Not too long before racist message posts on the anonymous app Yik Yak stormed Colorado College, Yale University was amidst overcoming racial tensions of its own. Although racial tension have risen over the past few years at Yale, two events that fell around Halloween weekend particularly shook the campus.
Earlier in October, the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email to all students that addressed the ongoing debate about what they referred to as “culturally unaware and insensitive costumes” that could offend POC and other minorities.
The email included a number of bullet points with tips for picking costumes. It also advised students to specifically avoid costumes that included red face, black face, turbans, and feathered headdresses.
Although Yale was among many other colleges and universities who made an attempt to rid their campuses of racially and culturally offensive costumes, it appeared as though the message did not resonate with the whole campus.
Soon after the email was sent, Erika Christakis, a lecturer at the Silliman College of Yale, emailed all administration and students voicing her opposing opinion: she believes that the college should not mold or restrict the student body’s choices.
In her email, she states: “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? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience.”
The campus did not greet this email kindly; an open letter in response to the email was signed by hundreds of staff, faculty, students, and alumni. It called Christakis out for “infantilizing” people who were only asking for cultural sensitivity on Halloween and respect.
Later on, Christakis’ husband Nicholas Christakis, a faculty member who works at the same college, showed support for his wife’s beliefs. Both were criticized heavily for failing to create a safe home for the students on campus, although many argued in favor of Christakis on the grounds of free speech.
Recently, Erika Christakis announced that she would not be continuing her career at Yale.
As the holiday weekend approached, the campus faced another tragedy when a group of African-American female undergraduate students were turned away from Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s “white girls only” party; the fraternity denies the allegations. Dean of the College Jonathan Holloway is conducting an investigation.
Holloway later sent out an email apologizing to students if they ever felt Yale had a poisonous environment. According to the New York Times, his email read, “We need always to be dedicated to fashioning a community that is mindful of the many traditions that make us who we are. Remember that Yale belongs to all of you, and you all deserve the right to enjoy the good of this place, without worry, without threats, and without intimidation.”
“I’ll just say briefly that this movement for racial justice is not new, and it’s not about an email or a party,” said Laura Goetz, a junior at Yale. “This isn’t about free speech—it’s about creating a campus that is a safe and supportive educational environment for all students.”
Classmate Katherine Berry echoes Goetz’s concerns.
“There needs to be a resting point, and I think that is why many people were so upset that the situation in Silliman was blown up to be about free speech, when it was actually more of a catalyst for a larger discussion,” said Berry. “Of course these students endorse free speech, but they also want a place to drop back and feel comfortable and valued.”
Student response to the events has been what many describe as positively charged and immense.
The Monday after Christakis’ email, over a thousand staff and students from a number of multicultural groups on campus joined forces during a March for Resilience.
“The March of Resilience last week was not a protest or an indictment of Yale as an unfit university, but rather a message of support and community from students and faculty to one another,” said Berry.
She continues: “It is of foremost importance to make clear that we are all willing to support and stand with each other as one university, and, within that framework of support, work to have productive conversations and make change that everyone can understand and agree to.”
A week after the march, Yale University President Peter Salovey made an announcement laying out the steps that the institution will be taking to provide a better support system for minorities.
Some of those steps include a five-year sequence of conferences and discussions of issues on gender, inclusion, inequality, and race; doubling the campus’ cultural center budgets; an improvement on financial aid for low-income families; and continuing its $50 million initiative to further diversify faculty.
“The amount of support being voiced and acted upon since tensions came to the surface has been beautiful to see,” said Berry. “I wouldn’t even place focus on Christakis’s email, to be honest. Yes, the email definitely helped start the fire, but it is no longer really what is being talked about, as students are confronting the larger, under the surface issues that the email prodded at.”
“[Moving forward] includes acknowledging how race impacts the campus in many different ways and working to continue keeping this conversation going outside of identity affinity groups,” said Goetz. “The student response this week has been incredible, but these battles have been going on for over 40 years, and they’ll continue long after we leave here.”