I am extremely uncomfortable.
Tuesday night, the Independent Party debated the topic “Resolved: Yale’s Policies Perpetuate Racism.” Someone in the room remarked that it was the first such discussion she had ever seen: 120 students, nearly equal numbers of whites and minorities, talking about why they don’t talk more often. I loved the debate because it made me uncomfortable.
I am writing to propose mandatory racial counseling and cultural education at Yale. It’s a bad thing that Tuesday was the first time I have felt uncomfortable about race here, and much of it is my fault for not seeking out such discussion, outside of class. I am afraid to offer my opinion.
The problem with existing efforts to promote discussion of race, from the hate speech forums this year to the constant cultural programs like the campus houses, is that they are often preaching to the choir. Ironically enough, fear of being in the minority often keeps white students from visiting the Af-Am House. The people most likely to use racially insensitive speech are those least likely to attend a forum. Students who have not had to confront racial issues on a daily basis are, paradoxically, those who most need to confront them.
This is not an intuitive argument. Students of color need an ethic counselor because they’re, well, ethnic, right? They may face pervasive and subtle racial biases and cultural conflicts that affect everything they do. They need help identifying and overcoming these biases in ways that white students do not.
There is a major flaw in this logic. Is it fair for minority students to have to take on the burden of dealing with other people’s ignorance? The biases are widespread and societal, but the way that Yale students unintentionally participate in them is not always obvious. Someone should tell them.
Because it’s unfair to white students, too, to leave them in the dark about their contributions to an issue that they may not know is still a problem. Unquestionably, Yale attracts a geographically as well as racially diverse student body, and every student’s experience of race at home is not the same. It’s important that white students, too, be helped to identify and deal with their own biases, and those of others. It’s important that they be given the information required to be productive contributors to the discussion.
Leaving it up to white students to seek out the ethnic counselor for their residential college or show up at a hate-speech forum just isn’t enough. Though ethnic students at Yale can opt out of ethnic counseling or cultural programs, they can’t opt out of their race or its implications. The white majority should not be allowed to opt out of the race question entirely just because it makes them uncomfortable.
And of course it’s uncomfortable. Isn’t that the point? I’m sure you remember your freshman debriefing on rape as disturbing and deeply uncomfortable, but you remember it. And although playing with the red “STOP” signs didn’t get old for months, the nervous joking belied an uneasy but increased sensitivity to sexual violence.
So why not do the same for race? It’s a more extensive problem, and one that can have equally serious ramifications. White students will probably feel blamed for something they didn’t do. But that’s OK: White students are probably too comfortable with race, considering the extent to which discrimination is still universal in America. The discomfort is necessary to remind them that the problem still exists. It’s also necessary to remind them that race is a part of their identity, too.
I feel uncomfortable writing this because I am worried about accidentally offending someone. I am worried about whether I can be considered a legitimate commentator on race, having never experienced racial discrimination. But if questions of race at Yale are ever going to get beyond repetitive discussions, white students need to start chiming in.
I am uncomfortable, but I am also relieved. I had forgotten I had opinions on race since coming to Yale. I hope that this column will remind you of yours.
Carmen Lee is a sophomore in Branford College. She is the chief whip of the Independent Party of the YPU.