Michael Jones ’11 awoke to a rude surprise about a year ago. The words “nigger school” had been spray-painted on the walls of Pierson College.
“As a freshman, I was just surprised,” said Jones. “I’m from North Carolina, and I’ve seen things there that I expected to stay in the South and I didn’t expect at Yale.”
Davenport dining hall workers found the words early on the morning of Nov. 6, 2007, long after the vandals had left. Police never found the perpetrators, and never determined whether they were Yale students. October saw outrage over the use of blackface in Halloween costumes. A day after the “nigger school” incident, a homophobic slur appeared on the brick exterior of the University Theater.
Much has changed since then.
Students said tangible progress has been made toward improved race relations, although they admitted that work still remains. The University has hired a new intercultural czar, formed an intercultural affairs council and begun to implement a new freshman orientation program aimed at facilitating intercultural dialogue. But while not all the developments are direct responses to last year’s incidents of hate speech, they are indicative of a campus wary of threats of intolerance against the patchwork community of different races, cultures and identities.
“If you took the time to listen, it was clear that the reaction wasn’t just to the spray-paint on the wall,” said Jonathan Jimenez ’09, an ethnic counselor for Calhoun, Branford and Berkeley colleges. “But that there were events of discrimination and racism that happen all the time that the community or the administration doesn’t pay attention to.”
After the Vandals
Campus reaction to the “nigger school” incident was swift and outspoken. Students organized a rally and vigil, calling on the University’s administration to address latent racial and ethnic tensions through structural and curricular reform.
Students argued that Yale’s troubles with hate speech dated back years.
In 2003, a group of male students broke into the room of anti-war activist Katherine Lo ’05, leaving a note threatening Muslims and opponents of the Iraq war. That same year, Urban Outfitters’ marketing of “Ghettopoly,” a racially charged board game, inspired protest on campus.
Three years later, the tabloid Rumpus sparked outrage among Asian-American students for its publication of a piece titled, “Me Love You Long Time: Yale’s Case of Yellow Fever.”
Campus has not been entirely without anonymous intolerance this year. The words “White Guilt” were found spray-painted on the walls of Dwight Hall — and on two local schools — in early October.
“It’s impossible to eliminate racism at Yale. Every year, I think there are going to be issues,” said ethnic counselor Mitchell Ji ’09. “We’re pretty well-equipped to handle any issues that arise.”
To Kristian Henderson ’09, last year’s Black Student Alliance at Yale president, racism at Yale is both more subtle and more significant than racism encountered elsewhere. Students who commit racist acts on campus do so despite access to diverse experiences and education, Henderson said, whereas racism encountered in her home state of Arkansas can largely be attributed to “an ignorance of other cultures.”
On the other hand, Jones said he thinks racism is on the out at Yale.
“I don’t think we have a long way to go,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll be all right because we all responded correctly [to last year’s incidents] — with outrage.”
Patching the Holes
There are indications that tensions, brought to light by last year’s hate speech, may be receding. Reaction to the Dwight Hall graffiti was mild — some students were even puzzled over what the unknown vandal meant by the phrase. And like last year’s graffiti incidents, a perpetrator was never identified.
More recently, reactions to the racially-charged humor of Vietnamese-American comic Dat Phan were muted. Discomfort was expressed through grimaces and gripes rather than organized protest. Sam Ng ’09 attributed the muted atmosphere to a lack of overt racism and the more proactive approach taken by the administration and student groups toward race relations, adding — with a sense of foreboding — that campus has become “a lot quieter now.”
“You should never just be gathering together when something overtly racist happens,” Ng said. “It’s about creating a comfortable community to prevent things rather than to react.”
In the weeks following last year’s incidents, the University organized panels to deconstruct the concept of hate using the academic disciplines of history, psychology, sociology and politics. In August, the University rolled out two significant additions to its cultural programming: Kirk Hooks, the University’s first intercultural czar, and the Intercultural Affairs Council (IAC).
The Council, headed by Assistant Dean and Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Pamela George, aims to create “dialogue and programming on campus” to foster intercultural relations, George wrote Monday in an e-mail to the News. So far this year, the IAC has taken a lead role in a campaign to promote respectful Halloween costumes. Going forward, the council’s specific plans have yet to be finalized, George said. But the IAC’s work in the coming months will include generating cultural programming, organizing events and considering appropriate community responses to acts of intolerance, she said.
“With the establishment of the Intercultural Affairs Council this year, the administration is trying to take conscious steps to demonstrate itself as proactive as well as reactive,” wrote IAC members Ryan Caro ’11 and Ian Convey ’11 in an opinion piece published in the News.
Moreover, Saybrook College Council’s “Community Issues Committee” is one example of a multitude of college committees formed to address diversity issues.
“It really began as sort of a reaction to the different events that had happened last year and in a way was a reaction that had hoped to be a prevention method,” said group chair Akina Younge ’11.
The appointment of Kirk Hooks as special assistant to the deans for intercultural and intergroup relations, coupled with the elimination of the ethnic counseling system, could “change the mindset of Yale” by making students aware of group identities of which they may not be a part, Jimenez explained.
Other students continued to hope for a cultural studies curricular requirement from the University, a move Jones said would constitute bold action, despite previous rejections of the measure by the administration.
“I think curriculum in a very significant way shows what we’re committed to as an institution,” Jones said. “I think that having a component of the curriculum that would force people to learn things about people from other cultures that you would not otherwise be exposed to would be helpful.”
And curricular changes would move intergroup relations beyond intercultural dialogue, two students suggested, by pushing students out of traditional comfort zones and fostering interaction among students of different social groups.
“That’s the only way that preconceived notions can be changed — it’s nothing more than interactions with people that are different from you,” Henderson said. “We as Yale students don’t think it is important to sit at a different table once in a while.”
Still more administrative action waits in the wings. Shortly after students rallied against hate in November 2007, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry began working on a bias protocol that would advise students on how to work with the administration in responding to similar incidents in the future. Although Gentry began work on the document in December 2007, it has yet to be implemented.
“I think we’re sort of waiting until the new administration to get it to happen,” he said. “We’ve been in such transition that it hasn’t made sense for us.”
Incoming Yale College Dean Mary Miller said in an e-mail that she has not yet seen the bias protocol statement.
But Henderson said protocols, panels and seminars may pale next to the implications of Barack Obama’s election to the White House. In America and in New Haven, hope is strong that the presence of a black president will have a trickle-down effect on race relations, Henderson said.
“The fact that our president is now African-American will force Americans to challenge the preconceived notion of what African-Americans are,” Henderson said. “These are the kind of positive steps that can force America to start looking at race in a different way.”