President Peter Salovey’s email yesterday “To the Yale Community,” prompted by the hospitalization of a doctoral student experiencing Ebola-like symptoms at Yale-New Haven Hospital, ended with a call for understanding.
“Before closing, I feel that I should directly address the question of why our Public Health students — or why anyone affiliated with Yale — would even consider traveling to these dangerous parts of the world,” Salovey wrote. As an academic institution committed to service, he continued, “some members of our community with special expertise may be called on to engage directly in order to advance knowledge and understanding, to treat the sick, or to tend to those who are displaced or suffering.”
The rest of us, in turn, are meant to offer “gratitude and support.”
Salovey’s letter anticipated the feelings of discomfort that would have arisen if Ebola had reached New Haven. The question he presupposes, however — why would anyone affiliated with Yale even consider traveling to these dangerous parts of the world? — reifies racist imaginaries in which sub-Saharan Africa is seen as dark, deadly and always on the brink of extinction.
According to Salovey’s formulation, voluntary travel to these “dangerous” sites is predicated on a utilitarian desire to give back. “Service” becomes the mechanism by which Yale students refine their talent and intellect, putting their “training and expertise to the highest, best use.” The subjects of their research — the people who populate the Sub-Sahara — are imagined as helpless objects of care: the “sick,” the “displaced,” the “suffering.”
The “our” from which Salovey articulates his address is rhetorical: He writes as an anxious Yale administrative official, addressing potentially anxious Yale students. But this gesture feels deceptively stable, as if the diversity of Yale experiences were instead unified and whole.
I write this piece as a mixed-race, Ethiopian-American student beginning my fourth year at this school. My father came to this country as a refugee fleeing political persecution. I have traveled twice to Ethiopia. Neither trip marked a desire to refine my intellect or actualize my expertise, but rather provided the means of exploring my position in a landscape that represents a paradoxical sense of inherited belonging and rejection. Studying Amharic both in Addis Ababa and at Yale has given me the tools to articulate my own small trauma: identity felt through the lens of negation, a being neither white nor black, feeling always, but uncertainly, like the differential.
Salovey’s supposition that travel to sub-Saharan Africa is motivated by a desire to ‘do good’ overlooks the possibility of international ties felt through familial and ancestral networks, thereby erasing black and African students from the Yale community he addresses.
His message encourages us to support “our hospitalized student,” and this is something I don’t want to discount: Blaming health workers for potential exposure is neither productive nor assuring. But when empathy is produced through networks of paternalism, blame is not dissipated but merely displaced, as if the lesson we’re meant to learn is how to wage the goodness of “our own community” against the villainy of those “dangerous parts.”
Ebola is frightening precisely because it alerts us to webs of transnational interdependency and mutual vulnerability. We’re surprised by the porosity of our borders, and our reaction is a desire for security and self-containment. Grasping for our own good health, we reassert our sovereign independence: Danger is relegated outside or beyond, and Yale’s gates keep us protected.
The Yale community — not as Salovey presents it, but in its multiple, moving parts — might shape spaces in which diverse voices consider the spread of Ebola. How might we read porosity not as a sign of vulnerability, but as a means of articulating a traumatic loss felt across national borders?
Buried in Salovey’s letter is a muted call for expanded networks of empathy and mutuality: “I understand that this situation may be worrying to … members of the Yale and New Haven communities. The health and safety of our interconnected communities is always our highest priority.”
Should this interconnection remain our “highest priority,” we might begin to imagine a Yale community whose nexus of interdependence extends outward, and is inflected by the voices of those “dangerous parts” that have always been here.
Maya Binyam is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.