As a senior this year, I’m spending a lot more time than before reflecting on my Yale experience. Looking back, I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky to have spent the past three years here. Yale and Silliman in particular have come to feel like home in a way I could never have imagined on my first day of freshmen year. My love for Yale is a big part of the reason I became a freshman counselor — I wanted to share my love for Yale with new students and help them to love it too. Watching my freshmen make new friends and find their place in this incredible community has been one of the greatest joys of my time at Yale.
But as a Black female student on this campus, my love for Yale is complicated. These past few days have been trying times for many students, students of color in particular. Erika Christakis’ email, perhaps unintentionally, trivialized students’ very real concern about the consequences of culturally appropriative behavior. Her argument also privileged the rights of certain students to express themselves through offensive costumes over the rights of other students to feel safe and respected. Like many people, I felt hurt by her message, but even more hurtful were the responses of many students who leapt to her defense without acknowledging the ways in which culturally appropriative and degrading costumes cause real damage to their classmates.
The next night when I heard from friends and read online about a Black freshman girl being harassed and denied entrance to SAE on the basis of race, I felt even more hurt. As even more students leapt to the defense of SAE and denied the veracity of her story of discrimination and numerous others like it, I was heartbroken. But at no point was I surprised.
Yale is not somehow immune to the systems of racism and misogyny that shape our world. My status as a Yale student hasn’t protected me from racist behavior on this campus, and my Yale degree won’t protect me from racism in whatever office I work in or neighborhood I live in after graduation. One of the most important lessons I learned in my time at Yale is that systems of oppression are ubiquitous, and that no combination of good intentions and advanced education will ever make someone immune from the tendency to perpetuate racial biases. As author Junot Díaz once said, “White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”
But just because oppressive systems are ubiquitous, that does not mean that offensive behavior is unavoidable. Yale as a community isn’t immune to racism or sexism, but I do believe our community is special. We care deeply about one another, and we should hold ourselves and others to a higher standard of behavior. We should recognize that each of us has the potential to perpetuate racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our day-to-day lives. Recognizing that, we should be thoughtful and deliberate about our actions so as not to perpetuate systems of oppression inadvertently. As Dean Burgwell Howard reminded all of us, offensive actions, even when well-intentioned, send a much stronger message than any apology issued after the fact. His message, which responds to years of student activism pressuring the administration to help make Yale a more inclusive place, is itself evidence of the power of our actions.
I love Yale, and because I love it, I want it to do better. I refuse to become apathetic about the ways in which marginalized people are made to feel further marginalized on this campus, and I refuse to become fatalistic about our ability to make things right. When I see the bravery of my classmates who publicly tell their stories of discrimination, who call out administrators who trivialize their concerns, who condemn racism and sexism on campus and off, they inspire me. They remind me why I love this place. Yale isn’t special because it’s free of injustice — it’s special because whenever one of us musters up the courage to call out injustice, we never have to do it alone.
Rachel Wilkinson is a senior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .