A Friday email sent by Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis decrying the censure of costumes deemed culturally appropriating incited campus controversy over Halloween weekend.
Christakis’ message, sent just after midnight Friday, came in response to an email the Intercultural Affairs Council — a group of administrators from the cultural centers, Chaplain’s Office and other campus organizations — sent to the undergraduate student body on Wednesday. The council’s email asked students to be thoughtful about the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes, citing blackface and turbans as examples of details that could offend or belittle others. In Christakis’ email, she defended students’ rights to wear potentially offensive costumes as an expression of free speech, arguing that the ability to tolerate affront is one of the hallmarks of a free and open society. Her email compared adults selecting costumes to children playing dress up, and she asserted that imagination should be encouraged and not constrained.
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Christakis, who assumed the position of associate master of Silliman this fall, wrote. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
In response, more than 740 undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty and even students from other universities have signed on to an open letter telling Christakis that her “offensive” email invalidates the voices of minority students on campus. The letter, posted Friday night, states that Christakis misrepresented the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s call for sensitivity as “censure.” It also states that in describing the call for sensitive costumes as coming “from above, not from yourselves,” Christakis implies that only administrators, and not students, have called for sensitivity.
Silliman student Ryan Wilson ’17, who wrote the letter with input from other students, argued that Christakis failed to distinguish between dressing up as fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people. Giving room for students to be obnoxious or offensive only invites ridicule and violence onto minorities at Yale, and it decreases the space in which marginalized students can feel safe, Wilson wrote.
“Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people, to preschoolers playing make believe,” the open letter reads. “This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made.”
Christakis has stood by her letter in the face of the subsequent controversy, although she said her words are being “misquoted and misunderstood by some people.” In response to a series of criticisms on Twitter several hours after her letter was first circulated, Christakis posted a link on her own Twitter to an article in The Atlantic titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” She wrote that “campus censorship culture contradicts best practices for mental health” — an extension of the argument in her original email that her work as a child development specialist had informed her viewpoint.
When asked about the open letter, Christakis told the News that the resulting debate only further illustrated the need for free speech on college campuses.
“It is easier to stand in judgment about offensive costumes than it is to listen to one another in good faith,” Christakis wrote in an email to the News. “Intent matters, I believe, and it seems to me that one problem we have at Yale is a culture of shaming and fear, of which Halloween may end up the least of our concerns.”
Students interviewed were divided on the issue. Anthony Vigil-Martinez ’18 said that while the email sent by the Intercultural Affairs Council only suggested that students be sensitive in their costume choices, its purpose was still to rid campus of culturally offensive costumes and would limit the opportunities for the campus to discuss the problem at large. By pre-empting these conversations, the administration only eliminates the visibility of discrimination without ever addressing the causes, he said.
Nickolas Brooks ’17, who is taking a class with Christakis, also defended her. He noted he does not think she condones blackface or cultural appropriation, and many students now have an incorrect perception of her as a person. Her view that universities are overly censored is one that everyone can agree with, Brooks said, emphasizing that just because she addressed both censorship and racial insensitivity does not mean she endorses the latter.
Christakis said she has heard from many students expressing similar sentiments to those in her email.
“I received scores of notes from students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds decrying the collapse of civil debate at Yale. They describe restricting their conversation to sports and the weather because they are scared to say the wrong thing,” she said. “If healthy debate can’t flourish in a university whose motto is ‘light and truth,’ our problems are bigger than hurtful appropriation and cut to the heart of how a great university can contribute to a truly free and just society.”
Still, many students remain convinced that Christakis’ email was counteractive to fostering a climate that supports students of color. Wilson said Christakis’ message dismissed minority voices on campus and pretended as if cultural sensitivity was not a long fought-for student cause. Similarly, Javier Cienfuegos ’15 said Christakis undermined the goals of the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s email and wrongly designated it institutional overreach.
According to Katherine Fang ’17, the suggestion that the costumes Christakis defended are actually donned to celebrate diverse cultures is offensive, as they actually mock and belittle. When communities of color unite in their offense against culturally appropriating costumes, Fang added, supporters of those outfits are blatantly ignoring those calls.
Emily Van Alst ’16 said Christakis is “coddling” a group of people who already have a voice on campus and silencing minorities who are hurt by cultural appropriation.
For all the controversy surrounding the topic, the incident has made strides in renewing discussion around racial tensions in schools across the nation. Afro-American Cultural Center Director Risë Nelson said building an institution respectful of all identities and communities requires the participation of everyone on campus. Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Pamela George, who formerly served as director of the Af-Am House, was one of the signatures on the open letter.
“The incidents that took place over Halloween weekend … simply expose micro-aggressions as well as overtly unfair treatment and policies that many have experienced and have reported for years, not just at Yale, but on many college campuses,” Nelson wrote in an email to the News. “It is excellent that we are now here, having widespread discussions that must take place at every level of our institution, in which we all consider ways of maintaining a campus climate that supports all students.”
Christakis and her husband, Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis, have invited all Silliman signatories of the open letter, as well as any other Silliman students who might disagree with her email, to a lunch this Sunday.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Afro-American Cultural Center Director Risë Nelson as Risë Nelson Burrow. Her professional surname is in fact Nelson.