During a recent discussion among campus leaders, we were asked to describe the way outsiders might view the quintessential Yalie. It wasn’t hard to come up with an illustration: an attractive white male from an East Coast prep school with a killer smile and flowing locks of dirty blonde hair. As a tall black woman with black hair twisted into braids, I didn’t fit the description. So despite my four years of history here, I wasn’t surprised to be aggressively confronted last weekend by an individual who questioned my affiliation with the University.
Last Saturday morning, an older gentleman challenged me as I entered a residential college. First, he asked whether I was a Yale student — to which I immediately replied yes. But even after my quick response he continued to accost me. He asked me which college I was in (to which I responded Morse), my name (I said Patricia). Then he asked for my last name. Even after that barrage of questions, he asked me what I was doing in the residential college. I then turned away without waiting for him to respond or continue to question me.
On my own campus, I was made to feel like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. In the heat of the confrontation another student walked by, but the gentleman was so consumed with my presence that he failed to acknowledge or question my classmate’s status.
Public safety is a major concern at Yale and we should all be working to create a secure campus. But this encounter made me wonder: When do our public safety efforts morph into disrespect?
The encounter lasted only two minutes, but left me feeling insulted, humiliated and belittled. It didn’t matter that I was a freshman counselor or the former president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale. It didn’t matter that as Dwight Hall’s Institutional Service Coordinator I had entered the college that morning to gather breakfast and bagged lunches for Yale freshmen participating in a day of service. These things weren’t visible on my person. What mattered was that something about me — my demeanor, clothing or, more likely, my complexion- — was enough to warrant a hostile confrontation.
After nearly four years of giving my all to a university that I cherish deeply, I was essentially told I didn’t fit the standard mold of a Yale student.
This isn’t an isolated case. It’s striking how many similar incidents happen at Yale and go unreported. My friends and classmates of color have spoken about having residential college gates slammed in their faces, or being asked by Yale security officers to show ID. Yale prides itself on being a community that believes in racial equality and rejects discriminatory practices. But like every other community in this country, this campus is filled with individuals with unconscious negative attitudes about people of color. This implicit bias is more pervasive and at times more insidious than intentionally offensive demonstrations of racism. That becomes all too clear just by reading the national headlines — an armed white man walks away unharmed after murdering six family members, yet an unarmed black teenager is shot by police multiple times on a residential street.
We need to wake up and be more critical of ourselves. We need to be more aware of the biases we use to judge others. Despite receiving acceptance letters, paying tuition fees and moving excitedly onto campus, students of color are sometimes still made to feel like outsiders on campus. Last weekend’s incident encouraged me to begin discussing the racial undertones of my encounter. Those conversations aren’t easy, but as a campus community we need to initiate those uncomfortable conversations about race. Wake up Yale: It is time for a reality check.
Patricia Okonta is a senior in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.