This column is part of a Friday Forum on the title “master” affixed to professors who head the residential colleges. Read the other columns here.
Most reading this have already formed firm opinions on Stephen Davis’ decision to remove the title “master” from Pierson College’s operational lexicon. I ask only that you enter this conversation open to hearing another perspective. I will address the topic specifically as it pertains to Pierson, and without outlining its contextual implications within the other residential colleges. Still, I believe that a justified structural change in Pierson College would necessitate uniform change across them all.
The term “master” at Yale was not coined with the intent of carrying any racial weight. To claim that the term is inherently racist is patently false. As it pertains to our University’s 12 residential colleges, the title “master” is plainly rooted in the British Oxbridge system. Within such a system, the term applies exclusively to the head of an educational institution in an indiscriminate, non-racialized fashion.
However, it is important to ground this discussion within the framework of the larger conversation on race taking place right now in America. The U.S. is a country in the process of rethinking its own identity. Contemporary social pressures call on citizens to consistently and systematically question the cultural origins of structures, institutions and formalities. We exist in an era where interpretations of history itself are being revised to reflect the struggles of the many communities fighting for a voice in the budding American attempt at a fully inclusive society.
For many Yalies of color, such struggles are directly linked to residential college vernacular. A friend who grew up surrounded by plantations in Fayetteville, Georgia, told me she finds it impossible to separate the various meanings of “master,” having been raised in a Southern culture where its meaning is inextricably tied to slavery, violence and oppression. This is the type of perspective that must be institutionally recognized and accounted for if we hope to advace as an inclusive community.
That is not to say, however, that the discomfort of one individual is justification for the abolishment of a contextual term established within a non-marginalizing system. But the fact that a term with several meanings exists within a residential college with a particularly racist history should prompt discussion.
On the Facebook group Yale Political Discussions, one Piersonite wrote, “the use of the word “master” […] could be offensive in a certain context, but the way it’s being used here has no real relation to that offensive context.” For those who agree with Davis’ decision, failure to distinguish between the two distinct frameworks outlined above is every bit as counterproductive as it is polarizing. The student went on to quip that taking grievance with the word’s usage at Yale “would be like if there was a building named ‘Lee Hall’ after Bruce Lee,” and someone found the name offensive because “Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general.”
Though valid and soundly reasoned on its surface, this argument fails to account for the deeply ingrained emotional and psychological implications of U.S. racial history on contemporary students of color. Ten of Yale’s 12 residential colleges are named after known slave owners or men who supported slavery. Coincidentally, Pierson College has perhaps the most racially charged history of all. Until 1960, Pierson’s unofficial mascot was quite literally a slave. The college’s weekly publication was aptly titled “The Pierson Slave.” A “Bring a Slave” party was hosted onsite. Lower Court was referred to as “the Slave Quarters” until a Black Student Alliance at Yale protest in 1980 — long after the Civil Rights Movement.
The context of a word matters indeed.
Though the residential college title “master” is not literally racialized or marginalizing, it is imperative to recognize that Yale’s adapted Oxbridge system does not exist within a historical vacuum. A word’s context is defined not only by its established origin and intent, but by the social, cultural and political forces acting alongside it as well.
When considered alongside the history of Pierson College, the title “master” assumes an additional layer of significance that cannot be accounted for by the Oxbridge model. Associative overlap exists between the two verbal contexts. In referring to an authority figure as “master” in such a landscape, one cannot help but think of the Pierson College of 35 years ago. One cannot help but think of Fayetteville, or question whether to say “the master of my college” or “my master.” One cannot help but fight the hint of visceral discomfort welling in the depths of the gut.
The vernacular change in Pierson requires a shift across the board. While every college does not reflect Pierson’s specific past, each shares the overarching racial narrative of both our University and this country.
This is neither a matter of hypersensitivity nor political correctness. This is the result of a holistic consideration of the many ways that weighted history can subtly and unintentionally seep into the social fabric of otherwise benign practices, traditions and formalities.
Such is the reality of a residential college system — and a nation — coming to terms with the full extent of its cultural complexity. Davis’ decision represents a firm step forward for our University. Tradition and history notwithstanding, there is no substitute for progress.
JT Flowers is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .