Poisoned Ivy: Polarization in Yale’s race debate loses original focus


Photo courtesy of Time

Daniel Classon, Staff Writer

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard the words “Mizzou” and “Yale” popping up in the New York Times and The Atlantic. Weeks of high tension on Yale’s campus regarding the university’s Halloween costume policy led to a bitter confrontation, now viral on YouTube, between a social activist student group and Yale professor Nicholas Christakis on Nov. 6. Following a few students’ concerns in her class over the university’s requirements on what students should wear on Halloween, Christakis’s wife and fellow professor Erika Christakis decided to open up the discussion to the residential college she lives in by sending an email calling for intelligent and open-minded debate. Half of the country calling “racism” is demanding their resignation, and the other half yelling “censorship” is criticizing the student activists.

Erika writes in her email: “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, … but in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional … exercise of implied control over college students.” She goes on to state that students should take action when revealing clothing or cultural stereotypes offend them; however, this action should take place in the form of peer-to-peer discussion, not in “bureaucratic and administrative” university guidelines. As seen in videos from Nov. 6, Nicholas Christakis defends his wife’s actions which aim to protect students’ freedom of speech, juxtaposed by those selfsame students demanding his censure.

All of this is very worrying, considering that Mizzou president Tim Wolfe stepped down a few weeks ago. After students protested his inaction on racist activities and attitudes, the football team started a strike that turned the school board in favor of his resignation. Do the Christakis deserve to step down? Absolutely not. The students who used obscenities and demanded their resignation have gone far overboard in targeting these two individuals. In response to the spreading of the incident, Nicholas Christakis graciously tweeted, “No one, especially no students exercising right to speech, should be judged just on basis of a short video clip.” At a conciliatory brunch he held with concerned students in his own home, those who tried to make peaceful debate were called “traitors” and spat on by their peers.

On the other hand, the university policy that Erika Christakis reacted to wasn’t nearly as restrictive of student speech as her email makes it out to be. It warned students of the potentially offensive nature of dressing up as cultural or religious stereotypes, a subject the Intercultural Affairs Committee and 13 faculty members decided needed to be touched upon. Racist and culturally offensive costumes are not fanciful inventions—tribal headgear, war paint, and blackface have caused criticism and heartbreak in northeastern universities such as Yale. Last year’s movie “Dear White People” aimed to shed light on the racism that is still very prevalent in Ivy League schools today; Yale itself had white students in blackface as recently as 2007.

Throughout history, there has been conflict between total freedom and total justice. The freedom of speech is not absolute—the Supreme Court determined in 1988 that speech that disrupts the learning environment can be limited. The students protesting at Yale and across the country believe in safe spaces, by restricting violent and racist speech to protect the sanctity of the university community. Many students find it hard to learn when confronted with discriminatory and racist attitudes that are affirmed through inaction by universities, even in extreme cases. While some have criticized the students for making mountains out of molehills and censuring dissenting views, the students are right in demanding attention for the racist acts that continue to pepper 2015. As the arguments fill your newsfeed, remember that cries of “freedom of speech” do not advocate for blackface and that cries of “racism” are not unfounded Ivy League grievances. As Mizzou ex-president Wolfe said, “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”