STERN: Yale’s white walls

A Stern Perspective

In the fall of 1980, several students at Yale Law School noticed something disturbing. There was something off about the portraits on the walls of their building.

After careful examination, the students realized that they all depicted men. All of them. These students, now outraged, strongly urged the Law School to recognize the contributions of women by including portraits of accomplished females alongside the men. Eventually, with the support of the administration, they commissioned and unveiled a portrait of Ellen Ash Peters. Peters, who fled Nazi Germany at the age of 9 and went on to graduate cum laude from Yale Law School and then teach there, became the first female justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court. Her portrait hangs in a lecture hall to this day.

One of those young students was my mother, then in her first year. I’d like to say that things have gotten better in the decades since my mother was in New Haven, and in many ways, they have. But when it comes to portraits on the walls, things remain nearly as unequal as they were more than 30 years ago.

Since arriving as a freshman, I have become increasingly aware that nearly all the portraits on the walls of dining halls and common rooms were of white men. The faces staring down at me as I ate or studied were remarkably homogeneous, looking a little too much like the all-male, basically all-white Yale of yesteryear for my liking.

So, since returning from winter break I have embarked on a survey of all of the dining hall and common room portraits (where the vast majority of portraits seem to reside). Nine of Yale’s 13 dining halls, including Commons, have at least one portrait on their walls. Four of the common rooms have portraits. Of the 89 portraits I saw, 79 depicted white men, eight white women and two black men. To put that another way, less than 10 percent of the portraits are women; hardly 2 percent are portraits of nonwhite people. No black women were pictured, nor were any Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans or other minorities (so far as I could tell).

In a Yale that claims to support and embrace diversity, the walls that surround us — the walls we call home — should reflect a more diverse Yale. In a Yale that is half female and 41 percent people of color, we need more than our stodgy, lily-white, antiquated portraits.

I can attest to the fact that there is adequate room for more. Calhoun’s dining hall has plenty of room — it only has four portraits (all white men, including the noted racist and pro-slavery politician, John C. Calhoun). Timothy Dwight’s dining hall has plenty of room, despite the 10 white, male faces staring down from its walls — and these the only 10 faces there.

The most diverse dining hall is Davenport’s — it has three white men, one black man and one white woman. Before Davenport feels too proud of itself, it should look at the portrait of its one woman: Anne Allen, a poor rendering of a severe old woman in a maid’s uniform. “Faithful and Beloved Servant,” the plaque reads.

My own treasured Branford dining hall — where I eat, conservatively, 90 percent of my meals — is the most homogenous of them all. Fifteen portraits adorn its walls. Every one is of a white man.

When I bring up this homogeneity to friends, they invariably raise the argument: The portraits are probably depicting old masters and deans; we can’t help it if that’s just why they’re there. Yet I can say with authority that a huge number of merely outstanding graduates are pictured as well, including numerous members of the clergy or government. And let’s not forget the scores of “benefactors” and “philanthropists” who somehow merited a portrait. Furthermore, plenty of them are still living. Overall, portrait allotments seem remarkably arbitrary. Surely we can find an outstanding graduate who is not another white man — the names Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Benjamin Carson, Meryl Streep and even Clarence Thomas (if he’ll accept) spring to mind.

It’s time to change the portraits that surround us. What we put on the walls matters — it sends a message to the Yale community, as well as to the world at large. As Yale enters a new era of leadership under two white men, we have a chance to show our true commitment to a culture of diversity.

Scott Stern is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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