McWilliams: What is ‘black’ to you?

This year, the Black Student Alliance at Yale is working on a project intended to collect thoughts about “Blackness” at Yale University on the following blog:

The purpose of the “Yale Blackness” project is to give Yale students a medium to offer their thoughts on race and culture at Yale University. Like many organizations on campus, the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) recognizes the potential for “new media” to begin a dialogue on racial dynamics on college campuses. Anonymity is a powerful tool, and when used appropriately and respectfully, it can provoke students to offer powerful insight. Ultimately, BSAY hopes to use this raised awareness to incite action to dispel negative myths, improve race relations within Yale’s student population and take advantage of Yale’s diverse population.

In order to compile these thoughts and comments, BSAY asked Yale students to take two or three minutes, and answer the following question in an anonymous post of 50 words or less: What are your feelings about “Blackness” at Yale University? This question is intentionally broad, and has produced responses ranging from issues such as dynamics in Black organizations to interracial dating at Yale. Over 150 responses have been collected, and seven to 10 responses will be posted each day between now and the first week of March. Below you will find some of the 150 responses we have received:

“I feel left out when I see black kids only hanging out with other black kids. Like I’m not allowed to approach. Is that racist?”

“Blackness is not united here; it is clear that a lot of black people chose their one black group and that’s it or they choose to not participate in any black groups — not because they’re not ‘black’ but rather they probably enjoy the activities that they choose to do more.”

“Yale is far more integrated than my high school, and I’m extremely grateful for that. I’ve met some awesome black kids here, which is great. I’m sometimes jealous of black freshmen who get black upperclassmen watching out for them. That’s not a bad thing, but I wish someone would watch out for me.”

“I think the Af-Am center does good outreach, but I feel like the black students tend to only hang out with each other, much like some other groups on campus. I know I unfairly judge black students because of bad experiences I had in high school.”

“I feel that we as a society, and as a Yale community, spend too much time defining diversity by race and skin color. Racial groups — including much of the Black community — become closed circles of friends and sometimes can be seen as a group quite separate from the community as a whole. As an entire community we should recognize diversity more broadly — diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of passions — so perhaps with a new outlook on similarities and differences, and a conscious effort to mix races, we can achieve a more cohesive, diverse student body.”

“Why do black students need an ‘alliance’ at Yale? And if they’re allied, WHO are the enemies? The insularity of a recognizable portion of (but not all) black students at Yale that is not really interested in hanging out with anyone who is not black is annoying.”

“As a white writer, my sense is that race at Yale is in a healthy spot. While some friend groups are racially homogenous, most are diverse. Segregation doesn’t seem to be more serious for African-Americans at Yale than any other ethnic group. What worries me is my relationship to race in New Haven. I find that I have become more prejudiced since moving to New Haven. I don’t mean racist. I mean prejudiced. I find myself noticing blackness more.”

“Race relations on the surface may seem healthy at Yale, but based on my experience and the experiences of others, I feel like the dating preferences of white students in particular are all too often exclusive against individuals of color. I find it hard to believe such a phenomenon among this particular racial enclave at Yale is just too pervasive to be dismissed as coincidence. Some students would benefit from taking a hard look at the underlying reasons for why they choose not to date outside their own race.”

“I don’t know how I feel about blackness at Yale. I’m biracial and it’s hard to fit in with the Af-Am house, or so it feels. People at Yale don’t believe I’m black, but that doesn’t erase history. People at Yale ignore America’s problems, but they still lurk beneath the surface.”

“I’m going to become the Huey Newton of the 21st century by the time I leave Yale for two reasons. Firstly, a lot of white people I interact with are clueless and I’m losing patience. Secondly, my professors (and friends) have intense white guilt and an empowering love for black culture beyond trite exoticization.”

“Blackness is both community and isolation. It is respect, but condescension. It is being accepted in word, and ignored in deed. Being Black at Yale is still being Black.”

Albert McWilliams is a junior in Morse College and the President of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.


  • yaleguy

    Everyone should come out to the “State of Black Yale” meeting next Tuesday at 7 PM in the Af-Am House if they wish to address the issues presented in this blog.

  • River Tam

    Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid.

    Maybe it’s because I grew up very multiracial, but I think the obsession with race needs to end at Yale. The worst offenders are the Black and Asian student groups (and I can say this because I’m part Asian and part Black!) on campus.

    Grow up.

    “Being black at Yale” is a frame of mind. Why don’t you simply “be at Yale”?

  • piersonpiersoncollege

    No, River Tam, you can’t say this because you’re part Black and part Asian. You do not get to dictate the views of entire communities simply because you may or may not identify with them. You also do not get to dismiss the feelings of a diverse group of people – unless you presume to know the cultural identity of everyone who is posting to that tumblr – because you don’t happen to consider race important.

    There is no obsession with race at Yale; there is widespread ignorance because many people at Yale are in a position that does not require them to confront racial issues, outside of the topic perhaps being brought up in a class or two. And those privileged people are not necessarily white.

    Part of “growing up” is recognizing that the world is not as clear-cut as we would like to think it is, that other viewpoints exists which are wildly different from our own. People come to Yale from an amazing variety of circumstances, and deciding that race shouldn’t be an issue merely because you in particular happened to grow up in a multiracial environment is what’s really stupid.

  • RexMottram08

    My black classmates at Yale were 100x more racist than the white kids…

  • lprol

    @RexMottram08 — And unless your “black classmates at Yale” comprise the characters and perspectives of every single black person at Yale–which they don’t–your ad hominem observation means nothing.

  • River Tam

    > You also do not get to dismiss the feelings of a diverse group of people – unless you presume to know the cultural identity of everyone who is posting to that tumblr – because you don’t happen to consider race important.

    Yes, heaven forbid I dismiss the “feelings” of a “diverse” group of people.

    > deciding that race shouldn’t be an issue merely because you in particular happened to grow up in a multiracial environment is what’s really stupid.

    Race isn’t an issue. People *make it* an issue. In this case, the author of this column and the founders of the blog make it an issue.

  • NathanHale

    @ River Tam — I’m just curious now.

    Why did you put “feelings” and “diverse” in quotes?

    Why is race no longer an issue in America? Was it ever an issue?

  • soulfoodforthought

    @RiverTam “Race isn’t an issue. People make it an issue. In this case, the author of this column and the founders of the blog make it an issue.” Race has always been an issue. Now a days, its just TOO inconvenient for people to talk about it. Its TOO touchy or TOO controversial, so instead people try and make it a non-issue. We like to brag about how forward thinking and innovative we are as a student body, but purposefully choosing to ignore the delicate issue of race instead of facing it head-on is cowardice in it’s most perfect form. Ignoring the issue is counterproductive and perpetuates misconceptions that you yourself may not have to deal with but many others do.

    To suggest that Albert and BSAY have all of a sudden made race at Yale an issue by starting this blog is completely ridiculous and unfounded. Maybe you should reread what he wrote. It was completely free of any slant or bias. This piece doesn’t even deserve to be labeled as an “Opinion” piece, because Albert left his own opinions out of it! By being objective, Albert did exactly what he set out to do which is present what OTHERS wrote. And if you were even so brave enough to visit the tumblr and actually read the posts you would see that BSAY interjects no opinion into their presentation of what others have submitted. There is no filtering. This is proven by the wide range of responses that we see on the blog (and even the various opinions reflected in the sample submissions above). Its quite obvious that BSAY is only providing a medium to have a much needed discussion on a race. And so far they have succeeded.

    Its amazing to me that you are unable to tell whose opinion is whose and whether something is an opinion or an objective statement. Next time, try critically reading the piece instead of just reading the piece critically.

  • Labanite

    I feel this issue needs more attention outside of Yale than inside it. If we want to really look at issues that are ‘inconvenient’ as soulfoodforthought puts it, we should be actively giving our support to areas in which this is more serious issue than here.

  • justayalemom

    In the words of Morgan Freeman, “Just stop talking about racism. You stop calling me a black man and I will stop calling you a white man” in an interview with Mike Wallace about Black History Month for which Morgan Freeman called “Ridiculous, Black History IS American History”!

    Thank you Morgan Freeman for speaking the truth. And to add to his wisdom, I would do away with Spanish History month and any other ethnic history month.

    We are all Americans and we are all part of American History!

  • robert99

    Obsessing over race. Boring!

  • JEThirteen

    “Race relations on the surface may seem healthy at Yale, but based on my experience and the experiences of others, I feel like the dating preferences of white students in particular are all too often exclusive against individuals of color.”

    Perhaps this comment in the article above shows just how ludicrous some of the discourse about race at Yale has become. Should I (an atheist) have to date young-Earth creationists on an equal basis in the name of religious tolerance? Should I be required to date thin people and fat people in equal numbers so as not to discriminate based on appearance? If there is one area in which racial discrimination in the sense of preferring people of one race to another (non-physical attributes being equal) is perfectly appropriate, it is dating. I certainly don’t hold any beliefs to the effect that “all people of race X are stupid” or “all people of race X are violent” or “all people of race Z are over-emotional”, but I do happen to be attracted, generally speaking, more to people of one race than to those of another. I like certain bodily features which are more prevalent in some populations than in others, so an individual’s race becomes part of my set of criteria when I choose who to date.

    I do not think that we should automatically assume that people prefer to date someone of their own race, or that some races are inherently more attractive than others. Those would be racist beliefs. Nor should we assume that people of a given race come from the associated socio-cultural background. It would be racist of me to refuse to date an Asian on the grounds that I would prefer someone to whom I could properly relate, since many Asians may well have experiences and mindsets similar to my own. And on the whole, I’m quite supportive of mixed-race couples. But the mere fact that I as an individual may not be as interested in dating you if you are of a given race (and assuming I have made no assumptions about the rest of you on the basis of your race) is not something you can complain about. My advice, if you think like this, is to stop playing the victim and get over it. Not every disadvantage you feel you suffer because of you are of a given race comes down to the racism of society.

  • ReasonedFaith2013


    You have raised several points which I would like to address.
    First of all, deciding not to date someone because of their race is inherently different from deciding not to date someone because of their religion or weight. The latter two criteria are under an individual’s control (with a small number of exceptions in the weight category for people with genetic or hormonal disorders that render them inescapably over- or underweight), whereas race is not malleable. Perhaps an atheist would only want to date other atheists because they might share a similar world outlook. Perhaps a physically fit person would only want to date other physically fit people because they might share the same passion for exercise and athleticism. However, if an individual claims to hold no prejudices about people of a certain race and still categorically chooses not to date them, that means he is making a discrimination based solely on virtually unchangeable racial characteristics.

    While there are some physical features that are universally viewed as beautiful and are likely genetically and evolutionarily determined to be so, various studies have shown that a significant portion of the physical ideal is highly variable and is likely derived from the cultural environment. However, for the purpose of argument, let us assume that you are correct and an individual’s physical attractiveness is unconsciously determined by other individuals and not by society’s conscious racialism. Even in this case, a racial group that is on the whole judged to be unattractive may still have grounds to be disquieted. Imagine this statement being given to an individual of a so-called unattractive racial group: “You’re not ugly because society is racist; you’re ugly because your physical features inevitably render you to be so.” Regardless of the morality behind society’s reasoning for deeming this person to be unattractive, the emotional outcome for said individual would probably be equally detrimental for him. Should society discount these emotions as “playing the victim” just because it can morally justify their existence?

    That being said, it is highly doubtful that the vast majority of people at Yale are exclusively attracted to one race. Even if most Yalies have a physical preference for features that tend to congregate in a certain racial group, the sheer diversity of phenotypes within the human population as a whole indicates that most Yalies must find these features in at least some members of other racial groups.

    Then why do more Yalies not date outside of a select number of ethnic groups? Perhaps it is because they hold racist prejudices that are reinforced by their cultural environment.

  • ReasonedFaith2013

    Let me substantiate this argument with a personal anecdote. I, a black guy, noticed a cute white girl at a party last semester. We had shared a class together and sometimes sat next to each other in section. On the night in question, she had taken a break from dancing and was pushing her way through the crowded room towards the bathroom. She caught my eye, smiled, and immediately launched into a conversation about how our TA’s inability to control a couple overbearing members of our discussion section. We made small talk for about five minutes, and her body language (smiling, fiddling with her hair, lightly brushing my shoulder) indicated that she was likely somewhat interested in me. Even though I do not normally pursue girls of the Caucasian Persuasion in favor of other women of black descent, in this case I most certainly open to the possibility–she was cute, nice, witty, and laid down a mean argument in discussion section when it wasn’t being dominated by some of its more spirited members.

    A girlfriend of hers, also white, came up behind her. She took a look at me, took a look at her friend, and then told her that she needed immediate accompaniment to the bathroom facility. I stuck my hand out in an effort to introduce myself. She flashed a quick, fake smile, halfheartedly gripped my hand, uttered what may have been her name in a barely audible voice, and proceeded to drag her friend to the bathroom.

    My first thought as I turned to socialize with another group of students was that this girl did not want my section-mate to make a decision while slightly inebriated. While I, as a very upstanding young gentleman, took issue with her assumption that I would attempt to force such a decision, I appreciated her desire to be a good and protective friend. Then I looked up from my group of friends and saw them both, halfway to the bathroom. They were dancing again, but this time they were not alone–two white guys were dancing awkwardly as one would when dancing with someone for the first time. This friend had apparently circumvented my efforts to sully this poor, defenseless white girl with my black uncouthness in favor of the safe, familiar, and culturally approved white guy with whom she was now dancing.

    Perhaps that last sentence was a bit embellished; I do not know exactly what the cute white girl from section and her friend were thinking. The sad thing is, I will probably never find out. The girl from section never sat next to me again.

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