Open Letter to Associate Master Christakis

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.

  1. It’s time we encourage people to behave respectfully instead of accepting their rude ignorance that negatively affects people.

  2. You have GOT to be kidding me. You just proved Christakis right, and you probably don’t even realize it. What the hell has happened to America’s college campuses? Places that used to be bastions of free speech and tough academic exchanges are full of intolerant “boo hoo you stepped on my widdle feelings” pre-schoolers where butt-hurt runs rampant. Disgusting.

  3. Being rude and ignorant is a right afforded in the First Amendment. If people have to deal with offensive things like gays in public, then the public should have to deal with rude ignorance.

  4. This is another attempt to censor free speech using coopted language of toleration.

    Most of us are now awake to the use of coded language by these groups. And we see it in the letter above. Notice how the opposing speech is labeled as an “eraser of voices”. This is the technique of silencing the opposition by claiming that their opinion is silencing you or invalidating your experiences or making you feel opposed.

    And, notice that the act of calling for toleration is itself labelled to be an act of violence against those holding the opinions stated above.

    When will this group wake up to realize that they have coopted the language of race, group, identity, privilege, and oppression into an instrument of oppression and censorship?

    What is next? Would you like to ban criticism of ISIS on campus for fear it might offend any Muslims?

  5. I would rather kill myself than be in college nowadays. What should be the most fun 4 years of your life has turned into a whine-a-thon by the most thin-skinned, ridiculously intolerant people on earth. It’s like they can’t be happy if they’re not complaining about something, and the something is usually the most ridiculous “offense” anyone could imagine. Jeez, watch Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House or something if you’ve forgotten how to have fun in college.

  6. This letter appears to conflate the defence of free speech with support for institutionalised racism. Anyone who entertains this tenuous association needs to think again.

    The idea that a person should not have “to expend…energy to explain why something is offensive” is ludicrous. If you are offended, it is your job to challenge the offender in a civilised way. Demanding that someone else remove the risk of offence from your life is not an acceptable imposition in a free society.

    Or have we forgotten that good things come from dissenting (and, to some, offensive) voices, not least of which being the rise of equal rights for the disadvantaged? Subduing free speech hurts you more than it helps you.

  7. That this would happen at Yale that used to have one of the strongest statements for free speech in the WORLD, really shows you how far down the toilet higher education has gone.

    The good thing is that every one of those signatories now has stated their position and every future employer out in the real world can ask themselves whether someone so shallow and uncaring for free speech and obviously so coddled and unable to cope with views they do not share is someone that should be hired in the first place.

  8. As a father I am seriously reconsidering the wisdom of investing in my children’s higher education.

  9. “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.”

    that’s the precise argument of many u.s. veterans, comprised of many people of color and often subject to ageism, and who felt that a violent desecration of the u.s.flag violated their safe space and was an assault on their psyches. what did the supreme court tell these vets in tx v. johnson 1989? deal with it. look away if you don’t like it.

    you and the vets of color who made such arguments are one and the same.

  10. Excellent letter.

    It appears a lot of the commentators here want the privilege of free speech without the consequences of pushback when they say homophobic (e.g. Matthew), racist or otherwise stupid statements. It seems that’s where the real “whining” is coming from.

  11. It’s pretty obvious (and the comments show this) that this incident is widely seen as an example of how thoroughly bullying and totalitarian the supposedly “hurt” and “victimized” students in these confrontations are. “Vindictive Protectiveness,” it has now very aptly been named. But I have to ask, why is this so prevalent now on the elite campuses in particular, like Yale. Of course this war on ideas prevents any honest debate about this at Yale or any of these other places. But affirmative action has to be counted as one factor. A t the most elite institutions now we are most likely to see a sizable group who have been admitted one or two levels above their own abilities. It’s no wonder they have the nutty idea a college is supposed to be a “safe home” for them instead of the place to push and challenge them to get out and get moving. However, I do not think it can all by chalked up to affirmative action. A far wider spirit of fear of ideas and terror of discomfort is now endemic. It seems to be coming from the entire culture now – which weirdly combines a prissy sensitivity to any slight with the rawest mean-spirited styles in politics, the blogs, talk radio, music, etc. Both left and right. Houston, we’ve got a problem.

  12. I can’t believe this is coming out of an institution as highly regarded as Yale University. Supporting free speech, freedom of expression, and dissenting opinions is not the same as agreeing with or encouraging offensive or racist views. College is not a safe space, it is a place to learn and grow intellectually. If you’re so fragile that a costume makes you unable to learn, take a gap year and come back later.

  13. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to look away. But you do have to understand that nobody is obliged to ensure that you aren’t offended.

    Cry out, yell about it, talk to the person that is wearing it and explain your point of view if it is truly that important to you.

    But don’t you dare try to punish people for disagreeing with you. THAT is oppression. Grow up.

  14. Using the logic of these “offended” students, I and my fellow white classmates at Yale in the early ’70s should have demanded that the university not permit the Black Panthers to occupy our campus because their presence and revolutionary rhetoric would offend our own delicate sensibilities. Instead, the entire Yale community closed up shop and ended the academic year several weeks early so that the Panthers could be accommodated. How pathetically far the university and its weak kneed students have fallen.

  15. So you received an opposing view to your pre-hallween cautions and suggestions. And instead of saying “heyyyy let’s do this face to face, you escalate the situation and gather signatures.
    Both sides have valid points. It is sad that in 2015 adults need reminders of how to dress up. Given so many manage to screw it up, those reminders are necessary. But not everyone agrees with us. Talk this to a discussion of learning instead of becoming offended. The real world outside of Yale likely doesn’t really care about hurt feelings. Gender-Up. Grow-Up.

  16. This is the heart of it:

    “The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with . . . brutal pasts.”

    I was a member of the “privileged majority” at Yale as a student twenty years ago, and I was often ashamed of Yale’s disinterest in critical self-regard–starting with its incessant honorifics of John C. Calhoun and his ilk.

    This letter’s authors aren’t wrong that “the names of slave owners and traders . . . adorn most of the buildings on campus.” These memorials aren’t maintained as provocation for critical engagement or edifices of free speech. They aren’t kept as “teaching opportunities.” They’re maintained uncritically. Silently. Stupidly.

    What must it be like to be a young student of color assigned to Calhoun College? “Welcome to your new home, a space with which we–your teachers and mentors–have decided to honor an alumnus who would’ve bought and sold you, your parents, your children in chattel slavery.”

    I can’t believe people prefer to defend such noxiousness and outright stupidity as “tough breaks” or “the real world.” The world is what we make it–more specifically, what we inspire and provoke young people to do with it! Why not start with some intellectual honesty and ask: how does Yale’s persistent and uncritical pride in figures like John C. Calhoun inflect its future? And we shouldn’t stop with the name over the door–why not ask how Yale’s administration and faculty continue to be overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male? Why not explore the implications of eurocentrism in the curriculum? I wish my classmates and I, 20 years ago, had been as thoughtful, as articulate, and *gutsy* as these students are, now.

    If you truly care about “free speech,” then you should be *very* pleased to see young people asking bold, insightful questions of those in power.

    And anyway: no one is asking Yale to stifle free speech or free engagement of ideas, however worthless or noxious they may be. No one is asking Yale to coddle anyone. This letter is asking the privileged majority in power at Yale to *stop* coddling itself–to take a good long look in the mirror, to think carefully, and to take responsibility for some big, long-standing mistakes.

  17. I think what is going on when white students make their costume a minority race or culture is that they are implicitly stating that the other race or culture is so “other,” so not normal, that it constitues fair game for a Halloween costume. That’s the offensiveness of the message. But that doesn’t mean there is no “right” to dress as one wishes. But it is offensive.

    Some basic reviews of principals are in order. The first amendment applies to Congress (“Congress shall make no law…”). Private parties within society are free to make rules of tolerable speech and apply whatever (lawful) consequences to infractions that they may choose, including disassociation, ostracism, etc. And that includes universities. A private university may impose rules of speech or conduct that the government could not. So the original guidance email from the administration was certainly lawful. Of course traditionally universities have essentially voluntarily and as a matter of ideals and academic freedom apllied free speech values to themselves as a core, if not the core, value. So what is happening here is a renegotiation of that core value. Culture changes, values change. I imagine that on campus in the 1800s speech was not so free by today’s standards. And that, for example, simple incivilty and perceived lack of manners or even challenges directed to faculty might have led to consequences, including expulsion. (I don’t know that, but it seems plausible.)

    That all said, I wish students could lighten up a bit, and also maybe make common cause with each other, in the spirit of crosscultural tolerance and free speech. Why doesn’t a group of open-minded students get together next year and cross-dress and wander the campus parties together–a black student in white-face, and vice versa, a muslim student dressed as a priest, a jewish student in a turban and a christian student dressed in chasidic garb, a man as a women and vice versa, a vegan as a hunter and a jock as a ballerina, etc., use your imagination. If you all walked together it might be a strong expression of solidarity. It might be fun and educational to spend a few hours in another person’s clothes or skin. It might be a blast. Just a thought.

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