“Does he go to Yale?”
“Oh, so like … he’s a townie?”
Minutes after entering into a party with my friend from New Haven, this is what others talk about. Minutes after entering into a room of strangers, my friend is judged, evaluated and ostracized. Minutes after entering, he finds a label forced upon him — one that generates a barrier between him and everyone else in the room.
Yale prides itself on being an accepting place. As a University, we actively try to showcase our diversity. We highlight the aspects of Yale that are “college brochure perfect.” We make sure the outside world sees the multiracial, multicultural group of friends, smiling and waving at the camera. We attempt to seem nonelitist, unblinded by our own privilege.
And in a way, I’m proud to say our campus does at least try, to an extent, to emulate this ideal. While we still must try to end discrimination toward other students based on race and class, any flagrant violation of this basic human decency is often reprimanded. The average Yalie typically won’t allow a fellow student to be inferiorly treated because of superficial differences.
Yet the same can’t be said for how we treat inhabitants of New Haven. Especially in our use of the word “townie.” The word “townie” has been so ingrained in our culture that I’ve found people — the same people who would protest workers’ rights violations at Gourmet Heaven or a particularly offensive artist or speaker coming to Yale — use this term to describe someone. The very same people that pride themselves on fighting for equality and justice end up using a word that disparages someone based on where they are from, a word that contains racial and socioeconomic roots.
Let’s face it: “Townie” doesn’t mean “New Haven local.” I’ve never heard anyone who lives in New Haven but goes to Yale referred to as a “townie.” The term “townie” has both racial and socioeconomic connotations. Is a lawyer who works in New Haven a townie? No. Are the policemen townies? No. But is my African-American friend whom I dance with — who lives in a more dangerous part of town — a townie? Unfortunately, the answer would too often be yes.
It’s become instinctive for most of us. The divide between Yale and New Haven is already strong enough, and all the word “townie” does is cement this divide. It makes us actively conscious of it. It labels the “outsiders” as outsiders.
There’s no doubt that without this word, a divide would still exist. I’m enough of a realist to recognize that. But this term makes it official. It labels them as something we are not. They are “townies” and we are Yalies, and a Yalie can never be a townie. By using the term, we are in a sense agreeing to the social rules that make it valid. We are acknowledging and accepting the fact that there is an “us” and a “them.”
The word “townie” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary. Not merely for my friend, who deserves respect. Not only for the other New Haveners, who deserve to be treated as an equal. But for the health of Yale as a whole. If we are to promote a campus culture that breeds acceptance, even if we merely view it within the close community of Yalies, we can’t allow these kinds of exceptions to occur.
We need to use a different word. It’s not that hard. “New Havener,” “local” or “he lives here” are all perfectly fine alternatives. Any term is OK, as long as it discards with the socioeconomic and racial connotations that are attached to “townie.”
Ironically enough, Yale posted a picture of my friend and me dancing on its Facebook page. The “college brochure perfect” picture included me and a New Havener. Ultimately, if we are to achieve this ideal, we need to do more than just tolerate New Haveners. We need to accept them fully. And that begins with ending the use of “townie.”
Leo Kim is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.