STERN: Race discussion now

A Stern Perspective

A little more than a week ago, the words “Race War Now” appeared on a wall on the second floor of the African American Studies department. Yale Police began an investigation and the words were removed. Department Chair Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95 released a statement, calling the graffiti a “one-time act of stupidity.” He and President Salovey sent a joint email to the department condemning the incident.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tian“This is important,” Holloway told the News. “This is a real thing, [but] we want to keep it in scale. This was a stupid and small act, [not a] stupid and big act.” Anyone with information about the graffiti was directed to call a phone number.

And that was it. Students heard no more about the incident. There were no public forums, no panels, no student demonstrations.

Holloway is right: This was a relatively small act, not a big one. But it reflects something bigger about Yale. Prejudice remains among us — far more silent and subtle than ever before, but present nonetheless. Many of us like to think we live on a campus that has overcome prejudice. We like to skirt around it and accuse those who do discuss it of being overly sensitive. Our silence has stunted much of the progress made in achieving diversity and tolerance. Our silence obscures the fact that this latest appearance of hateful graffiti eerily mirrors past events on Yale’s campus.

Indeed, bigoted graffiti has been appearing at Yale every couple of years. Last May, graffiti appeared on a wall in a chemistry lab threatening the Slifka Center for Jewish Life with arson. In 2007, the words “N—– School” appeared by the York Street gate to Pierson. Later that week, the words “drama f—” appeared on the side of the University Theater. In 2003, students broke into the room of an anti-war activist and left a message on her white board: “I love kicking Muslim a– b—— a–! They should all die with Mohammad.” (The message continued for several more sentences.) In the days that followed, more anti-Muslim graffiti appeared in front of the Afro-American Cultural Center.

However uncomfortable you felt reading that last paragraph, it’s probably not as uncomfortable as I felt writing it. The offensive words that appeared in campus graffiti are difficult to read on paper, much less discuss openly. We are so careful about the way we talk about acts of prejudice that sometimes we are unable to address them directly. It is difficult for us to candidly explore our campus’ history of prejudice and the particular slurs that people here have employed. But if we can take away the taboos that prevent us from constructively discussing racial slurs, we will diminish the power of these words and those who wield them. It’s important to be able to talk about prejudice frankly, and to respond to intolerant incidents when they occur.

In the past, there were usually responses to the hateful words. In the wake of the 2007 graffiti, students organized a rally and vigil demanding that the University implement structural or curricular responses to prejudice on campus. After the 2003 incidents, a group called Concerned Students at Yale gathered outside Woodbridge Hall to agitate against the University’s lukewarm reaction. Following a similar incident in 1990, student activists organized a two-day boycott of classes.

But after this latest incident at the African American Studies department: nothing.

Many may claim that last week’s graffiti is less offensive than some of those other incidents. That’s debatable. But they all share similarities — each incident was motivated by hate, made some students feel unwelcome on campus and until this time, generated some sort of public discussion.

There should be a response to a call for a race war at Yale. Students or administrators should be hosting panels or protests. When racist graffiti began appearing all over Oberlin last semester, the University cancelled classes for a day to hold discussions about tolerance and prejudice. It later emerged that much of this graffiti was part of a hoax, but Oberlin’s decision remains an example for Yale to consider. This is not just an indictment of the Yale administration — I spoke with very few students who were truly up in arms about this latest appearance of hateful words.

And this incident can be used to stimulate broader discussions of race. I want additional diversity training for freshmen, especially during their first weeks on campus. Meetings addressed to bystanders of prejudice — modeled after the tremendously successful sophomore bystander intervention workshops — would be a good start.

In his powerful freshman address, President Salovey told freshmen to feel more comfortable talking about socioeconomic class, calling it, “one of the last taboos among Yale students.” We should also feel more comfortable discussing another taboo subject — racial prejudice. We cannot afford to keep pretending that it does not exist, when in fact it’s written on the walls.

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

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