Yale had a rough week. A woman reported two Fridays ago that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity hosted a “white girls only” party. Hundreds of students confronted Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis last Thursday about race at Yale. And dozens protested outside the William F. Buckley Program’s conference on free speech this weekend. Hundreds of students of color and their allies exhorted Yale to improve. Yale should heed (much of) their message while deploring (some of) their methods.
Many students on Cross Campus expressed anger about the alleged — since Yale is investigating, I won’t speculate on the truth of the claim — “white girls only” party and the treatment of minority students generally. A discussion about racism at Yale should include an acknowledgement that a university with so many students feeling so much pain is failing somehow. That said, the reaction to the alleged party is evidence that Yale has already developed some checks on flagrant bigotry. Hours after the initial allegation, hundreds took to social media to sympathize with the alleged victim, SAE’s president was in contact with the Yale administration and, days later, hundreds convened on Cross Campus in solidarity with Yale’s women of color.
While such blatant bigotry is heavily publicized when it occurs, subtler forms of discrimination appear to be much more common. Conservatives especially should admit this. Institutions and people develop behaviors over centuries. It’s not credible to suggest that racism will disappear from Yale’s community just because it’s now populated by liberal Democrats. The difficult question is what counts as racism.
One view of this question was aired to Holloway last Thursday. Students grieved about unsolved mental health problems, the lack of minority faculty in certain departments and callous freshman roommates. I was not in Silliman College later that day but I understand that similar things were said to Master Christakis, along with complaints about the email his wife, professor Erika Christakis, sent the Silliman community two weeks ago. The view of many students was, in effect, that the important thing about an action is how it is received, not the intention behind it.
This view’s main problem is its lack of charity. By divorcing action from actor, it gives a general warrant for people to judge what others say and mean on completely arbitrary and expansive grounds. Was Christakis authorizing students to wear offensive costumes, or making minority students unsafe? Or was she expressing that perhaps certain costumes are, even if in poor taste, meant in jest, rather than in harm? A plain reading of her email yields the latter interpretation. And we consider people’s intentions all the time in everyday life. When someone asks, “How was your day?,” one doesn’t think, “She wants to subject me to miserable reminiscences of the six things that went wrong before lunch.” One thinks, “She cares how I’m doing .”
The lack of charity inherent in judging actions independent of intentions is already having consequences. Many students’ behaved reprehensibly toward Holloway and Christakis, though neither man means students harm. We cannot have a university if students say, “What the f—k have you been doing?” and impute racial betrayal to the Yale College dean, or when a student commands a teacher to be quiet. Whatever conversation Yale has over the coming months, all Yalies should condemn this sort of abuse. And Yale administrators harm their students when it permits them to say such ugly things to authority figures without consequences. That’s simply not how adults behave.
I still think there is something to the view that racism is a matter of reception, rather than intent. Further, those who hold this view and are in pain now deserve acknowledgement. No good discussion can occur without their input. But people who hold that view cannot be permitted to shut down other people from expressing their views simply because they offend. Then, a debate becomes a shouting match, and justice becomes the advantage of those who feel the most strongly. If a difficult discussion leads to cursing and insults, then Yale has failed to instill its students with a respect for the pursuit of truth.
Yale has to proceed along two paths. Too many feel too much hurt. Many students’ wounds need binding. But a wound is not itself an argument. This doesn’t mean it isn’t important: it’s cruel and wrong to tell a suffering friend their feelings don’t matter. But Yale needs a vision for moving past ameliorating pain and toward developing a university based on inquiry and respect. That requires malice toward none, and charity for all.
The world is indeed watching Yale — to see whether it can elevate students past the plane of grief to the plane of discourse, which is the University’s plane par excellence.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .