Let’s Talk Race, Face-to-Face

WKNDCOVER

Let’s talk about race.

Uncomfortable yet?

In February 2007, when the Yale Political Union’s Independent Party debated “Resolved: Yale’s Policies Perpetuate Racism,” a diverse group of about 120 students talked about racial interactions on campus. It was a rare occurrence. The large turnout was a result of a controversial email invitation the Independent Party sent out beforehand, which some students thought unfairly attacked Yale’s cultural centers and programs.

“The unsightly pimples of self-segregation and racial stereotypes are hidden under a thick veneer of cultural houses and [freshman pre-orientation program] Cultural Connections,” declared the email, sent out by the party’s chief whip Carmen Lee ’09, who later said it was intended to be sarcastic. At first, several cultural groups urged their members to try to stop the event from taking place, because they mistakenly thought Lee was making an assertion that she or the Independent Party endorsed. When Lee sent out a second explanatory email, they attended the debate as participants instead. The discussion focused on the issue of whether the cultural centers and Cultural Connections encourage racial self-segregation. In the end, the resolution did not pass. The participants concluded that the centers and programs themselves are not inherently problematic, but students and the administration are not doing enough to promote integration.

In an opinion piece in the News, Lee described the debate as an “uncomfortable” situation that forced students to talk about “why they don’t talk more often.” In response, she argued for mandatory racial counseling and cultural education sponsored by the University.

“It’s a bad thing that Tuesday was the first time I have felt uncomfortable about race here, and much of it is my fault for not seeking out such discussion, outside of class. I am afraid to offer my opinion,” Lee wrote.

Now almost five years later, there are still few forums for intercultural dialogue about these issues on campus. And it’s not for lack of interest. Yale students, both white and of color, do express strong opinions about race and culture.

Where? The place many students spend most of their time: the Internet.

Last winter, the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) created a Tumblr site asking people to submit short, anonymous responses on their views of “blackness” at Yale, which BSAY then displayed on the website. The website’s organizers received a large number of responses — about 150 total — and the ones received before February were featured on the website, said Joshua Penny ’13, who was on the organization’s board last year and now serves as its president. Responses were uncensored and varied widely.

One student felt angry when non-black students expected him or her to answer all of their “absurd” questions about blackness. Another, non-black student was disappointed at not having more black friends. Many students talked about self-segregation by race at Yale, proffering different opinions for whether it existed and why. One student’s post stated, in poor grammar, that he or she knew many black students who were generally “lethargic” and chose easy classes to get by at Yale.

Besides that outlier, the ideas expressed were thoughtful yet not ones usually expressed on campus outside of the virtual world. Obviously, this discrepancy has something to do, at least partly, with an obvious benefit the Internet provides: Comment boards and blog sites are active forums that are simple to use and widely read. And the Internet is a neutral space that automatically puts everyone on equal footing while also removing the need for accountability. But if students have the strong opinions about race that their Internet musings suggest, they should show the same willingness to express them in real life, right?

Not really — at least, not visibly. The cultural houses are struggling to get members of different races to participate in discussions, and the only University-sponsored intercultural group on campus, the Intercultural Affairs Council, does a better job of sponsoring existing events than creating new opportunities for dialogue on campus.

Yale students are more open to having major discussions about race and culture over the Internet than in person, even though recent events show that the comment boards engender an exchange that lacks empathy. For some reason, students feel unrepresented in and are unwilling to utilize the existing physical venues for talking about race. Although there is no perfect solution, having better-quality and more numerous conversations — face-to-face — about race and culture makes it more likely that we leave Yale at the end of four years better equipped to lead and serve in the world outside our stone walls.

A VIRTUAL DISAGREEMENT

Why would students rather talk about race online and why does it matter? To help answer these questions, I contacted recent graduate Nicolas Kemper ’11, now in New York working on publishing his senior thesis. (Kemper is a former production and design editor for the News.) After BSAY sent out a campus-wide email about the blackness Tumblr, Kemper wrote a column in the News calling organizations based around race, such as BSAY, arbitrarily divisive instead of helpful to the projects they seek to carry out.

“Tying an organization to something as bereft of content as the color of skin only limits the project and hobbles those principles,” he wrote. In what he later called an “attempt at levity,” he compared dialogue about skin color to dialogue about the color of a variety of inanimate objects such as “the black mullions on the gothic façade of Davenport.” Though now Kemper said he thinks he could have phrased his argument with more nuance, he stands by the basic statement that focusing on race and color fosters division and detracts from useful goals and principles. (Kemper later published a column apologizing for the lack of nuance in his previous statements.)

Despite this, it’s hard to dispute that skin color does matter. Even just in New Haven and Connecticut, race cannot be separated from important social issues, such as poverty and crime. A 2008 Connecticut state report used statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau to show that the arrest rate in the state for blacks was two to 15 times higher than for whites, depending on the crimes, which ranged from burglary to murder. The report showed that incarceration rates, too, were much higher for blacks than for whites.

And race is correlated with factors that more directly relate to our daily lives. The racial distribution within Yale’s walls is decidedly different than that of its surrounding community, the city of New Haven. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that New Haven is 35.4 percent black, 27.4 percent Hispanic and 4.6 percent Asian, compared to Yale’s reported distribution of 6 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 14 percent Asian. White people make up 31.8 percent in New Haven but 57 percent at Yale.

Race is a major correlating factor with many social realities and cannot be ruled out when discussing them, even at Yale and even though our nation elected a black president. I disagree with Kemper that discussing race is inherently divisive or negative. But I also think I benefited from hearing what he had to say — it reminded me why I hold that opinion and urged me to think about the source or validity of others’ in order to defend mine.

Many students had strong reactions to the column.

When I talked to him recently, Lawrence Lim ’13 said it made him “angry,” not just because he disagreed with the content, but also because of the way the argument was phrased.

“His article was loaded with a lot of presumptions about the way race works at Yale,” Lim said. He said Kemper spoke about the limitations of race without actually understanding the barriers people of color may face or the experiences they may have because of color. And Ivy Onyeador ’11 said she felt the same when reading Kemper’s column last year, calling the tone “dismissive.” She worked in the Af-Am House her senior year and felt that Kemper was attacking BSAY by calling its founding principles divisive.

A group of intelligent young people from diverse backgrounds disagreed about the controversial issue of race’s role in society — so what?

Well, most of the column’s immediate critiques happened, not in person, but in the comments section of the online version of the column. Most of the responses were anonymous.

It was a discussion similar to the one at the Independent Party debate, but a virtual one, in which no one was held accountable for their words and which eventually deteriorated into a muddle of personal attacks and digressions.

Lim and Onyeador were two of the commenters on the column who attached their real names.

“At a certain point, [the conversation] is not going to be productive unless you take ownership of what you say and believe,” said Lim, a freshman liaison for the Asian-American Cultural Center. Honesty is important, but accountability raises the quality of the conversation.

Indeed, several of Kemper’s critics emailed him and he told me he tried to have in-person conversations with all of them. When he had similar conversations with people previous to the column’s publication, he said they gave him the “benefit of the doubt,” instead of assuming he was “some kind of awful, ignorant, insensitive person,” like his Internet detractors did.

His sarcasm probably translated better when accompanied with the facial expressions and body language that allow for nuanced expression, almost impossible to convey using only text, especially when in the context of an issue that many people feel personally affects them.

The number of personal attacks he received made him anxious about talking publicly about race, he told me.

Four days after the first column was published, Kemper attended BSAY’s annual State of Black Yale discussion event, which he told me was a “great conversation” composed mostly of “entirely sensible” speeches. He agreed with most of them, he said.

He didn’t change his opinion, but he was able to express it in a more complex, nuanced way. That skill might have been better learned in a forum where people were not personally attacking him.

Productive conversations about race, especially at a university like Yale that aims to foster a sense of social responsibility in its students, require participants to relate personal experiences to larger social issues both on campus and out in the world. Unlike virtual conversations, real-life interactions allow students to speak abstractly about the issues, as Kemper did in his column, while also taking ownership of the experiences that shape their personal viewpoints.

LOOKING INWARD, SPEAKING OUT

Yale already has spaces for talking about race, but not all students feel comfortable taking advantage of them. Yale’s four cultural centers — Afro-American, Asian American, Latino and Native American — facilitate discussions about race and culture, though the frequency varies by center. But the discussions often look inward instead of focusing on general issues, and people outside of those races don’t often attend. I have attended a few of these events at the Af-Am House, including a discussion in late September called “Black Defined,” which is held every year and sponsored by BSAY, the Yale Black Women’s Coalition, the Dominican Students Association and the Yale African Students Association. The conversation, which revolved around the question “What is blackness?” was the real-life version of the Yale Blackness Tumblr. Of the 20 or 30 who attended, most were black — both African and African-American — one was Latino and none were white or Asian American. On the Tumblr, however, several who posted identified as non-black (though obviously there is no way to say for sure). One of the topics discussed in both forums was racial self-segregation at Yale. At the discussion, most people agreed that the idea of black self-segregation was portrayed more radically than the reality of the situation. But online, this sense of agreement did not occur — a non-black student angrily commented that he or she felt insulted that black students were trying to “estrange” themselves from the rest of the Yale community. But a post right beneath that one stated that part of the issue of self-segregation was that white students were not open to communicating on a deeper level with black students.

I learned a lot from the event — the diversity of opinions within the black community was striking and I heard definitions of blackness that differed greatly from my own. But even so, I felt something was missing from the experience. I realized what it was when I went back to my room and excitedly tried to tell two of my suitemates (who identify as white and Latina, respectively) about what I had learned. I related to the part of the discussion that pertained to existing stereotypes within the black community that are tied to different shades of blackness and even ethnicities. Instead of nods of recognition and understanding, they gave me looks of confusion.

While it is true that students of the same race do not necessarily have the same opinions, identifying with a certain race often means identifying with a certain history and culture, sometimes even subconsciously. Intercultural dialogue requires participants to first explain the historical and cultural background before expanding on the issues, which can be more difficult and require different skills than dialogue between a group of black students, for example. It can also result in helpful feedback in cases when cultural viewpoints clash, possibly leading to solutions or refining of opinions.

Though every cultural center has a representative responsible for promoting intercultural discussions, some would argue the centers’ primary purpose is to provide safe spaces for students of a certain background, said Karmen Cheung ’12, head coordinator for the Asian American Cultural Center. (The AACC Dean Saveena Dhall deferred comment to Cheung for this article.) The centers are stretched for resources and trying to expand the mission of a cultural center could affect the quality of the center’s efforts in general, she said.

But Rodney Cohen, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, said the assumption that the cultural centers are reserved for those who self-identify with the cultural groups is a flawed one. The centers actually tend to draw from a wide range of students and foster multicultural interaction.

Yet despite cultural groups’ pointed attempts at inclusion, white students don’t often attend discussion events at the Af-Am House, said Penny, who moderated the “Black Defined” discussion. “When you say you’re going to have a discussion about something about race, which is such a sensitive topic, it’s not as appealing an event,” he said.

This can mean students outside of the cultural center, especially white students who are not affiliated with a specific center, may feel uncomfortable attending and participating in the discussions.

Lim agreed, saying it was “understandable” that outsiders felt uncomfortable.

“It’s hard to walk into a room full of people who you perceive share an opinion different from yours,” he said. “It is hard to voice your opinions even if you do have an open mind.” He has attended events at the Af-Am House, La Casa and the AACC, and said “cultural enrichment” events usually are much more diversely attended than ones focused on race dialogue alone.

BRIDGING THE CULTURAL GAP

So if the cultural houses are too narrowly focused and the Internet is too impersonal, could a multicultural space be just right? At my predominately white private all-girls’ high school, I was one of four or five black students in my grade. It was an experience much less diverse than Yale in almost every way. But while I’ve had few major experiences with intercultural dialogue at this university, at my high school I had these experiences on a regular basis. The school had a multicultural club called Cultural Awareness for Everyone (or CAFÉ), which held weekly student-run discussions about specific or cross-cultural issues, such as affirmative action and white privilege. We often related these issues to policies and events specific to the institution.

It wasn’t perfect — white students did not attend in the same number or frequency as students of color, which limited the effect the club had on the community. Because the school was small and not very diverse, the club was seen as a place primarily for people of color, although everyone was encouraged to attend discussions.

Despite its reputation, it differed from Yale’s cultural houses because its only goal was to address the issues from a variety of racial and cultural perspectives.

The Intercultural Affairs Council is the closest we have to that right now. Made up of a board of students and faculty members, and facilitated through the Yale College Dean’s Office, the IAC promotes cultural awareness in the Yale community. The Yale College website states that the IAC “collaboratively offers education and social programming to enhance the overall academic and developmental achievement of all students.”

The administration created the body in August 2008, after a spate of incidents of hate speech in the previous academic year, including one where an unknown person spray-painted the words “nigger school” on the walls of Pierson College. Native American Cultural Center Dean Theodore Van Alst said the IAC is responsible for facilitating intercultural conversations aided by the physical spaces of the cultural centers.

Michael Blume ’13 joined the IAC his freshman year hoping it would reach out to a diverse group of students and facilitate discussions. And sometimes it did. At one successful event, he and another student Travis Gidado ’12 each invited several people to a discussion about race, beauty and interracial dating at Yale. Participants shared personal stories — for example, several straight black women said they felt there was a lack of dating options for them at Yale, because men of all races, including black men, were more attracted to non-black women, Blume said.

“Shit was put out there,” he said. “Besides personal conversations I’ve had with friends at Yale, that was the first time I was part of an organized discussion about race.”

But the IAC has not been as proactive in starting these discussions as he would have hoped, he said. During his time as a member, Blume said the group was more likely to fund endeavors rather than “reaching out and causing things.” He stopped participating after his sophomore year two years ago.

Blume is white, Jewish and talks at an abnormally fast speed. He’s prone to letting comically blunt one-liners slip and seems comfortable talking about any topic. From Montclair, N.J., he grew up in a town that was half-black and half-white and very socioeconomically diverse, and he is now majoring in Latin American studies at Yale. He is very comfortable talking about race.

He was eating lunch with a friend recently and used the term “ghetto black people,” in a context he says was perfectly accurate. But his friend was shocked, not at the context but at the term itself, which did not seem politically correct.

“For me, the first step to reach equality is having a language to accurately depict what really is important,” Blume said, adding that generally Yale students lack that vocabulary. For the IAC dialogue his sophomore year, he made attendees practice repeating words such as “black,” “white,” and “racism” before the discussion, because he thought students felt uncomfortable using basic terms that are necessary for racial dialogue. In the desire to avoid offense in a politically correct campus culture, students with little experience speaking about race are afraid of mistaking accurate terms for offensive phrases and stereotypes. Blume said in some of his experiences, people felt the need to avoid mentioning even the phrase “black people.” “That [exercise] was one very concrete way of facilitating that,” he said.

Gidado said ideally the IAC would sponsor activities such as that dialogue on a regular basis. Unlike Blume, he is still involved with the IAC, which he was “adamant about joining” when he came to Yale. A black student and first-generation Nigerian, he was also interested in getting involved with the Af-Am House, but said he wanted something that would allow him to simultaneously view multiple racial and cultural viewpoints. “I wanted something that started in the center and moved out from that point,” he said.

Gidado said he was first forced to think about race when he moved down to Florida from California at age 12. “I realized, ‘Oh, I am a different complexion than these people,’ ” he said.

Though he’s proud of the successes the IAC has had, he is disappointed at its limitations.

“It hasn’t gotten off the ground in a way that I would hope,” he said. One thing he thinks “hinders” the organization is that it does not have a physical “safe space” like the ones the cultural centers provide for a different purpose.

A physical multicultural space could ensure that students of all races had a safe space to talk about their perspectives on race and culture. The neutrality of the space would be key — part of the reason students are turning to Internet dialogue is because no one “owns” the space, like in the cultural houses. And the space would encourage students to share personal viewpoints more easily and readily than in a classroom setting.

INSPIRING THE APATHETIC

But let’s be real. A multicultural center would not solve all of our problems — some students just do not feel compelled to talk about race.

In the middle of my interview with Blume about the IAC, he stopped me.

“You know, I saw you coming from across the room and for a second, I was hoping it wasn’t you,” he said, referring to my race. He hoped a white student had taken the initiative to write the article.

It’s true: Part of the reason I’m so interested in this topic is because of experiences I’ve had due to my race. When I told a friend I was writing this article, she looked surprised and asked me, “But there’s no discrimination at Yale, right?” I don’t think there are many instances at Yale in which white students purposefully and directly marginalize students of color. But racism, as a system of legal and social marginalization based on race, is deeply woven into the foundations of modern institutions, and the ramifications of such history still influences everyday interactions, even at Yale.

My race has affected my Yale experience in ways that relate to other major spheres in which I self-identify. As one of few black campus journalists, I often feel pressure to represent the viewpoints of my race and culture in the campus media. As a black woman, I don’t always feel as though I fit into the standard of beauty on campus. As a black student, I don’t think my classes always adequately represent the viewpoints of my race and culture.

A percentage of the people lacking my experiences — or experiences with diversity generally — might just not care about racial dialogue. There are students at Yale from backgrounds that did not require them to have these conversations before, said Alejandro Gutierrez ’13, a staff member at the Latino Cultural Center. Many, though not all, are white.

“Sometimes it might be easier for some people to just ignore the issue of race entirely, because they have never dealt with it,” he said. The presence of a multicultural space itself wouldn’t draw them in. But these people are, arguably, those who most need to attend these discussions.

Even for those like Kemper who believe race is an arbitrary construction, it is important to at least know how to form and express opinions on the subject, in order to survive in “the real world” after leaving the Yale bubble. Kemper’s first column was criticized not only because of his opinions, but also because the way he phrased those opinions showed he had not adequately thought about the experiences of the piece’s potential critics or anticipated how they would respond. Having these conversations in a college environment, within the broader safe space of Yale’s gates, at a time when students are still expected to be mentally developing, will ensure that the “future leaders of the free world” are equipped to address the issues of race and culture that we undoubtedly will encounter.

At the “State of Black Yale” discussion last spring, which Kemper attended after publishing his controversial column, Kayla Vinson ’11 suggested having a mandatory “diversity” distribution requirement, where students would have to take a certain number of classes about race, class or other social issues before graduating. Yale’s name holds a lot of weight in the world and the institution has the right to demand that students who get to claim it have thought about issues related to diversity, she said.

Vinson, now a Woodrow Wilson Aspiring Teachers of Color Fellow getting her master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania, first came up with the idea after she attended an event about affirmative action her junior year co-sponsored by the Yale Political Union and the Yale chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The guest speaker was a black reporter from Fox News, who argued that black students at Yale did not deserve to be at Yale as much as white students and were taking spaces from students who deserved them more, she said. During a YPU debate, attendees are encouraged to hiss if they disagree with a speaker and pound on their desks if they agree with sentiments being expressed. Vinson, who is black, recalled being in the room as many of her peers banged on their desks in vigorous agreement.

She said she thinks the sentiments sprouted not from hatred, but from ignorance.

“The only way I could understand that so many people could think that is because they didn’t know that many black students and [thus] didn’t have a sense of how qualified we were to be there,” she said.

It scared her to think that one of those people could be a future president, someday responsible for effecting policies determining who has access to power, she said.

“Anyone who will have power in the world should spend time thinking about the implications of their actions for humanity,” she said. “It’s easy to do for people similar to you, but more difficult to think about it for people who are not like you and who see the situation not the way you see it.”

Adding a diversity component to the distribution requirement may require the administration to add new courses and even faculty members to successfully address concepts of diversity, she said. Having a professor in the room to facilitate controversial discussions allows students to speak candidly without being personally attacked, said Vinson, who was a sociology major as an undergraduate. With a good facilitator, students in the room can express ideas that may be problematic while admitting that their ideas can be pushed to a deeper level, she said, and other students should be able to respect individual viewpoints and give them the benefit of the doubt.

While Van Alst supported the idea of a diversity requirement, Latino Cultural Center Dean Rosalinda Garcia was more hesitant, saying that she had heard “mixed reviews” about whether requiring courses is ultimately beneficial. But she said she wished the University would offer more courses across the curriculum dealing with racial and social issues, since students would be more likely to enroll in them without being forced to. If all fields were included in a push to discuss race in the classroom, even more quantitative ones like the sciences, racial and social issues would be relevant to a wider variety of students.

There is no solution that would ensure every Yale student’s participation in a meaningful conversation about relevant racial and social issues — some will fall through the cracks. But that doesn’t mean students and the administration should abandon the effort. Gidado said successfully advertising intercultural events would attract people who are interested and affect others who may not be interested but will hear about the events. “Lead by example,” he said.

Yale students want to make their peers feel uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

Comments

  • robert99

    Seems a lot of effort for an overworked topic.

  • yale2002

    I appreciate the YDN covering this topic.

  • thenomad14

    An excellent article. Very balanced and detailed.

  • ama86

    I wonder, why don’t you count the Slifka Center as a cultural center at Yale?

    -Arziki Adamu, SM ’13

  • 81

    Let’s have a cultural center for people who graduated from public high schools. Those from private schools would be welcome at events, but the ultimate mission of the center would be to provide a space on campus for one category of people-public high school graduates.

    This would be identical to the AACC.

  • yale20awesome

    wonderful, nuanced piece. brava!