Walking into Sterling Memorial Library wearing socks and sandals last year, folder in hand, Andom Ghebreghiorgis’ ’07 slim stature — 5’8” and 135 pounds — should hardly have seemed threatening. But he had only taken eight steps when a security guard said, “Excuse me, sir. Yeah, come here.” Students behind and in front of Ghebreghiorgis continued onward as the skeptical guard asked, “Are you a student here?” The student pulled out his ID.
“Oh, thank you, you can move on,” the guard said.
Racial jokes, allegations of self-segregation among cultural groups, discriminatory e-mails and fliers: these instances — whether intentionally or not — have affected the experiences of many minorities on campus in recent years. Less apparent, however, are the latent prejudices black students in particular encounter when perception of their race becomes entangled with the complex relationship between Yale and New Haven.
From cold stares to outright queries of “Do you go here,” many students agree that such instances are a product of perceptions of New Haven as a black city, although the same students often differ in their responses to such incidents.
Who are you?
Though the 2000 U.S. Census identified New Haven as 43.46 percent white and 37.36 percent black, the city has come to be perceived as predominantly black, students said. This fact is especially obvious to Ayesha Faines ’08, who said living off campus has made her an unfamiliar face even in her own college. While few students explicitly describe New Haven in terms of its racial makeup, Faine said, prolonged stares in the dining hall nonetheless suggest that that assumption affects perceptions of black students on campus.
“African-Americans just don’t blend in,” she said. “Whereas if I was white and if no one had ever seen me before, people would just assume it was someone they’d never met. You get a kind of ‘Who are you?’ look. Is she a friend of a staff? Is she from the city?”
For others, racism is apparent in more straightforward terms — residential college gates intentionally closed in front of them, lone passers-by switching sidewalks or even running away. Nicholas Robey ’09 can recall numerous encounters with wary policemen and students, but none as poignant as when he left his ID in the Berkeley laundry room and wandered around the college, looking for people to let him into the basement.
Unbeknownst to the then-freshman, two students who had seen him earlier in the day had called security. Seeing the 6’ 3” student again, they broke into a run as he followed them toward the basement, hoping to reach his laundry. The doors closed on him. Later, when Robey had found other students to let him in, two security guards appeared, answering a second call made by the two fleeing students. Robey stood outside Berkeley for 15 minutes, answering questions until the guards allowed him to retrieve his ID.
“They said to me, ‘Oh you don’t look like a student,’” Robey said. “And I thought, what is a student supposed to look like? ‘It’s because you’re so big.’”
Another instance of suspicion occurred when Robey and nine other black students went to Payne Whitney Gymnasium to play basketball. A security guard familiar with the students let them through, but his colleague had doubts and went down to the courts. There, he inspected the IDs of Robey and every one of his friends; the other 50 non-black students on the court never had to show their cards.
Robey’s stories, as well as everyday jokes and rumors associating New Haven violence with blacks, illustrate the harms of being associated with a city that is perceived as not only black, but dangerous. According to Niko Bowie ’09, Yale rightfully gives freshmen a presentation on security, but such precautions result in unnecessary student anxiety regarding the intentions of New Haven residents.
“There’s definitely a general feeling that if you go out in New Haven you’ll get robbed and mugged … that Yale is safe and New Haven is not,” Bowie said. “Last year I was walking with my friend who’s Asian-American and we were going to the Criterion Cinema and he said, ‘I’m glad I’m walking with you because that means I won’t get mugged.’”
As a New Haven native, Andrew Carter ’10 was surprised that this year’s freshman orientation encouraged students to go to the Hill neighborhood and Fair Haven — areas he said he would approach with caution. But when it came to on-campus safety, Carter received advice of a more foreboding sort. During a Cultural Connections question-and-answer session, student leaders told black males to wear their IDs around their necks for the first few weeks of school to prevent run-ins with Yale security guards.
“I thought it was kind of a shame,” Carter said. “It’s not really reasonable and it’s kind of ridiculous.”
The presumed link between blackness, masculinity and crime came to the fore in 2005 when Yale Police Chief James Perotti sent a campuswide e-mail about a mugging on Edgewood Avenue, identifying an assailant as a “black male in his late teens or early twenties.”
“The fact that it’s very easy for there to be a conflation of me as a black student, a ‘townie’ … every single 20-year-old black student on campus, are we all suspects?” Ghebreghiorgis said.
In addition to crime, poverty is often filtered through the lens of race, city native Eva Wilson ’10 said. Wilson said students often compare the demographics of their hometowns with New Haven’s when judging the level of poverty and crime. Someone hailing from a smaller, more homogenous community might tend to assume New Haven is “ghetto” and dangerous because the city’s black population is larger than that of their small town, Wilson said.
Even students trying to recruit volunteers for a positive cause will exaggerate the needs of New Haven’s schools, making its public school system look worse than it actually is, Wilson said. During her conversations with students, Wilson has had to dispel various assumptions regarding New Haven schools — that they completely lack sexual education programs, are bereft of resources and have broken down due to violence.
“People have definitely said, ‘Oh, you’re from New Haven? I heard from my friend that it’s dangerous and really ghetto … What’s it like coming from there and being a part of Yale?’” Wilson said.
For the most part, the perception of a threatening New Haven has yet to fade. Ghebreghiorgis, who works in the admissions office, said parents’ first concerns are crime and safety on campus. And according to Ghebreghiorgis, the association of New Haven residents with blackness and crime is abetted by the use of the word “townie” and many students’ disrespect for dining hall workers.
Generally defined, “townie” refers to a nonstudent resident of a college town. But its use at Yale sometimes carries negative and racial connotations. Critics of the term also contend that it unnecessarily distinguishes students from New Haven residents, privileging the former over the latter.
“To me, ‘townie’ kind of reminds me of the word ‘carnie,’ like one of the ‘freaks’ you find at a carnival.” Bowie said. “In that sense, I think ‘townie’ is used pejoratively. And I don’t think people would use it in the second perspective. I think people use it from a distance.”
Nor would the term ever be applied to an employee of City Hall, Ghebreghiorgis said. As it stands in Yale student discourse today, the term carries meaning both as a reference to all New Haven residents and as a charged racial term. Though few intend the word’s racist connotations, its origins in a racist and hierarchical perspective endure nevertheless, Robey said.
For the most part, conceptions of New Haven as ‘black’ seem to be confined to the campus, Shah said. New Haven residents themselves are more likely to be apprehensive when encountering baggy pants and loud music rather than skin color, Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said. Yale students are also the only people who invoke the term ‘townie,’ many aldermen observed.
According to Teddy Goff ’07, Yale as an institution both tacitly and explicitly encourages students to feel superior to those outside its gates, whether through the replacement of mom-and-pop shops with national franchises on Broadway or in its failure to meaningfully combat serious problems “two blocks away.” Both contribute to a feeling of gentrified safety, Goff said.
The two dimensions of Yale-New Haven relations almost suggest a chicken-or-egg dilemma: Does hierarchy inspire actions that also happen to take on racist dimensions, or does racism enforce an accompanying sense of hierarchy? Whichever the order, Ghebreghiorgis sees them as intertwined, especially when he witnesses students disrespectfully treating dining hall workers and complaining about their “laziness.”
Carter said he feels that race is more of an issue when it comes to dining halls, especially because he has never been racially accosted at Yale, and he anticipates that few such incidents will occur in the future. In response to workers asking students to move aside so they can move a cart, for example, Carter said classmates have often complained to him, saying the workers “hate them” or “are racist to non-black students.”
But tense student-worker relations are not always about race, Bowie said. Many liberal-minded students say they don’t talk to dining hall workers because they feel uncomfortable being waited upon, he said, aside from class and racial divisions.
“A lot of what I see on campus in terms of the dining hall worker and student relationship is a kind of distrust,” Bowie said. “It seems that people come in with these conceptions that there is a server-served divide and it’s hard to get over that on a personal level.”
And while Yalies may feel uncomfortable with racial and class divides between students and residents, some black students say they have felt included in the city’s black community, whether by having conversations with dining hall workers or getting nods in the street. But although Faines herself has grown close to a few non-students, calling them her “second family,” she also said biases concerning Yale persist.
“On campus you feel this sort of slight racial divide, but New Haven community members see us all as Yalies,” Faines said. “If you’re black, they don’t have some inclination toward you, you’re just like a white Yalie and they assume you come from money, you’re a snob and that you won’t talk to them.”
When something perceived as offensive is said or done toward members of Yale’s black community, the news is spread quickly by word of mouth and e-mail to organization panlists. But black Yalies disagree on how to respond to such incidents, and whether a reaction is even worth it.
Some, Faines said, “shut up” because they are so exasperated with the community’s tepid reactions to prior concerns regarding offensive publications. With busy Yale schedules to focus on, those who advocate nonresponsiveness do so out of practical considerations as well as the desire to avoid incurring any more instances of painful backlash or apathy.
On the other hand, there are students who push to “keep fighting” for larger dialogues and involvement, Faines said.
“The dilemma is do we bring our discourse into the community, because what will be the repercussions?” Faines said. “Will we lose political capital or will something get done this time? If you talk, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. What do you do? You graduate and you talk about how much you hated that aspect of Yale.”
For Carter, the issues are just not monumental enough to entice him to action. Referencing Edward A. Bouchet, Yale’s first black valedictorian, Carter said that if a black man could succeed to that extent when he was not even allowed to live in the dorms, then race at Yale today is not half as problematic.
“I think I’m more the type of person who just doesn’t want to deal with it and just wants to move on and keep doing work because we’re here at Yale,” Carter said. “Most people aren’t really thinking ‘Oh, you’re black, you don’t belong here.’”
But Goff contends that racism at Yale is an especially significant problem because of the university’s reputation for progressivism.
“Not only do [discriminatory incidents] reinforce what people already know about the country, but it’s doubly bad if it happens at Yale,” Goff said. “I think it erases any hope that it wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”
Ghebreghiorgis attributes the majority of racism on campus to ignorance and inexperience with handling issues of race, saying that many white Yale students come from backgrounds where they never had to think about their own whiteness. The same students who oppose cultural houses for their alleged self-segregation are also the ones who are less apt to consider that many minority students are on financial aid and have less time to participate in the very on-campus activities that others want to see diversified, he said.
More than anything, arguments blaming cultural houses for on-campus homogeneity ultimately objectify minorities in the name of a better white experience, construing academic extracurriculars as the norm and cultural groups as on the fringe, Ghebreghiorgis said.
“I’m not the object of the majority of Yale to serve to improve their quality of life,” he said. “I’m not here to enhance diversity and their experience. I’m here to engage in activities I’m interested in.”
When it comes to integrating students, Ghebreghiorgis said he is unsure how more white students could be encouraged to participate in cultural houses, though he feels that increased financial aid would allow minority students to be more active on campus. Integration aside, Bowie suggested that the administration could first emphasize respectful discourse by establishing a freshman cultural preorientation program in the vein of “Sex Signals,” teaching students how to handle awkward conversations concerning topics like race. Colleges could also personally introduce students to dining hall workers in an effort to improve relations, Bowie and Carter said.
“It’d be a great way to show our appreciation of them and for them to introduce themselves,” Carter said. “It’d make the situation much more comfortable.”