On Wednesday, Dean Burgwell Howard wrote in an email to Yalies asking them not to “threaten [Yale’s] sense of community” with their Halloween costume choices. “We would hope,” Howard writes, “that people would actively avoid those circumstances that … disrespect, alienate or ridicule … based on race, nationality or population.” And then, on Friday, Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman College, wrote to the Silliman community about the dangers of making campuses “places of censure and prohibition.”
Christakis laments that emails like Howard’s suggest that adults have “lost faith in young people’s capacity … to exercise self-censure, through social norming.” This “shift from individual to institutional agency” disempowers students. If Yalies want their culture changed, Christakis argues, edicts from above are the wrong way to do it.
To be sure, the University administration can and should counter egregious student behavior. Yale is not just a disburser of facts, but an institution to make moral men and women. At the same time, an email concerning students’ Halloween attire seems a bit petty, especially given the binge drinking and debauchery abounding the same evening.
Ultimately, though, Christakis thinks the administration — and everyone else — lacks a way to distinguish among “appropriative” costumes and more benign ones. “What is the statute of limitations,” she wonders, “on … dressing up as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans?” Though there’s certainly a difference between dressing as Tiana and wearing blackface, this reply misses the point: Howard and Christakis’s critics on social media are not treating students who dress up in supposedly “appropriative” costumes in good faith.
Howard concedes in his email that “in many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend.” However, “their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact.” Burgwell dissociates the costume from the person wearing it. What makes a given action different from person to person is the intention behind it — for instance, it’s okay for parents to yell at their children in public. If a stranger did the same, we’d consider it boorish. So why would we remonstrate someone who in daily life is racially tolerant, liberal, etc. because they wore a borderline insensitive costume?
Burgwell simply assumes that minority students will take offense at such garb. But they might be less perturbed if they considered that the aim of students wearing costumes on Halloween is — almost certainly — to have fun, not reinstitute Jim Crow or kick minority students out of Yale. They might, of course, find some costumes to be in poor taste, as I do. In that case, they should do what Christakis urged and explain their feeling to their peers in a constructive way.
Yet an open letter to Christakis recently circulated among the student body takes Burgwell’s uncharitability one step further. Already signed by hundreds of Yalies, it accuses Christakis of asking minority students to invite “ridicule and violence onto [them]selves” by allowing peers to wear potentially offensive costumes. Christakis, the letter says, wants folks to ignore the “violence” that grows out of the “degradation of … cultures and people.”
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek could not have overstated it better. Christakis was simply arguing that a university should not trouble itself with the tasteless outfits of a few students, even if those students are criticized for being obnoxious. The letter makes the unbelievably serious claim that Christakis is promoting physical harm against minority students. Such a response hardly dignifies a response.
Another point Christakis makes is that we do not care about all instances of offense. “No one around campus,” she writes, “seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes.” Definitely, Yale ought to worry more about white students’ prejudice toward black students than the reverse. But do we want a campus where folks who belong to certain groups have their sensibilities ignored and those who belong to other groups are entitled to censor speech? Religious conservatives aren’t out policing the denizens of Toad’s, even though many surely think that they ought to dress modestly. And they certainly aren’t accusing scantily clad or axe-wielding trick-or-treaters of promoting “violence” against anyone.
The Christakis donnybrook is a lesson in intellectual charity and treating all students as adults. Christakis is not hostile to any minorities. To the contrary, by advocating a campus where feather-dress costumes are met not with tar, but with dialogue, Christakis treats all students as equals. Her opponents ought to emulate her.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.