This past Monday, as most students were returning to classes, New Haven residents and members of the Yale community were mobilizing, yet again, against racism. At noon, Yale workers and their allies gathered in front of Sterling Memorial Library to protest the racial profiling of a library worker and the library administration’s mishandling of the situation.
At 5 p.m., community members representing a coalition of activist groups gathered in front of the Whalley Avenue Jail to protest Connecticut’s recent parole ban. Enacted in reaction to a murder in the suburbs, the parole ban means that many people — including many youth, who had returned to their lives and families — have now been sent back to prison. Because our criminal justice system convicts and imposes harsher sentences on blacks and Latinos much more frequently than whites for the same offenses, the parole ban disproportionately affects communities of color.
Incidents of racism and bigotry on Yale’s campus are not isolated or random events; rather, they take place within a society where systemic racism continues to have real and detrimental effects on the lives of people of color. Yet when students on this campus mobilize against acts and symbols of racial violence, discrimination or injustice, why is criticizing the activists, instead of the perpetrators, considered an appropriate response? Consider, for example, the News’ recent claim that the Anti-Hate Vigil organized by Yale students was “an overreaction at best and a dangerous precedent to set at worst” (The News’ View, 11/14). Like this News’ View, the discourse on this campus about racism and bigotry characterizes the feelings and experiences of students of color as “hypersensitive” or “overreacting” and questions their right to protest and organize.
Why is there this strange reversal, in which the reactions to and protests of hate speech are seen as dangerous while racist and homophobic graffiti are called pranks? Which one is actually dangerous? The words that were spray-painted on Pierson and the School of Drama are words that are used in hate crimes. People are killed because of the sentiments and ideologies behind these words and because these words take place in a culture that continues to tolerate hate. Hate is dangerous, not the protest of hate.
According to the Department of Justice, more than 190,000 instances of hate crime take place each year. We should remember that hate crimes are possible here at Yale, as they are possible anywhere. In 2003, a woman at Yale was attacked in her room because of her anti-war activism and because she was believed to be Muslim. Moreover, I know of specific incidents this semester in which black students were threatened with racist violence by drunk white students.
The rally and the vigil organized by students before Thanksgiving break were not solely in response to racist and homophobic graffiti, but were also meant to name and denounce the many public instances of racism and bigotry in the past few years, as well as the probably hundreds of smaller interactions where Yale students have experienced racism and bigotry. Why then did some students prejudge the rally as an event in which dialogue would not be possible? What is so dangerous about the outrage and the mobilization of students of color?
There is a stereotype at work here — one that perhaps many of us have internalized, which characterizes people of color as irrational, overemotional and dangerous. Historically, this stereotype has been used to justify white violence, such as the lynching of black men or the genocide of Native Americans. We can see it today in the Connecticut state government’s move towards building more prisons and locking up more people, despite clear evidence showing that parole decreases recidivism rates, meaning that parole helps make communities safer. The parole ban is based on racist fears, not on sound public policy.
Furthermore, the stereotype of people of color as dangerous justifies the desire to dismiss, ignore or retaliate against their protest when that protest calls into question the structures that perpetuate privilege. In the two months following the Jena 6 protests, there have been 50-60 instances of nooses hung anonymously in schools and workplaces across the country, which is five times the number of noose incidents documented by civil rights groups over the past 10 years. I am not suggesting that those who criticized the vigil are intentionally trying to justify hate crimes, but we must acknowledge that our words take place within a larger cultural and historical discourse.
For those of us who are white, do we not say that students of color are overreacting because we ourselves are scared of being called racist? Of being asked to acknowledge our white privilege? Of being challenged to begin dismantling that privilege?
I am calling on other white students here to commit to being actively anti-racist. This has nothing to do with white guilt, because that is not productive for anyone, but rather with a commitment to serious reflection and concrete action. Anti-racist work may make us uncomfortable and it is going to be hard. However, when I say something or do something that is offensive, hurtful, racist, sexist, etc., I would much rather have my friends call me out on it and challenge me to change, than to continue in behavior that hurts my friends and others in my community.
It is imperative that we, as a community, take seriously the work of educating ourselves about the realities of racism, especially because many Yale students do become leaders in this country, with the power to shape public policy. The panel discussions announced Wednesday signal a move in the right direction, but this University also needs to commit to substantial changes. What does it mean that Yale’s tenured faculty is still overwhelmingly white and male, and that most women and people of color who teach here have lower salaries and little job security? How can Yale consider its graduates educated and prepared for leadership, when many have never taken a class which deals with race, class, and gender? We have a lot of anti-racist work to do both at Yale and in this country. As a simple but crucial first step towards anti-racism, can we commit to listening to our brothers and sisters and taking seriously their experiences of bigotry here at Yale?
Frances Kelley is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. She is a member of the Coalition for Campus Unity.