In your email, you defend the right to wear racist or marginalizing costumes as free speech and accuse the Intercultural Affairs Committee of imposing bureaucratic restrictions on the student body. You deem the call for sensitivity “censure” — one which you say comes “from above”, not from the students, as if the repeated requests of many students of color do not count. To equate a suggestion of the IAC, a committee created to challenge bias and promote cultural awareness, respect, and appreciation on campus, with an “institutional exercise of implied control over college students” further erases the voices of the students they stand to protect.
The contents of your email were jarring and disheartening. Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people, to preschoolers playing make believe. This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made. You fail to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people. In your email, you ask students to “look away” if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore. We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding. Giving “room” for students to be “obnoxious” or “offensive”, as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe.
These discussions are not new, and have been happening nationally. To ask marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday, in order to expend emotional, mental, and physical energy to explain why something is offensive, is — offensive. In the age of the internet, resources can easily be found to explain the history and consequences of these actions. The role of marginalized people on campus is not, and should not be, to constantly educate our peers if they ignore the many opportunities offered — like the one provided by the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s email — to self-explore and learn.
After receiving responses from students and alumni through both social media and email, you responded to critics of your email with a link to the Atlantic Magazine article, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Not only are you calling our calls to be respected as human beings and not costumes, coddling, but you use an article that doesn’t consider the fact that marginalized people largely do not have the protected upbringings the authors describe. We are not asking to be coddled. The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear. We, however, simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus. This is us asking for basic respect of our cultures and our livelihoods.
To be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you. From the Eurocentric courses, to the lack of diversity in the faculty, to the names of slave owners and traders that adorn most of the buildings on campus — all are reminders that Yale’s history is one of exclusion. An exclusion that was based on the same stereotypes and incorrect beliefs that students now seek to wear as costumes. Stereotypes that many students still face to this day when navigating the university. The purpose of blackface, yellowface, and practices like these were meant to alienate, denigrate, and to portray people of color as something inferior and unwelcome in society. To see that replicated on college campuses only reinforces the idea that this is a space in which we do not belong.
Concerned Yale Students, Alumni, Family, Faculty, and Staff
Add your signature to the open letter here.
Thank you Ryan Wilson for writing this letter.