by Elizabeth Spenst 

“I’d tell you what I don’t have
time for but I don’t have time.”

– Angel Nafis, “Gravity

Last year, I wrote an essay for an English class about the health effects of racism on the Black body, from Johny Henryism to microagressions to the racial empathy gap. I supported everything I wrote with medical studies and research, like any scholar would. When I read through the comments that my classmates wrote to help improve my first draft, one white man suggested that I “tone down the rhetoric.”

I was not making a rhetorical move, I was telling the factual, empirical truth. He has probably forgotten about writing that comment, and he has probably forgotten about my essay too. But whenever the systemic racism embedded in Yale’s culture is brought to life and whenever people start to defend their misinformed opinions with cries of free speech, I think about the moment when I wrote a factual, researched essay about the harm of everyday racism on the Black body and a white man decided that the part about Black pain wasn’t working for him.

My former classmate and I are living in two different worlds right now. His world is still spinning, while mine is duct taped to its crumbling axis and desperately in need of repair. My world, and the world of a few hundred Yalies has been shaken by the offensive email sent out by Associate Head of Silliman College Erika Christakis the night before Halloween, followed by the incident on Halloween when Black women were denied entry to an SAE party because the fraternity brothers told them that it was “white girls only.”

And of course we are not surprised. So few of my professors, administrators, and fellow students look like me. Mainstream media tells the nation that we are oversensitive or underserving of our spots at schools like Yale. Who would have taught Christakis or the SAE brothers how to treat women of color with respect?

SAE is almost not worth mentioning at all. When DOWN published a weekend survival guide back in September, we warned students of color not to feel worthless when SAE brothers don’t hit on them because they’re not white. Based on the flood of personal horror stories that women of color have shared about treatment at SAE, we should have warned people not to go there at all.

Christakis called for an open conversation between students on offensive costumes, and on the surface, she got what she wanted (cause we’re sure as hell talking), but in reality this intellectual exercise came at the expense of Native students’ emotional health and even physical safety. Framing this as a debate forces people of color to educate unwilling white people and place themselves in harm’s way.

The SAE discussion has just boiled down to an “It happened” vs. an “It didn’t happen” discourse. They are just denying it (probably for legal reasons). And the LITERAL FACTS as recounted by several women of color are politicized such that people who support SAE (or disagree with this, whatever that means) are saying the women are liars. How can you disagree with facts? Both SAE and Christakis use a rationalistic logic that’s actually highly afactual and irrational because—you guessed it—they’re racist!

This kind of racism in disguise – where a false debate about “free speech” is used to question people of color’s humanity – needs to stop.

And that’s why this is not an op-ed. I’m not writing about my opinion, I’m writing about my humanity. There is a terrible gap in understanding that is impeding conversations about racism on campus. A lot of people don’t understand what racism is and why the feelings and experiences of people of color are just as valid as those of white people.

To understand this, I would have to explain a lot of history and theory. But I am tired. All of the people of color who have been speaking out for the past few days are tired as well. It takes great emotional labor to justify my humanity over and over again because the stakes are so high. My life is at stake.

When white people engage in a dialogue about race, they can walk away at the end, regardless of the conclusion or outcome. We can’t. This is the situation we face in a country that was founded on slavery, genocide, and conditional free speech. If you think that these three things have nothing to do with our present conversation, then you are misinformed.

If you disagree with anything I previously said, come to the Afro-American Cultural Center when I’m on duty in the staff office. I’ll have a conversation with you about race while I’m on the clock and being paid; you are not entitled to my emotional capital. I have to start turning in my class assignments on time again. I have to stop waking up everyday feeling sad, and then angry. All of my people of color need to start taking care of themselves, and healing.

We need Yale to pay for mandatory racial sensitivity programs for students, professors, and administrators. This is essential for the mental and emotional wellbeing of students of color on campus. Until Yale gives me a salary, health insurance, and a parking spot, I cannot be a full-time educator on this campus. I need to be ensured that my humanity is never again treated as a matter of opinion.

  1. as a woman of color, though a woc who does not always face the same issues in the same ways as Black women, this is so powerful. thank you and please continue to speak truth.

  2. Elizabeth,

    Let me begin by saying that I think your piece is well written and I write as a former student who read the email (I will only refer to the email, and not the SAE incident).

    I didn’t find the email offensive for this reason: I firmly believe it was an honest defense of the first amendment. Before you tune me out immediately, please know that I would genuinely and sincerely like to discuss if you are willing, because I know my opinion is similar to many that did not find the email objectionable.

    I do not think the administration penalizing offensive students is appropriate because I do not think it will address or change deep-rooted racism, there is a lot of ambiguity in what is offensive, and lastly, because it is extremely dangerous to punish someone solely due to the fact that they are despicable and offensive. I would find many Halloween costumes extremely offensive and objectionable if those costumes belittled an entire group of people. However, the reason why this is a freedom of speech issue is because you MUST defend that which you find objectionable, otherwise, by definition, it isn’t freedom of speech at all. If someone dresses up as a suicide bomber or wears blackface, it’s remarkably despicable, but I believe that you have to defend the right to do so. There should be serious social consequences for acting in that sort of manner, and those consequences gain momentum and significance every year. I support the Associate Master’s belief that students are capable to make those decisions.


  3. Married to a dark skined husband, raising 2 dark skined children ; I fear for their safty and them getting emotionally abused every day.
    I asked what best we can do while we can not change others, except be strong and together.
    And I pray.

  4. Thank you for saying (writing) what needed to be said out loud. Im a Black American woman working on Yales campus and my sister graduated from Yale two years ago. Between my three sisters and I, we have nine college degrees. Four from Ivys. We have experienced both the open and the micro aggression style racism on campus. Its real and its emotionally and (increasingly) physically dangerous. However, the best revenge is living well. And the best bleach is sunlight. Continue your studies, keep ‘educating’ on your own terms. Also make sure you continue your selfcare (ie having healthy boundaries and such). You will continue to do big things. All the best to you. Im proud like I know you!

  5. Please keep being strong and keep fighting to help people understand, no matter how hard it is. I am trying to do the same, and my heart goes out to those who have more at stake than I do.

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