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.
As many of us have now heard, Stephen Davis, a religious studies professor and the head of Pierson College, recently asked the Pierson community to no longer refer to him as “master.” When I first heard about the announcement, my initial response was: That’s nice, but not that big of a deal.
Then I thought about many of the experiences that I and other black Yalies have had over the years. I remembered the time my friend sat down to lunch with two white guys in her college and one of them commented that black Yalies and athletes were basically the same group of people. Or when an all-white group of “counter protestors” came to the Unite Yale rally and told us, while yelling over the testimonies of students of color and students struggling with mental illness, that we should just quit whining. Or all the times someone said something blatantly ignorant in section or seminar and it was up to me to expend valuable energy to set them straight.
And I realized that the small stuff, taken together, is important. Professor Davis’ logic that we ought to stop calling him “master” rests on the insight that racism can operate through the small and constant ways that we structure daily human interactions. Part of this dynamic has been termed “microaggressions” — where people in dominant groups intentionally or unintentionally marginalize other groups through everyday interactions. But it is also broader than the interpersonal — racism also operates through the institutional ways that communities indicate who is a part of the community, and who isn’t. For some, the Yale convention of calling their head of college “master” makes them feel outside of the community.
When we open up the question of “masters” at Yale to uncover this broader principle, it reveals a greater opportunity for our campus to become a more hospitable place for black students and other students of color. If we were content having a more narrow conversation, we could all call Davis “head of college” and pat ourselves on the back. But once we open up the broader question, there is no room for complacency; it forces us to not only reckon with how racism structures every facet of university life, but also with our responsibility to change it.
Racism is a pervasive part of United States culture. Odds are, you have had a thought, or acted in a way, that helps create and recreate the racist culture that we all live in, even at Yale. But that doesn’t mean each of us should not actively commit to combating even the small ways racism manifests itself in our everyday lives.
Today, the class of 2019 will step onto Yale’s campus. They’ll be full of anxiety, expectations and hope about what this place has in store for them. As a community, we have a responsibility not to let them down. Professor Davis’ decision to publicly ask students not to refer to him as “master” reflects a commitment to fighting the small but important battles against racism on this campus. It is a challenge to not merely intellectualize about how racism pervades everything, but to do something about the pieces of it we can control.
This doesn’t let us off the hook for dealing with the often intractable systemic issues that students of color face. Even if we worked tirelessly to reflect anti-racist values on a smaller scale, we would still have work to do.
This is a principle that extends beyond racism. Sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and all other forces that marginalize our fellow students have a way of constantly shaping our interactions, our relationships to one another and to Yale.
It is when a trans Yalie can’t get anyone to call them by their proper pronouns.
It is when Yalies, particularly women, must endure flippant comments about sexual assault.
And it is when a Yalie with a disability isn’t able to access many of the spaces on Yale’s campus.
There are many things about how oppression functions that we can’t immediately address on this campus. There’s no way around that. But there’s also no way around the fact that there are many things we can control — within Yale as an institution, within our extracurricular clubs and within ourselves, in order to make this the kind of place where all of us can feel as respected as possible. As the newest Yalies arrive on campus, we owe them, and ourselves, at least that.
Eshe Sherley is a senior in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com .