An old acquaintance from my hometown watched footage of the student confrontation last Thursday with professor Nicholas Christakis. He posted it on Facebook, mocking participants for their outbursts: “The idea that such smart people can be so dumb is really comforting!” When I pointed out that it might be more productive to ask what led bright 20-year-old students to sob and scream in the middle of a courtyard, he derided them for using curse words. To him, the students were “doing an injustice to their movement;” to him, their yelling undermined the foundation of their anger.
There is an unjust burden on students of color to express their thoughts on recent events, and on their experiences more generally, in a dispassionate and academic way. Furthermore, not everyone shares this burden equally. The onus of rational justification never seems to fall on those who dismiss the protesters as “hysterical.”
Yet, there is good reason for marginalized students’ fear and outrage. Students at the University of Missouri were forced to stay home from class in the wake of racialized murder threats. Yale student organizers, too, have had to seek protection after receiving death threats. More generally, students of color live in an environment where attempts to discourage blackface and other belligerent displays of racism are met with thundering declarations of “free speech.” And when they leave the university, their status as Yale graduates will not magically eliminate material race- and gender-based dangers to their lives and livelihoods.
Students are not just being criticized for having “disproportionate” reactions. Critics also police their emotional reactions in racialized and gendered ways. The vocabulary of “shrieking” and “whining,” when applied to concrete arguments by Black, Latino, Native and Asian-American women, unmistakably evokes tropes that were built to silence them. The easiest, laziest way to disregard a Black woman’s argument is to make her the “angry Black woman” — no matter how reasoned and articulate it might be. In addition, this tactic tastelessly overlooks how easy it is to be “calm” when the students chanting “white power” at Mizzou are not directly threatening you.
Furthermore, the people who question these students’ pain are not subject to the same degree of scrutiny. Where were the tone police when Christakis likened students chalking in Silliman to a “mob,” or when he shouted a student down to tears? Where are they when students don war bonnets as Halloween costumes? Are those choices not plainly tone-deaf?
The regulation of anger is intentional here. It derails the conversation from the racism and misogyny that run deep in our communities.
Calls to facilitate discussion sound great, but dialogue means little when students must underplay the ways they’ve been hurt in order to participate in it. Media outlets continue to use the word “coddled” to describe students who openly express frustration at the way they’re treated. What about the “free speech” crowd, who have coddled themselves into only accepting the so-called “level-headed” language they find palatable? What about the responses we’ve received from the highest levels of Yale’s administration, vaguely encouraging students to “engage in discourse?” They fail to address the inherent unevenness of a discourse that has, until now, forced students of color to intellectually justify their feeling unwelcome here. Dehumanization is, by nature, emotional. To ignore that is to coddle students who haven’t come to terms with their role, their complicity, in white supremacy.
To be sure, raw anger has never been and can never be a social movement’s final objective. Neither is it the be-all end-all of student activism here on campus. The Black Student Alliance at Yale has already laid out a concrete list of demands to the administration. Other cultural centers have begun to articulate policy changes that would help afford all students the dignity and institutional recognition they deserve. No administrative response would have occurred this week without an outpouring of emotion and anger from our community. The hearts and the minds of students of color cannot be dissociated from these projects — they are inextricable from each other. What critics of the emotional response are missing is not evidence of concrete action. It is basic empathy.
Students and faculty who have called for a “civil” discussion of these issues have not “elevated” our discourse, but couched it in the language of respectability politics. They have not merely limited the scope of acceptable perspectives to those that omit real emotional trauma. They have also ignored the ugly truth that the fears of marginalized students are perfectly rational.
Shyamala Ramakrishna is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .