Yale community must respect realities of racism

This past Monday, as most students were returning to classes, New Haven residents and members of the Yale community were mobilizing, yet again, against racism. At noon, Yale workers and their allies gathered in front of Sterling Memorial Library to protest the racial profiling of a library worker and the library administration’s mishandling of the situation.

At 5 p.m., community members representing a coalition of activist groups gathered in front of the Whalley Avenue Jail to protest Connecticut’s recent parole ban. Enacted in reaction to a murder in the suburbs, the parole ban means that many people — including many youth, who had returned to their lives and families — have now been sent back to prison. Because our criminal justice system convicts and imposes harsher sentences on blacks and Latinos much more frequently than whites for the same offenses, the parole ban disproportionately affects communities of color.

Incidents of racism and bigotry on Yale’s campus are not isolated or random events; rather, they take place within a society where systemic racism continues to have real and detrimental effects on the lives of people of color. Yet when students on this campus mobilize against acts and symbols of racial violence, discrimination or injustice, why is criticizing the activists, instead of the perpetrators, considered an appropriate response? Consider, for example, the News’ recent claim that the Anti-Hate Vigil organized by Yale students was “an overreaction at best and a dangerous precedent to set at worst” (The News’ View, 11/14). Like this News’ View, the discourse on this campus about racism and bigotry characterizes the feelings and experiences of students of color as “hypersensitive” or “overreacting” and questions their right to protest and organize.

Why is there this strange reversal, in which the reactions to and protests of hate speech are seen as dangerous while racist and homophobic graffiti are called pranks? Which one is actually dangerous? The words that were spray-painted on Pierson and the School of Drama are words that are used in hate crimes. People are killed because of the sentiments and ideologies behind these words and because these words take place in a culture that continues to tolerate hate. Hate is dangerous, not the protest of hate.

According to the Department of Justice, more than 190,000 instances of hate crime take place each year. We should remember that hate crimes are possible here at Yale, as they are possible anywhere. In 2003, a woman at Yale was attacked in her room because of her anti-war activism and because she was believed to be Muslim. Moreover, I know of specific incidents this semester in which black students were threatened with racist violence by drunk white students.

The rally and the vigil organized by students before Thanksgiving break were not solely in response to racist and homophobic graffiti, but were also meant to name and denounce the many public instances of racism and bigotry in the past few years, as well as the probably hundreds of smaller interactions where Yale students have experienced racism and bigotry. Why then did some students prejudge the rally as an event in which dialogue would not be possible? What is so dangerous about the outrage and the mobilization of students of color?

There is a stereotype at work here — one that perhaps many of us have internalized, which characterizes people of color as irrational, overemotional and dangerous. Historically, this stereotype has been used to justify white violence, such as the lynching of black men or the genocide of Native Americans. We can see it today in the Connecticut state government’s move towards building more prisons and locking up more people, despite clear evidence showing that parole decreases recidivism rates, meaning that parole helps make communities safer. The parole ban is based on racist fears, not on sound public policy.

Furthermore, the stereotype of people of color as dangerous justifies the desire to dismiss, ignore or retaliate against their protest when that protest calls into question the structures that perpetuate privilege. In the two months following the Jena 6 protests, there have been 50-60 instances of nooses hung anonymously in schools and workplaces across the country, which is five times the number of noose incidents documented by civil rights groups over the past 10 years. I am not suggesting that those who criticized the vigil are intentionally trying to justify hate crimes, but we must acknowledge that our words take place within a larger cultural and historical discourse.

For those of us who are white, do we not say that students of color are overreacting because we ourselves are scared of being called racist? Of being asked to acknowledge our white privilege? Of being challenged to begin dismantling that privilege?

I am calling on other white students here to commit to being actively anti-racist. This has nothing to do with white guilt, because that is not productive for anyone, but rather with a commitment to serious reflection and concrete action. Anti-racist work may make us uncomfortable and it is going to be hard. However, when I say something or do something that is offensive, hurtful, racist, sexist, etc., I would much rather have my friends call me out on it and challenge me to change, than to continue in behavior that hurts my friends and others in my community.

It is imperative that we, as a community, take seriously the work of educating ourselves about the realities of racism, especially because many Yale students do become leaders in this country, with the power to shape public policy. The panel discussions announced Wednesday signal a move in the right direction, but this University also needs to commit to substantial changes. What does it mean that Yale’s tenured faculty is still overwhelmingly white and male, and that most women and people of color who teach here have lower salaries and little job security? How can Yale consider its graduates educated and prepared for leadership, when many have never taken a class which deals with race, class, and gender? We have a lot of anti-racist work to do both at Yale and in this country. As a simple but crucial first step towards anti-racism, can we commit to listening to our brothers and sisters and taking seriously their experiences of bigotry here at Yale?

Frances Kelley is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. She is a member of the Coalition for Campus Unity.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    While I agree with the overall sentiment of this column, I had two comments.

    First, just because the people who engage in hate speech or do/say "offensive" things are wrong, doesn't mean that the people who oppose them and criticize them are totally right. Often, those people can be as exclusionary or intolerant of those who don't share their opinions as the people they're purportedly criticizing. So while I agree that the "oh you oversensitive minorities just need to calm down" attitude is reprehensible, let's not give those who rise up against intolerance carte blanche and let's not be afraid to point out when they're intolerant, themselves.

    Second, the argument that things like the parole ban (or mandatory minimums, etc.) are inherently racist because they statistically affect blacks and hispanics more seems flawed to me. While it's certainly true in practice, by the same logic you could claim that an amusement park ride with a weight limit is racist because the rate of overweight blacks and hispanics is higher than that of white people (if it indeed is). Now, if you want to make the argument that the justice system is taking advantage of this statistical reality to lock up minorities, that's fine…and for all I know it's probably true. But it's a distinction worth making, because otherwise you're alleging that anything that statistically affects one group of people more than another necessarily does so maliciously.

  • Anonymous

    It's overreactions like this that cause so many to dismiss claims of racism out of hand.

  • Anonymous

    The problem with protesting against "hate" and expecting to accomplish something is that almost no one is in favor of hate. So white students see the rally against hate and they think oh cool, I don't hate black people, this doesn't apply to me. But I'm pretty sure that's not what the organizers want, because my impression is that they're also trying to target more subtle stereotypes that people hold, like when they mistake black students for dining hall workers. However, by throwing around the terms "hate" and "bigotry" they make it very easy for students to tell themselves that they're not part of the problem because their subconscious stereotyping certainly does not rise to the level of hate. They also make dialogue impossible because if we try to say what we really think, like for example that requiring diversity classes isn't going to make anyone less racist, then we're "hateful" or "bigoted." Oh and apparently because I don't think this rally was such a great idea I support hate crimes. Why do you think the only place that people talk honestly about race right now is this anonymous message board?

  • Anonymous

    Hey 6:47,

    I was one of the organizers for the rally and I hear your concerns. However, I think if a student does not see their tendency to confuse black students for dining hall workers as something that could line up with racism, hate, or bigotry then they are the ones missing something. As much as we try to do events to highlight those "subtle stereotypes," we felt like we should not organize around that blindness in this rally. Instead, we decided to present the events of this year in a historical timeline so students, especially members of 2011, could see what we have been facing for 5 or 6 years at Yale. We wanted to dismiss the notions that these were isolated incidents while also highlighting the administration's relative sluggishness in dealing with this problems despite their longevity at Yale.

    In this rally, we were not simply using "heavier" terms for attention. We were drawing the present and historical connections of how seemingly small prejudices can flare into something much more dangerous. In short and as an example, we wanted to connect whoever spraypainted the n-word and the homophobic slur at Pierson with the students in Davenport who were laughing while throwing around the n-word after discovering the graffiti. These are two very different actions, yet they are rooted in similar prejudices. Again, we felt it prudent to call these actions what they are: hateful (either through their deliberate nature or their ignorance). We also knew it would be important to nuance these actions in our speeches and provide a context, which we did at the rally. I hope you can see how framing a rally the other way (subtle stereotypes and that really big problem of the graffiti) would not have worked for this event. We cannot always conform to what would be most inviting for someone who is prejudiced. We do that a lot already. Sometimes, we need to stand boldly in our convictions and remain confident that administrators, allies, curious students, and even the perpetrators of these actions will be interested in what we have to say. Given the attendance at the march, rally, and vigil, I think many were interested.

    In your comment about "diversity classes," I think you fall into the you vs. angry students of color who are "impossible" paradigm that Frances mentions in this editorial. Has anyone not talked to you after you addressed these concerns or is this a presupposed fear? Coalition for Campus Unity has been discussing this for almost two years now, and we still have robust debates over what type of courses we should push for and how to go about making the academy more diverse (concentrate on majors vs. frosh programs). We know this is a big step. We are aware that students, prejudiced or not, will be concerned. In fact, a lot of us would be more than happy to talk to you because each conversation with someone like you allows us to structure our proposal to administrators in a way that includes your voice and concerns even more. Again, I wonder if this "impossible" dialogue is one you tried…or one you imagined. I would have the same wonder about the rally.

    Personally, I don't think you are hateful or bigoted for saying any of those remarks. I do think you are frustrated and I recognize that is a way your remarks could be seen and could eventually become hateful.

    Lastly, I think you have a reductionist view of how dialogue happens on this campus. You place yourself (and your identity) as normative in this understanding since I have had many honest conversations about race in Dwight Hall, all the cultural houses, events in colleges, CCU meetings, classes, and other events. All open to the public, I might add.

    What is it about your room, your computer, and your anonymous identity that make you so comfortable?

    Feel free to let me know.

    Joshua Williams
    MC 2008

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comments 6:47. I think that they were quite interesting and thought provocative. Josh covered a couple of things that I would have said in response but I just want to add one more. I think that the organizers of the rally and members of CCU recognize that it is problematic that some will only discuss race through an anonymous forum (though like Josh mentioned, it is important to note that this is not necessarily the normative and many of us have engaged in these discussions not only in Dwight Hall and the cultural centers, but in dining halls and our own suites) and it's something that I believe we are working against. Part of our work as a collective is to remove "taboo" from this subject and begin to find ways in which we can talk about race with one another. I happen to think that holding these discussions within the classroom would help to do just that. Under the leadership of Yale professors, students can have very honest, transparent, and provocative discussions about race in their classes which could even, by my experience it certainly has, spill over into the conversations and debates that you have in your suites, dining halls, and even other classes. Furthermore, since it would be in an academic setting, the professor and our readings would be able to provide a historical context for our class discussions which I think would help (e.g. how can you begin to discuss blackface when half of the participants are familiar with the history of it - which in turn informs their thoughts and feelings about it - and the other half isn't? it doesn't mean that everyone will agree once they do know the history of blackface but it is important to know the historical context, especially if that is the very source of the controversy).

    Furthermore, I think that it would be helpful to address why people feel more comfortable when they are anonymous (what do you fear will happen if I happen to know your identity?). I think this perception ("I can only talk about race if I am anonymous") is perpetuated by a campus that doesn't talk as openly about race as it should. That's why the organizers of the rally and CCU have pushed to make such conversations more frequent occurences on campus. One way has been the recent meetings in residential colleges. I'm glad the Dean's Office and the Graduate School have worked together to create this upcoming series on hate and I hope that people do find the time to attend.

    But the audiences of both events are self-selecting so even more effective would be continuing programs like this year's freshmen orientation when freshmen began their time at Yale through candid conversations about race. Doing that would show each incoming classes that we as a community are not afraid to talk about these "hard issues" nor should we be - that it is possible to respectfully and honestly have these conversations even if our opinions differs. If freshmen can have this experience during their first days at Yale, I think that it would then make it so much easier to have these conversations during the following weeks, months, and years at Yale, because they have already set the precedent. Judging the positive responses by many freshmen to the discussion of race during their orientation this year, I think that this could be the beginning of real change. After all, how can we address it if we can't even talk about it?

    Lastly, I would like to assert that you're not giving yourself enough credit. I'm sure that you could successfully have these conversations about race without being anonymous and so I earnestly encourage you to talk to friends, suitemates, classmates about it. Or even come to the CCU meeting this week (Sunday at 7 PM in the SJN Room - second floor - of Dwight Hall). I agree with Josh in that it would allow for us to include your voice in the proposals that we structure.

    Funmi Showole, SM '08

  • Anonymous

    The author here is accepting the Justice Department's numbers on hate crimes, which come from the National Crime Victim's Survey (NCVS), as fact.

    I have no problem with this, but it must be noted that the NCVS calls into question the entire narrative of "anti-racist" activists. The NCVS finds that a majority of those who commit hate crimes are non-white, which implies that non-whites have a higher average propensity to commit hate crimes than whites. Additionally, it finds that blacks are less likely to be victims of hate crimes than the average American, since the percentage of black hate crime victims is less than the percentage of blacks in the country.

    Here is the report:
    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/hcrvp.pdf

  • Anonymous

    I understand the concerns that 6:47 has. The reason for anonymity is the feeling that if someone expresses the "wrong" thoughts about race, he will be branded as ignorant / racist / hateful / bigoted. Those labels are genuinely hurtful. It's hard to be honest if, in response, a group on campus will talk about your ignorance and your need to be educated. The result of your honesty is that your views are dismissed as invalid. No one will say "your views are invalid" outright, but to call someone racist or bigoted entails that label. Whether this is a fair perception or not, it is very real, given the incendiary things that have been said in, for example, the YDN editorial page. For example, when you ask

    "For those of us who are white, do we not say that students of color are overreacting because we ourselves are scared of being called racist? Of being asked to acknowledge our white privilege? Of being challenged to begin dismantling that privilege?"

    it stymies dialogue. You fail to allow the possibility that it's possible to handle incidents of racism the wrong way. I have yet to hear a member of CCU say "maybe we could've handled this differently," or "yeah, we could have done that better," or "we messed that one up." If members of CCU are in the business of calling others on their slip ups, I think it would go a long way for CCU to be open to being called on their own slip ups, to their own instances of rhetoric that have polarized the community more than brought it together. It would do so much for CCU to sometimes say "We were wrong." This doesn't mean CCU has to abandon its positions, it means admitting CCU is made up of human beings, and like everyone else, they make mistakes.

    The thing that makes people want to be anonymous is that whenever they do offer those thoughts and those thoughts are critical, they are always psychoanalyzed. The reaction is never an apology or an admission of wrongdoing. I'm not saying CCU should be constantly apologizing, but I'm saying I've never seen it happen, and it should, because CCU is a group of people, and whenever you have people, you're going to sometimes make mistakes that you should own up to. People are going to continue to be anonymous as long as there is the perceived threat of being psychoanalyzed, of being diagnosed, of being labeled, and thus having your views disregarded as the product of some mental defect. Or, to be blunt, a common perception is that it is not safe to disagree with CCU.

    I would ask the CCU if, in its opinion, it is possible to respond to a racial incident in a way that makes matters worse, not better, and if that is true, have students of color in some cases responded in ways that have made the situation worse, not better. It all comes down to admitting that sometimes you're wrong, and that sometimes when people criticize you, it's not because they have some complex or subtle ignorance or hatefulness, it's actually that you actually did something that deserves criticism.

    This is just a guess, but having CCU say something like

    "We realize that we are at least in part responsible for the tone of the dialogue on campus. We do not apologize for our goals or our interpretations, but we understand that in trying to get our point across, we may have alienated some members of the Yale community; we may have at times handled ourselves in a way that have caused some to fear speaking publicly. It pains us that that has been the effect of some of our actions, and we apologize for it and will make sincere efforts to find efforts to present our views in ways that do not make some members of Yale's community feel threatened."

    The reason people like anonymity is because they don't want to put up with how they believe CCU will brand them. Whether or not this is a rational fear is irrelevant, it's real, and it has been caused by how CCU presents itself publicly in some cases, and I believe that most people have not heard CCU acknowledge that its actions have this effect. What would go a long way is for CCU to say "We're sorry, not for our beliefs or our views, but for the effects some of our actions have had."

    CCU has the potential to be a wonderful organization, but sometimes its message gets overlooked because it alienates so many into feeling they have to be anonymous.

    I'm choosing not to be anonymous because I have good faith that my feelings of alienation, my hopes that CCU will make a gesture of reconciliation, and my sincere desires to work with the group will be affirmed and embraced, rather than psychoanalyzed to show me all the ignorant flaws I have that disqualify my views as invalid. I would also ask 6:47 and others who would be anonymous to do the same, and if need be, to insist on your right to have your feelings affirmed as legitimate, rather than dismissed as the result of mental defects.

    Michael Wayne Harris

  • Anonymous

    a quick comment: The State of Connecticut's tightening of parole standards has nothing whatsoever to do with racism. This move is largely a reaction to the gruesome murders that occurred in Cheshire this year, which were perpetrated by two white men who were out on parole, despite the fact that they were both repeat offenders. This characterization of the parole ban as racist by the author is irresponsible and misguided.

  • Anonymous

    It is important for people to come up with a clear definition of "hate" if they plan to use the term extensively. Spray-painting "nigger" on a wall is hateful; subconscious stereotyping and passive assumptions about race are not. They are many things, but to call them "hateful" is to overuse a term that should be reserved for much more dire circumstances. The first respondent to 6:47 missed this point entirely. Nearly everyone at Yale understands why the use of racial slurs is hateful. Any prejudice that exists extensively at Yale is subtle, and anyone harboring such internal prejudice at Yale would probably not classify this feeling as "hate"- this was 6:47's point. The broader conclusion to draw from this distinction is that the demonstration was an overreaction, an exercise in stating the obvious while eschewing the real problem. It came off as overly self-righteous in its assertion of the widespread existence of "hatred". Yale is not full of hatred, Yale is full of the kind of soft prejudice that tends to exist in progressive communities. There are occasional incidences of overt hatred, but they are never reflective of the campus as a whole. I would venture to guess that many of them are performed with the intention of inciting the kind of large-scale reaction that that almost always do.

    Anyway, if you want to define the kind of prejudice that exists at Yale as "hatred" or label it as racism, that's fine, but don't expect to make too many people think twice about their own thoughts and behaviors as a result. The campaign needs changing, and the message needs to be re-crafted. Just because every Yale administrator will trip over him or herself to denounce rampant hatred doesn't mean the rest of the campus is buying it.

  • Anonymous

    "Yale is not full of hatred, Yale is full of the kind of soft prejudice that tends to exist in progressive communities."

    This is probably the smartest articulation of all these issues I've ever heard.

  • Anonymous

    Pathologies of Power…

  • Anonymous

    to 2:59 and 3:26 - I hope that you both had the opportunity to attend yesterday's panel on the History of Hate or, if not, will be able to attend future panels on hate. I think they may be able to clarify to you not only what hate is (Professor Gilmore yesterday brilliantly explained how hate exists in many forms) but also how hate, and racialized hate, exists in America and indeed the world - and finally how Yale is no exception. Of course this is not the only component of the Yale commuity and Yale experience but we cannot understand the whole if we do not also understand these important parts.

    Funmi Showole
    Silliman 2008