The past year has been a bit of a whirlwind for many Black Americans. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice brought issues of police brutality and race to the forefront of national media. Television shows like Empire and How to Get Away With Murder have broken new ground with their focus on African Americans in positions of political and economic power. Many blogs and newspapers have begun to write extensively on the apparent racial bias in award shows like the Grammys. What makes these conversations interesting is that people of all races have engaged in them. The consensus in most public forums has been to recognize that, while these problems adversely affect members of a select group, the responsibility to address them is shared by all. Although opinions on issues of race may differ, it is important that people of all races participate in these discussions.
Yet, many Yalies have unknowingly embraced a dangerous mindset when it comes to race on campus. Discussions of race and class have been largely isolated to cultural centers and related academic departments. The first cultural center town hall meeting last semester, despite boasting large numbers overall, was overwhelmingly attended by members of the cultural groups affected. The disappointing attendance at the cultural center review meeting a few weeks ago only reveals the degree to which issues of race have been pushed off by the campus at large. As Monica Wang ’18 noted in her column a few weeks ago (“Navigating cultural identity,” Feb. 20), the impact of these conversations beyond the walls of LC 102 that night has been questionable at best.
The consequence of this temperament has been an intellectual malaise where conversations of race have been pushed so far to the fringes of campus that they have been virtually absent from mainstream discourse. Some students have tried to excuse this isolation by claiming that the only acceptable voices on these topics are those most adversely affected by these problems. Others have claimed that they do not want to crowd out underprivileged voices with their own. Still others have argued that their silence grows out of a fear of public censure should they fail to perfectly articulate an “acceptable” opinion. All three excuses reveal a mentality where cultural groups are seen as distinct from mainstream collegiate life, rather than as constitutive of it. As students at a liberal arts college, we should find this troubling.
We have subconsciously created segregated bubbles of campus life based on race and identity. The consequence of these subconscious attitudes has been the identification of racial concerns on campus as “other.” Put more concretely, students have come to identify events at the Af-Am House as strictly “Black events,” discussions at La Casa as strictly “Latino discussions” and issues of funding at the Native American Cultural Center as strictly “Native problems.” The low attendance at the last cultural center town hall meeting can be attributed to these attitudes. I fear that this problem will only compound itself as we get further away from the events in Ferguson.
The restrictions placed on these conversations inhibit the education of students both within and outside these cultural groups. Yale’s consistent production of leaders in politics, business and academia is irresponsible if a large number of those same leaders are ill-equipped to address issues of race. This is true for both the future lawyer who will have to navigate our country’s bizarre policy of mandatory minimum sentencing and the aspiring academic who will have to address demands for greater diversity in departments. In isolating these conversations, we prevent arguments on both sides of these issues from developing the contours and nuance needed to draw meaningful solutions.
It is easy to discuss issues of race when they mimic universally condemned periods of American history. I suspect that most people felt comfortable condemning police violence in Ferguson because the images of protestors confronting militarized police in St. Louis, Missouri resembled the images of 1960s protestors confronting riot squads in Montgomery, Alabama. It is much more difficult to discuss issues of race when they have no clear answer. Difficulty, however, does not excuse silence. Until we begin to discuss issues of race on campus in the same way that we discuss issues of mental health and the student contribution, we will be victims of the same prejudices that we hope to erase.
Ugonna Eze is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at email@example.com.