The Wednesday before Halloween, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email encouraging students to consider the unintended consequences that wearing certain costumes can have on Yale’s “sense of community.” The email was a request that we grapple with how, despite even benign intentions, our costumes can ridicule, marginalize and misrepresent people on the basis of “race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.” Many welcomed the email, glad that the Yale administration was acknowledging the need for sensitivity. To many students, including myself, the email meant that the voices of minority and marginalized students were finally being heard.
That is why we were surprised and disappointed when, the day before Halloween, another email was sent out to the students of Silliman College by Associate Master Erika Christakis, which seemingly dismissed the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s email as institutional overreach. In response, with support and suggestions from many of my fellow students, I penned an open letter to Christakis. In the letter, I point out how her email could be harmful and unhelpful to students dealing with marginalization on campus. A couple days after writing the letter — which garnered hundreds of signatures — I met with Christakis in person for what I felt was a quite enjoyable brunch. After talking with her, it was clear that dismissing the voices of marginalized students or trivializing racist practices was never her intention. Unfortunately, when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes, bias, racism, etc., intentions don’t always matter, and that’s why this conversation about free speech and appropriation is so important.
Despite what critics of the open letter have claimed, an otherwise tolerant person with good intentions who endorses stereotypes for even one night is still racist and harmful. Whether or not I hit someone in the face accidentally, I still hit them in the face. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his article “The Good, Racist People,” racism is not “the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed.” The Intercultural Affairs Committee’s email was sent in acknowledgement of this fact; college students might not always see the consequences of what seems to be benign racism, and, if possible, conversations should be started before harm is done.
Emails like the one put out by the Intercultural Affairs Committee are helpful because, on a night like Halloween, calling out offensive costumes can be difficult. At times, offenders can become defensive and belligerent; I have heard of several women who were aggressively rebuked and sexually harassed when confronting a group of men wearing racist costumes. Students can become dismissive because they are “tired of talking about race.” Not everyone is prepared to call out strangers or even friends for fear of being ostracized, heckled, ridiculed or worse.
Meanwhile, looking away or ignoring such costumes is also difficult. Many stereotypes portrayed in the offensive costumes mentioned by the IAC play directly into tropes that erase, oversexualize, criminalize or alienate marginalized people both on and off campus. As a university located in a city primarily inhabited and staffed by people of color, we have a responsibility to think critically about the stereotypes and systems of oppression that we are replicating, even unintentionally. One event in particular, has been haunting me.
In my freshman year, a group at Yale decided to hold a party. The theme was “gangstas.” They dressed up in clothes they thought would be found in the inner cities: baggy shorts, backwards baseball caps and white T-shirts. Some even did their hair in their best imitations of black hairstyles. I only came to know about this because one of the partygoers had borrowed a pair of my basketball shorts for the event. In trying to dress up as “gangstas,” they were actually dressing up as so many black kids I had seen all my life on the playground, growing up in school and here at Yale. They had dressed up as my family and my friends. They had dressed up as me. They had equated gang members with normal black youth. Regardless of whether or not they intended to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of black people as criminals, after the party they were able to take the stereotypes off. Some of us will have to wear them for the rest of our lives.
Ryan Wilson is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .