To say that our nation has a problem with race relations is to state the obvious.
But to say that our university has a problem with race relations is, apparently, taboo.
It is also, in the News’ opinion, true.
To recap briefly: Last year, a host of publications printed racially insensitive material. More recently, an e-mail announcing a Yale Political Union party debate initially angered some cultural groups, whose leaders first urged their members to stop the event but then decided to participate in the Independent Party’s debate.
The common theme of these incidents is not that the perpetrators tried to offend, but rather that the discussions that followed the events were characterized by mutual misunderstanding and distrust. That confrontation stems from a lack of trust between the groups that offend and the groups that are offended, and that lack of trust is due to Yale’s self-segregating community.
At the controversial IP debate this week, whose topic was “Resolved: Yale’s Policies Perpetuate Racism,” speakers brought up the usual panoply of administration-sponsored cultural resources. Some argued that yes, these programs encourage underrepresented minorities to isolate themselves, while others argued that no, students’ personal choices cause self-segregation.
The News would argue the former. Cultural groups, whether the Af-Am House, La Casa or the Slifka Center, serve a need on campus, helping students of minority backgrounds develop a sense of self on an unfamiliar campus. But the success of Yale’s cultural programming creates a dilemma for both minority and non-minority students. Most students have their niche — a lab, singing group, playing field or stage — that defines their life at Yale. But the substructure of cultural programming encourages students to make cultural activities their niche, reducing the amount of time they would have to dedicate to non-culture-specific groups. But as fewer underrepresented minorities choose to make their niches in those other groups, those groups become more homogenous, and the campus fragments along cultural lines.
Communities are built on common ground among individuals, which, for example, Yale’s residential colleges effectively foster. But the mistrust and misunderstanding that have characterized the recent conflicts at Yale reveal how much common ground has eroded among students who are and who are not active in cultural groups. There are some exceptional collaborations, such as the upcoming “Night at the Kasbah” party, co-hosted by, among others, Yale Friends of Israel and the Arab Students Association. But the conflict over the IP debate is a more typical example: The IP member who wrote the e-mail could not understand that her sarcastic comments about cultural houses would be seen as offensive, while those who read the e-mail did not know that debate topics in the YPU, one of Yale’s largest groups, do not represent a party’s unified opinion.
Dialogue about race happens on this campus, but it is largely within, not among, the various niches. More forums on race are not the answer; such public dialogues often turn into echo chambers that serve only to further entrench students’ existing positions. Any viable solution must address the personal and structural reasons why Yale’s campus seems to have become so factionalized. We are all Yalies, and our shared alma mater gives us common ground. We just need to focus on that, not split over our differences.