by Nicole Chavez
Last Thursday afternoon, a small group of students gathered in the Silliman Courtyard to chalk affirmations in support of women of color at Yale. This peaceful demonstration of solidarity and self-love was in response to Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis’ email to students that challenged a previous email sent from the Intercultural Affairs Council advising students to respect students of color and not wear offensive costumes.
The media has depicted ongoing events on campus as a “PC War” in which people of color are impeding other students and faculty from practicing their freedom of speech. What the Christakises and other adversaries of these student organizers fail to recognize is that their supposedly violated right to free speech is the same one students of color on campus have been vying on behalf of for decades.
The supposed upsurge of student activism on campus is not an isolated event in Yale’s history. Students of color at Yale have always spoken their mind, representing “the cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of [their] heritage” that is echoed in the College’s mission statement. However, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Likewise, if a student of color voices her concerns on campus and no one is around to hear it, does she even exist? Placid petitions for improvement have evolved into outspoken orders for reform as students’ voices have fallen relentlessly on the ears of bureaucrats.
On Thursday, as students protested by chalking on the walkways of the Silliman courtyard, the Master of the college Nicholas Christakis encroached upon their demonstration. Christakis made it clear to the students that his intentions were never benign. Students accused him of addressing them in a condescending manner, reportedly making statements such as: “I’m so glad you’re exercising your right to free speech!” and “What is all this [chalking] for?” and “This is what happens when you read the Constitution.” As he talked at students, Christakis bent over and placed his hands on his knees, similar to a dog owner regarding his pet.
Upon noting Christakis’ confrontational demeanor with individual students, passerby’s gathered around to see what was occurring. Students claim that the severity of the situation quickly escalated as Christakis labeled the growing crowd of spectators a “mob.” Appeals were made by students for the Master of Silliman College to apologize for his behavior and the subsequent pain that permeated campus. In one publicly released video of the event, one student claims that student “opinions have been dismissed. You [Masters and Deans] have not said: ‘I’m here for you. I hear that you are hurting and I am sorry that I have caused you to feel pain.’” Christakis delivered what can scarcely be considered a half-hearted apology; he claims to feel remorse for disrespecting students, but still stands firmly by the validity of every word that caused the hurt.
The Master of Silliman College seems to have faced difficulty demarcating the boundaries between his role as an as an educator who promotes intellectual discourse and his role as a college Master who is responsible “for the physical wellbeing and safety of students in the residential colleges.” During the encounter with students at the Silliman courtyard, students inquired at what point should free speech be censored. Firmly, he had responded that he “stand[s] for free speech … even when it denigrates [an individual].”
Many students described Christakis’ commentary that afternoon as a sign of his stubborn refusal to even attempt to sympathize with students. He prioritizes the prospect of “intellectual growth” derived from prejudiced statements over the emotional scarring they induce in their targets. Sadly, Christakis is not alone in this belief, having the backing of Greg Lukianoff, founder of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and author of the viral The Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The premise of Lukianoff’s article echoes Erika and Nicholas Christakis’ concern that campus cultures of political correctness have amplified the censorship of students’ opinions at the expense of intellectual enlightenment.
At a Silliman’s Master Tea on Thursday night, after the courtyard incident, Lukianoff made it clear that the only free speech that should be censored is that which, by the Supreme Court’s standards, qualifies as harassment. Essentially, he said, this would entail only upsetting behavior that is repetitive and targeted towards a particular person. This definition ignores much of the hate speech directed towards students of color and other marginalized groups at Yale. Rather than hear repeated verbal assaults on their identity from a particular individual, many students are victim to hearing a multitude of disparaging statements made daily to their marginalized community. In the Silliman courtyard last Thursday afternoon, students’ urgently voiced their concerns about how disregarded prejudiced statements made by students – whether it be something as subtle as the microaggression “Where are you from?” to something as volatile as a first year student being called the n-word – cause the same psychological and emotional detriment as legally-defined harassment.
In the publicly released video, a Silliman student calls Christakis out for not knowing her name and insinuates that it is because she is a person of color. She says that despite having taken a course with him her freshman year and attending office hours every week, despite him being her sophomore advisor, despite her being a part of a committee within her college, Christakis has yet to learn her name. In the video, she can be heard saying the following: “I live here … You should know my name. You have called me other names … Geraldine … Malika … Nina.” As Christakis rushed to point out in the crowd the other girls whose name the student mentioned, students applauded the fact that Christakis could finally get the name of some Black women straight.
Another student, captured in an unreleased video of the encounter, has claimed that student efforts to create a dialogue with peers about ignorant and demeaning commentary made towards people of color are quickly silenced:
“There are people who don’t respect us [even] when we try to have these conversations. It’s not like we’re not attempting to have these conversations. I am a senior. I have been trying to have these conversations with people since I’ve stepped foot onto this campus.” It is “disrespect for [her] very human being that” she feels here on this campus.
Some media outlets have depicted Yale students as spoiled, privileged youth who have been made too uncomfortable to live in “safe heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables” and more lavished furnishings. However, many of the student concerns have focused not on themselves, but rather on the wellbeing of first year students and potential students at Yale. Accusing Christakis for making Silliman feel insecure, one student shared her fear of lying to potential applicants: “I give tours every week and have to stand here in the courtyard and say: … ‘this is my home … I love my college.’ I can’t say that anymore. It is no longer a home. It is no longer a safe space.” Another student said she found it “incredibly depressing for the freshman who are [on campus] now and who don’t know any better. Who don’t know that [Yale] was once a space that [she] was proud to be a part of.”
It is true, campus is no longer – and has really never been – a safe space for students of color. This is true not just for students’ hurt by Christakis’ comments, but also for students who are voicing their opinions and sharing their stories at student protests now. Students’ free speech and safety are being compromised by the adults who are claiming to whole heartedly support this right to speak one’s mind. The videos released to the public of students with Christakis in the Silliman Courtyard was released without the consent of the students depicted in these recordings. The individual who originally uploaded these videos was in fact Greg Lukianoff, the free speech enthusiast, who uploaded the videos onto FIRE’s Youtube Channel. One example of the disastrous consequence of Lukianoff’s behavior, is the attention it brought to the one young woman caught shouting “Who the fuck hired you?” at Christakis. This video has circulated rapidly, getting more than 860,000 views in just five days.
The young woman in the video, now known online as the “Shrieking Girl,” has received numerous deaths threats from individuals who have watched the video. This is because much of her personal information, such as her name, home address, parents’ names, have been divulged online. The student has been forced to delete her online presence in order to seek refuge from the unwarranted hate. Lukianoff’s rash and legally questionable actions are a threat to the freedom of speech and wellbeing of students of color on campus who do not want to be the next victim of violent and relentless racists on the internet.