Jordan Coley, an African-American who enrolled at Yale University after graduating from a predominantly white private school in Hamden, Connecticut, was pleasantly surprised by the prestigious Ivy League school's effort to make life comfortable for black students, who make up roughly 5 percent of the campus community. What Coley and other black students found when they first arrived was a campus making strides toward the inclusion of students of color -- namely with the Afro-American Cultural Center, which serves as central hub for black student life.
But after a recent email from a Yale faculty member cited the right to free speech while defending students' choice to wear Halloween costumes that featured blackface or traditional American Indian headdresses, a controversy was sparked over whether those appearances should be tolerated on campus. The move worsened long-existing racial tensions at the university, leaving some to call for new efforts to make Yale a welcoming space for all of its students, Coley said.
“It’s an indictment of the culture that the community has allowed to exist and go undiscussed,” Coley, a 20-year-old third-year student, said Monday in a phone interview from campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Black students and some of their white allies don't want the community to see the faculty member’s email as an isolated incident, he said.
— Nicolás Medina Mora (@MedinaMora) November 9, 2015
Halfway across the country Monday, as black students at the University of Missouri were celebrating after the school's president resigned following protests over alleged racial incidents there that students said were ignored by administrators, some African-American students at Yale said efforts to address diversity and inclusion drew parallels with their Midwestern counterparts. While black students in majority-white universities in the U.S. have long complained of enduring racial slurs and being made to feel uncomfortable because of their skin color, some African-American Yale students and alumni said some progress has been made at the university. But they said a series of recent racially charged incidents show the campus community is not taking their concerns seriously enough.
“It’s still pretty prevalent to see vigorous opposition from some students who see [diversity initiatives] as an attack on white students or male students,” said Ivy Onyeador, a black 26-year-old graduate of Yale who said she witnessed several racially charged incidents as a student. Onyeador, who helps run a national black alumni organization, said Yale could be better if they “fully and vigorously” addressed the demands of black students, such as increasing the number of black faculty members, providing resources to students who have experienced racial trauma and expanding access and funding at the Afro-American Cultural Center.
The Halloween costume debate at Yale arose out of an email sent in late October by the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee asking students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes. The email specifically advised students against feathered headdresses, turbans and blackface, according to the New York Times.
Citing what she called frustration of students in the campus residential hall that she supervises, faculty member Erika Christakis wrote a response on behalf of those students, saying they should be able to wear whatever they want, even if it offends minority students. “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?” Christakis asked in the email.
Hundreds of Yale students responded by signing an open letter criticizing Christakis’ argument that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence [sic]” trump the concerns of black, American Indian and Asian students. “To be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you,” students stated in the letter, according to the Times.
Within a week of the email controversy, a black undergraduate student alleged that a Yale fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, barred her from a “white girls only” party, an incident that school officials said they would investigate. The fraternity has denied the allegations.
Controversies over race at Yale continued to unfold Monday, as black students at the University of Missouri confronted school officials about alleged racism on campus, including last month's discovery of a swastika drawn with feces on a dormitory wall. A black student government leader and students in a black organization on Mizzou's campus also claimed that racial slurs had recently been hurled at them by other students.
— Karl. (@KarlRodrigue) November 9, 2015
Camille Fonseca, a black 21-year-old senior at Yale who has monitored news accounts of student protests in Missouri, said activists’ demands there were quite similar to those of Yale students. “If they can get the president of the university to resign, I think we can get these much smaller demands addressed,” she said Monday in a phone interview.
“There’s a lot of backlash whenever people of color seem to rise up and say something is wrong,” Fonseca said, adding that the students sought the termination of the faculty member who defended offensive costumes. “Rather than accepting that their students were expressing real hurt and pain, [the faculty members] continued to defend their own positions and viewpoints. I have friends in that [residential hall.] It’s been very hard to watch them grapple with it.”
Reaction to the email controversy has been markedly different than during past racial incidents at the university. In 2007, the Yale Daily News, the student newspaper on campus, published an op-ed criticizing black students for their reaction to racist graffiti drawn on a campus residential building where African-American dining hall staff often enjoyed their lunch breaks, Onyeador said.
In comparison, the Daily News last Friday published an op-ed in support of the students outraged by the faculty viewpoints on costumes and the racially charged fraternity incident. “It is evident our campus must do more for people of color -- especially women,” the newspaper’s editorial board stated in the Nov. 6 article. “The student body remains divided, and too many feel like they do not belong.”
During the 2014-15 academic year, Yale enrolled more than 12,300 undergraduate and graduate students. While vast majority of students were white or Asian, African-Americans and Hispanics made up 9 percent each of the student body, according to the Yale Office of Institutional Research. These figures were based on student self-reported racial and ethnic identity, which varies from other demographic breakdowns of the student body.
The Black Student Alliance at Yale, a group that includes students from other African-American organizations on campus, outlined ways that officials could improve their experience at the university. One would be to require all students to take courses on ethnicity, race and gender awareness, according to a list of demands published at Down Mag, a digital publication for students of color.
“A course requirement would help people to be on same page, in the same book, on issues of race and diversity,” Onyeador said. “Right now, it seems like people are in different libraries.”