Without redress, Yale’s public space at risk

Every year, women on this campus confront sexism varying from personal encounters with peers and professors to public declarations of “No means yes, and yes means anal.” Many of these acts of hate and disrespect are dismissed as mere jokes. However, to misread these occurrences as jokes is to fail to understand the ways in which acts of sexism perpetuate and normalize a culture of violence on this campus.

The Zeta Psi incident was more than a fraternity prank. It was a usurpation of public space and a threat against all who seek to inhabit this campus outside of its oppressive framework. Twelve men, mostly white, reported as chanting “Dick, dick, dick” and holding up a sign reading “We Love Yale Sluts,” asserted their sense of masculine dominance and devalued the sexual autonomy and humanity of women.

Many have attributed this incident to frat culture, athletic culture and the age-old justification of “Boys will be boys.” Irrespective of their affiliations on campus, these students are not “boys.” They are young men at Yale University, an institution that has professed a renewed commitment to “promote inclusion and to build on our campus a community where diversity of all types is celebrated and recognized as a precious asset,” as expressed by President Levin in his e-mail on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The sign that reads “We Love Yale Sluts” propagates a view of women as objects of male desire that lack agency and dignity and can therefore be sexually owned and mistreated. Not surprisingly, the logic that disregards women’s right to sexual autonomy is not only manifest in Zeta Psi’s actions, but also underlies rape.

Although the spectacle would be threatening anywhere on a campus that often feels as if it belongs to heterosexual white men, the members of Zeta Psi were deliberate in their decision to stage this performance in front of the Women’s Center. They recognize the significance of degrading women at a site that commemorates women’s presence and participation at Yale. Therefore, we must respond to these men in the terms that they themselves have already established: violence, gender, power.

The Women’s Center rightfully condemned the incident for its misogyny. However, their statement relied upon an offensive and inaccurate analogy to racism. They compared Zeta Psi’s actions to an imagined group of white students standing in front of the Afro-American Cultural Center, holding up a sign containing a racial slur. In an attempt to demonstrate the severity of sexism, the Women’s Center Board reprinted hate speech and alienated potential allies in the black community. Rather than recognize the ways in which racism and sexism worked together in this episode, the Women’s Center Board separated and thereby ranked these different but interrelated oppressive forces.

The privilege to occupy public space is not based merely on gender, but also on race. On a campus where one black man is often seen as a threat, imagine 12 black men chanting in the same manner. They would be perceived and treated as dangers in ways that the members of Zeta Psi were not. We use this analogy to convey that the men of Zeta Psi were protected and continue to be defended in part because they are a majority white group. Moreover, for many women of color, 12 white men chanting “Dick, dick, dick,” evokes a long history of the sexual exploitation of women of color under slavery, colonialism and the consequences of these systems. Women of color and queer women are unable to so easily disentangle race, gender, class and sexuality in the way the Women’s Center’s false analogy does. This problematic analogy creates fissures along lines of identity and precludes the possibility of true solidarity.

There are many similarities between the instance of hate speech graffiti from last semester and this act by Zeta Psi, particularly regarding campus response. In public forums, there has been a willingness to condemn acts of resistance rather than the acts of hate that mandated resistance. There is greater discussion of the Women’s Center’s consideration of a lawsuit and the value of an anti-hate speech rally than the injustices that actually cause emotional and physical violence. If there is to be healing and progress on this campus, we must continue to speak out against acts of hate and bigotry. We must engage in more nuanced conversations between communities committed to ending inequality on campus.

We hope this incident will push the administration to address the necessity for official means of redress. We call for the establishment of a functional, public, diverse and representative Grievances Board at Yale to record and address racial and sexual harassment and other forms of bigotry. It is time to liberate the public spaces that ought to constitute our community.

Naima Coster and Lea Krivchenia are seniors in Timothy Dwight College. Elizabeth St. Victor is a senior in Silliman College. Coster and St. Victor are writers for “The North Star: The Black Justice Blog at Yale.” Krivchenia and Coster are members of the Coalition for Campus Unity.

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