Opinion

Yale students break through generations of pained black silence

The rage on college campuses like Yale may alarm people, but it’s a release of decades of tamped-down rage and frustration

Yale University students and supporters participate in a march across campus to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in New Haven, Conn.

Yale University students and supporters participate in a march across campus to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in New Haven, Conn.

I remember the glare of the headlights against my back, illuminating every step of my path back through the looming Gothic buildings to my residential college. I was an editor of the Yale Daily News and this was a regular occurrence for me in the mid-80s when I was an undergraduate at Yale: the campus police following me home late in the evening after the paper went to print, making sure I wasn’t a criminal. I sometimes wondered what would happen to me if I broke out in a trot or suddenly dropped my book bag to the ground.

It was part of life at Yale for me and many other students of color, and we accepted it with silence. I never imagined complaining about my nightly police escort to a campus official or one of my professors. It was just part of being black at Yale, black in America.

On other nights, if I wanted to visit friends in a residential college other than my own, I always braced myself for the hesitation when I rang for entry at the gate. I was a black male on a campus surrounded by a largely black and heavily impoverished community. What if I was there to do harm? Sometimes, the student who stared at me through the gate as if I were a stranger was someone I had taken a class with, but in those moments I was a faceless and possibly threatening presence, dark and unrecognizable.

Professors subtly questioned my intellect during class discussions or wrote comments on my papers that continually forced me to prove I belonged on the campus and was not an undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action. But I didn’t call out their implicit racism; I just worked harder.

But to my now middle-aged eyes, it appears that a new day has dawned at schools like Yale and the University of Missouri.

To many, the images being beamed from New Haven of black students yelling at startled white men and spitting on attendees at a campus freedom of speech conference were alarming, but they are just the public release of decades of tamped-down rage and frustration. A long-simmering scream.

Related: How can Mizzou heal? A 1996 campus incident offers some lessons about race

Yale University students and faculty rally to demand that Yale University become more inclusive to all students on Cross Campus in New Haven on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. The “March of Resilience” followed several racially charged incidents at Yale, including allegations that a fraternity turned a woman away from a party because she was not white. At center is associate professor Crystal Feimster.

With the approach of Halloween, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee—consisting of 13 administrators from various cultural and religious centers—wrote a letter to the Yale community cautioning students to avoid wearing attire that “disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.” But Erika Christakis, an associate master of the Silliman residential college, had her own message for the student body. She sent out a campus-wide letter asking if there was no longer “room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

To the black ear it sounded like an Ivy-coated justification for hateful imagery and shameful caricaturing.

In response, there was an explosion of student outrage that culminated in students angrily confronting the Silliman master, Nicholas Christakis, and demanding he apologize for his wife’s letter—an encounter that was caught on video.

What this signified was that, finally, young people of color feel the agency to call out the way they are treated, and feel powerful enough to demand change.

For my generation, being black in predominantly white elitist America meant bearing racist aggressions while tacitly accepting and perhaps even occasionally enjoying your relatively privileged status. Hey, you’re here because you’re different than the others. We accepted entry while also submitting to the threat—you should feel lucky because you could be just like them—with a wink and a nod toward the less fortunate black masses teeming always nearby. Keep your mouth shut and we’ll let you stay.

The threat dangled over the heads of generations of talented African-Americans granted entry into the hallowed halls of Ivy, the top tier law firms, the elite medical schools, or the coveted ranks of Hollywood stars. It was inherent in the Nov. 9 piece in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf that inspired much black outrage and white applause, called “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” 

“This notion that one’s existence can be invalidated by a fellow 18-year-old donning an offensive costume is perhaps the most disempowering notion aired at Yale. It ought to be disputed rather than indulged for the sake of these students, who need someone to teach them how empowered they are by virtue of their mere enrollment; that no one is capable of invalidating their existence, full stop; that their worth is inherent, not contingent; that everyone is offended by things around them; that they are capable of tremendous resilience; and that most possess it now despite the disempowering ideology foisted on them by well-intentioned, wrongheaded ideologues encouraging them to imagine that they are not privileged.”

In other words, be happy that we let you into this privileged space.

Experiencing a little racism while you’re here will make you stronger.

But there is a new generation sitting in the mahogany-paneled halls at Yale and Missouri and other corridors of power. A generation no longer willing to swallow the aggressions, macro and micro.

Related: Surprised that college football players tackled bigotry on campus? Here’s why you shouldn’t be

Under the guise of allowing students room to develop, Erika Christakis seemed to suggest to students of color that their feelings are a secondary concern. Giving the Yale community the freedom to be “obnoxious” was more important. Clearly, many among the student body felt the need to loudly voice their disagreement.

In some ways, Yale should be giddy that its students are willing to risk censure and condemnation to demand a living space where they don’t have to pretend to ignore racism, to try to make their experiences more closely resemble the oblivious freedom of the white mainstream. Strange as it may sound, it was actually an act of love that would make them want to try to improve the college, rather than walk away in silence as so many have done before them. They felt the campus might actually hear them, might want to put in the work. If it listens and responds to these expressions of black rage, the campus can emerge on the other side as a transformed space, one where students of color will feel protected and respected.

It is a response that all elite institutions should hope for—that the non-white members of their community feel empowered and invested enough to speak truth about their experiences, to reveal their pain to the people and places who may have inflicted it, even if sometimes unintentionally.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Nick Chiles

Nick Chiles is an award-winning journalist and three-time New York Times bestselling author. He has written or co-written 14 books and won over a dozen… See Archive

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