As students across the country protest institutionalized racism, many commentators have tried to explain what is happening on college campuses. Curiously, the loudest, and most public voices come from those who insist their right to free speech is threatened. They tend to concur with the view, aired in Erika Christakis’ Halloween email, that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away or tell them you are offended.”

The offense, in this account, is simply a faux pas, an embarrassing social blunder. Tacitly assumed are the innocence of costumed play and the receptivity of the offender to a critique of their sartorial display.

Yet those of us who cut our scholarly teeth on the endless reliving of this kind of encounter know there is nothing simple or innocent about it. We know viscerally, with the full force of blunt trauma, that the burden of shame produced by these scenes is borne not by the offender but by the one who cannot look away.

I say this as a white woman who grew up queer in the Midwest, raised by a single mother of limited means. I say this as a professor of anthropology and American Studies who regularly teaches a seminar on inequality in America. And who, after 20 years at Yale, is still brought up short by interactions with academics and administrators who habitually wear the costume of privileged smartness in order to produce shame in others.

A familiar refrain in the current protests is commentary that aims to humiliate and pathologize activists and their peer group. Fingers are wagged at the figure of the angry black woman who does not know her place. Implicit in this discourse is the notion that protestors are somehow responsible for their own sense of exclusion. They are expected to acquiesce to those who claim superior knowledge and put their faith in a system that promises to include them at some unspecified point in the future.

Social scientists have a term for this Faustian bargain: We call it meritocratic individualism. This is the dominant cultural belief that anyone who follows the rules, works hard and accepts responsibility for her own fate will achieve a social status commensurate with the value of her labor. According to this myth, those on top got there because they earned it and those excluded get what they deserve.

Social inequality, however, cannot be grasped solely at the level of individual inclusion or psychology. Institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and queer/transphobia are serious social problems, ones to which many of us in the interdisciplinary humanities and humanistic social sciences have devoted our careers. At issue for Yale, as a scholarly community, is whether the knowledge we produce, and how we produce it, is recognized and valued by the institution as a whole.

When undergraduates offer an incisive critique of the status quo only to be dismissed as impertinent or mentally unstable, we permit the devaluation not only of the knowledge they have acquired, but the cultural authority and fields of scholarship of the faculty who mentor them. When Yale fails to promote and retain brilliant young scholars who work at the cutting edge of critical social studies, we perpetuate narrowly defined criteria of deservingness that sever pedagogical ties across generations of undergraduates, graduate students, junior faculty and senior scholars.

The quality of the social bonds that create a dynamic learning environment cannot be taken for granted. When Yale loses a whole cohort of assistant and associate professors who specialize in ethnographic and literary studies, and who contribute to African American Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, we lose colleagues, advisors and professional mentors who are practiced in the art of drawing upon personal experience to inform social analysis. These are the skills that empower students with stigmatized identities to confront oppressive structures of privilege and dare to transform them.

Social inequalities are not immutable facts. They are actively produced and performed, from moment to moment, in social encounters. Stigma, the acute sense of not belonging — in a family, a community or an institution of higher education — is not just in the minds of the marginalized. This feeling is socially produced through interactions embedded in rituals, cultural narratives and material traces of historically sedimented atrocities (read: “master” and “Calhoun College”).

To be told you are ungrateful for what you’ve been given, even though it is not enough to quench your thirst for genuine inclusion and respect, insults the intelligence of every one of us. To be dismissed for being too sensitive, even though your sensitivity is precisely what has made you an astute observer of social life, is to foreclose genuine debate about how knowledge of our world is produced. And to be shamed for speaking out about what you know to be an urgent matter of collective concern is to be barred from an institution that purports to value unfettered intellectual inquiry.

It is high time that those who carelessly don the costumes of normative superiority — hoping we will look away — examine the social sources of their privilege and power.

Kathryn Dudley is Chair of the American Studies Program. Contact her at kathryn.dudley@yale.edu .

  • Jonny-O

    So is the author arguing for an overhaul and reform of the tenure requirements re her department alone in order to “promote and retain brilliant young scholars who work at the cutting edge of critical social studies”? Is she alleging that the tenure requirements are potentially racist because her department’s associates cannot fulfill them?

    • groenima

      From an earlier article, I gather that the tenure process takes significantly longer at Yale than at other, equivalently prestigious colleges. It’s understandable how that process might pull brilliant young scholars of all stripes toward schools that offer them better job security. It would be helpful to separate the broader issue of the tenure system from how the university does or does not support ethnographic and literary studies programs–even though I can see how both factors might influence those faculty.

      • Jonny-O

        I think, somewhat, that you misconstrue what university “support” entails. The Yale tenure system is a nightmare, and it is very very difficult to get tenure at Yale or any Ivy; it’s pretty difficult at any major school and getting more and more exclusive. The university does contribute to faculty salaries and is responsible for that, but faculty salaries are not based entirely on whims; there are set amounts that professors are paid, depending on what they teach, what service they perform, etc. The university, however, also requires departments to make up the funding, by soliciting donor and alumni contributions, for goodies, such as endowed professorships, labs, research funds. The university offers some of these things, but they expect departments to do a lot of fundraising on their own. That’s why we have the named curator of x, the named chair of x. Additionally, each university has strengths, based on their donor base. They use their endowed chairs and offers based on what different departments have endowed, to poach professors from other schools. If another school’s department has an endowed chair in say robotics that is vacant, they can use that to poach a robotics professor from a school which does not have such a position. I do not think it is smart for Yale to offer to step in to save any professor and match other universities’ offers for a professor a department wants to keep when they have not done the work needed to raise the funds to keep that person. Plus, keep in mind, professor themselves frequently try and leverage offers to get a university to pay them much more money and give them more resources, a sort of blackmail. I suppose Yale simply doesn’t want to set a precedent that a. departments don’t have to do any fundraising to keep faculty they like, b. offer an assurance that faculty, if they are given another offer, can expect Yale to match it.

      • ldffly

        I can say something about this.
        When I was at Yale, about 90% of junior members were denied tenure. The institution of the Morgan Plan in 1967 (?) led to the attachment of tenure to a position rather than to a person. So, a junior member at the end of 7 years at Yale, had to hope that his or her department would be granted a tenured senior opening, if that assistant professor wanted to have a chance to remain at Yale. If the administration granted the department the tenured position, then the department was required to open the position to national search.
        That’s right–a national search to fill that tenured slot. A young professor, usually 35 years of age, had to compete against very experienced, well published faculty from the world over. A hopeless cause in most cases. Not the mark of racism, just a very tough, unforgiving system of nonpromotion.
        As I understand it, the Morgan system has been modified in recent years. Explaining how it has been modified would be a good project for somebody at YDN.

  • Phil Ostrand

    Again and perhaps the author can provide documented examples of a racist power structure at Yale. I am sure she has had interactions with jerks who are uncomfortable with who she is. I have those as well. That does not translate to an institutional bias at Yale. SO again, please provide documented examples of racial bias at Yale.

  • tan

    It seems to me that Yale could afford to lose a whole cohort of professors in African American Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, since so many of them seem to be just Professors of Victimhood. The tendency to fly into a rage at the slightest ‘microaggression’ is an intellectual and moral failing, not a virtue.

  • NYAttorney

    It is high time that more is expected of faculty. That someone holding a position at Yale is so carelessly unaware of the source and meaning of the word “master” is inexcusable — it existed centuries before any Europeans came to America. (Why do Yale faculty not take the opportunity to raise awareness of the source and meaning of words?) And her criticism of a faculty member’s position that students should be empowered to “look away or object” — and the deliberate failure to address the “or object” — demonstrates that Dudley is guilty of a profound bad faith that seems to becoming systemic at Yale.

    • Debbie

      The etymology of the M word doesn’t matter. The trauma that reading it or hearing it causes the delicate snowflakes is what matters.

      Next to be targeted will be words that rhyme with the M word.

    • Tim Steele

      agreed. And this piece is very telling in that it confirms the suspicions many students have about intellectual conformity if ethnic studies courses are required. There’s no doubt Dudley expects her students to think a certain way about the material she teaches — that much is obvious from this diatribe.

    • ldffly

      Ah but when you use the word ‘master’ you are totally missing the historically sedimented atrocities behind the word. You see, she has her postmodernist clichés down cold. You and I don’t.
      In general, more is expected of faculty unless they serve in American Studies or the multitude of ethnic studies programs at Yale and many other universities.

  • yalie2

    I’m not sure why the author believes that the loudest and most public voices are from the right. That certainly has not been the case among Yalies. The general public seems to have a somewhat unfavorable view of the protests at Yale, but I would not say that that’s because those opposing them are louder, just that the public disagrees.

    I feel that the author is not actually engaging with the other side here. We all know about the trope of the angry black woman and how that can be used to marginalize them. The video of that student screaming at Master Christakis that upset so many people, though, is not some story fabricated to discredit anyone. It upset many people to see a student treating a professor that way, and it struck many as ironic that her hostility was framed as a plea for inclusion. Likewise, when students march on the president’s house at midnight to demand that, among other things, the Christakises be fired, people view that as open hostility. It didn’t help that the students were black, but this would’ve offended people regardless.

    There has been no shortage of attempts to humiliate and pathologize those who are skeptical or in opposition of the protesters. It seems that a line was drawn in the sand, “you’re with us or you’re against us, you’re good or you’re bad” and the Christakises apparently crossed that line when Erika wrote an email expressing her reservations about some policies. Not outright hostility or even full disagreement, but reservations about the role of the university in policing some types of student behavior. The result was harassment and demands that she and her husband be fired.

    It is not really the ones offering incisive critiques that are being dismissed. (Okay some are, but that will always happen to some degree when someone makes a public argument about something even remotely controversial). There is a certain amount of suspicion about some of the claims, and concerns about the attitudes that are leading students to feel the way they do, but it’s unfair to simply dismiss those concerns as attempts to ignore students. And yes, it is possible to be too sensitive. We all have many small grievances and things we would like to have changed. We all experience what we perceive to be disrespect every day, and we all suffer through things that we think we shouldn’t have to. The trick is understanding when those are minor enough to handle yourself (and when handling them yourself is a better decision than burdening others with them) and when they are so severe that you must demand that others make changes to fix them. This is not to say that there aren’t many legitimate complaints among students of color at Yale. I certainly believe there are. But it’s perfectly okay for someone to be skeptical of the severity of some of them and to worry about a slippery slope of giving too much deference to someone or a group because they complained.

    There is also, understandably, skepticism about the real consequences of the names Calhoun and Master. I had a number of complaints about classism (and a persistent feeling that I did not belong) during my time at Yale. That said, I can’t imagine that changing the names of some buildings would have made a difference. Yale was obviously built by and for New England WASP aristocrats. Why would its old names reflect anything different? Why would I expect the presence of those names to mean that I am not welcome there in the 21st century?

  • Debbie

    The upshot of this pomo word salad:

    Criticizing or mocking a child of privilege who had a tantrum over the “urgent matter” of a suggestion being made that she shouldn’t get the vapors over a hypothetical Halloween costume stifles the “genuine debate” she was trying to have when she shrieked “be quiet…@#$!…,” and is tantamount to expelling her from the bastion of “unfettered” intellectual inquiry that is Yale.

  • vincent

    “Tacitly assumed are the innocence of costumed play and the receptivity of the offender to a critique of their sartorial display.” This is not an assumption held by the “right to free speech crowd.” While we of course believe that people should be given the benefit of the doubt and that malice should not be inferred in situations more readily explained by ignorance, we readily acknowledge that in many of these situations offense is either intended or not cared about. What we assume is that the right to free speech and free expression must be held sacrosanct in a free and democratic society and that there is no competing right not to be offended by such speech or expression. Accordingly, we also believe that any attempt to limit the former in order to avoid the later must be vigorously opposed and we further reject attempts to hyperbolize the causing of offense with language like “violence” and “blunt trauma.” If someone offends you, you have the right to either engage and challenge them with your speech or ignore them, you do not have the right to silence them.

    • rainman

      Well put. Without free expression of OPINIONS real communication is not possible.

  • Tim Steele

    “Fingers are wagged at the figure of the angry black woman who does not know her place.”

    Now that tells me all I need to know about Ms. Dudley. If she is referring to the female student who shouted and cursed at Nicholas Christakis, I think the vast majority of those who might “wag a finger” at her would do so because of her abusive and intolerant behavior — not for any other reason. But what do I know? She’s the Chair of the American Studies Program and I’m just a Yale grad who never had the pleasure of taking one of her courses. And she clearly has a better grasp of concepts such as “normative superiority” and “cultural authority” than I could ever hope to have.

    • FlameCCT

      She definitely has a grasp of concepts although it appears they are mostly Progressive concepts with no basis in fact and/or reality. Basically propaganda to show her superiority as a Master of the Plantation.

  • John

    I read a few paragraphs and I thought, finally, a good YDN writer! Then I realized this was written by the chair of American Studies. Go figure

  • Prg234

    Double Yikes! And from a professor no less!

  • AlumView

    Way to bust the myth that “those on top got there because they earned it”! This article proves that one can apparently become chair of a program at Yale all while attacking meritocracy, smearing “smartness” as a “privileged costume,” and promoting wildly ahistorical falsehoods, like linking the title “master” at Yale to “atrocities.”

    • Ralphiec88

      It certainly is rhetorical thin ice to question meritocracy at a time when students, some of whom undeniably would not have been admitted if they were white, demand that certain positions be reserved for people of color.

      • DZMLSIENCE

        A white guy has a better chance of being expelled from Yale for making that incontrovertibly true statement than a black girl has for berating a professor in public and telling him to sleep with one eye open. Isn’t life on the academic plantation strange?

  • Dianne Bilyak, M.A.R.

    Not to I-jak this conversation, but I have to point out that as a former employee at Yale (and former student), I learned a disheartening lesson in what Dudley calls, “Social inequalities are not immutable facts. They are actively produced and performed, from moment to moment, in social encounters.” While taking a playwriting class in 2012, I was horrified how many times the 25 students in the class would casually use the r-word. I shrugged it off to the age of the students. But then I had a colleague who, despite being asked to stop by me, used some version of the R-word to denigrate me or others at least once a week in the 18 months I worked with her. When I spoke to my supervisor, he laughed it off (despite that fact that we worked at the BRBL and she would use the word at the public services’ desk in front of patrons). I then contacted the Disability Office and asked them to have a workshop for the employees at the library or at least for my department. The other suggestion was that the office conduct a, “Spread the Word to End the Word,” campaign on campus. Though they responded at first to my emails they ended up doing nothing in the end. My point in relating these facts is that I have not found Yale to be a place that likes to stand up for social inequalities and have people stand up to Yale when the powers that be ignore requests for intervention. If Yale can make something go away by ignoring it, Yale will try that tactic first. I believe, because there are so many groups that are marginalized, it would be harder for these institutions to remain complacent if we all worked together and remembered to find strength in numbers. Thanks.

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    See? “American Studies.” Too predictable.

    We’re not talkin’ Camille Paglia here.

  • Tucker Pendleton

    This article presents a straw-man in mischaracterizing the “dominant cultural belief” as “anyone who follows the rules, works hard and accepts responsibility for her own fate will achieve a social status commensurate with the value of her labor.” We all know tragedy strikes and luck runs out; thus, because some are precluded from deriving value, the proposition is false. Nevertheless, still within the scope of article’s attack, is the commonly held belief that, if you are a productive member of society, then you will tend to accrue rewards. Such teaching is a grave disservice to students; particularly, concerning those that (1) merited their way into Yale through “meritocratic individualism”, and (2) are marginalized and thus more vulnerable to the error supra. The cost is largely one of opportunity: Instead of learning objective skills, steel-trap analysis, and brass tacks, things that lead to concrete rewards through productivity, students are taught the intellectual equivalent of tapioca pudding. Consequently, in foregoing the opportunity, students forego the opportunity for rewards like capital, influence, and position, that can be transmuted to make an imperfect system more inclusive.

    From this article, and others like it, this movement seems not only to propagate straw-men, but outright boogeymen. But why? Perhaps it is in the author’s interest to manufacture the exaggeration of problems, so that she and her kin can be the ones to manufacture their resolutions. Indeed, and as noted below, the ahistorical distortions of historical nuances, figures and symbols, otherwise unnoticed, the author presumably gains financially, influentially, and academically, with students bearing the opportunity costs. This economy of “unmerited collectivism” is tacitly endorsed: Internalize benefits to those promoting the unmerited ideology, and externalize costs collectively; here, unwarranted benefits accrue to critical social scientists, with opportunity and other costs borne mostly by students, faculty, and society.

  • ShadrachSmith

    What I see

    The SJWs act like they own the place when they don’t. Then the sheeple submit when they shouldn’t. Then us sockpuppets shake our heads slowly and say, wadda bunch a wimps.

  • Ralphiec88

    There is no better example of the dishonesty that pervades the protest movement than this article. Legitimate criticisms are absurdly spun, and other supposed offenses are made up out of whole cloth.
    No one “wagged fingers” at the “angry black woman who didn’t know her place”. Many felt that surrounding and cursing a professor (of any race) was simply unacceptable. Likewise screaming at a professor is not an “incisive critique”, and it was not unreasonable to question the mental stability behind the behavior captured on video.
    Likewise, the criticism was not that students were ungrateful, but that students fortunate enough in life to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world probably shouldn’t be describing their lives with words like “plantation”.
    “Blunt trauma” from a halloween costume? Please. Truly racist costumes on college campuses are now quickly and brutally denounced by peers of all races. But more importantly, this kind of hyperbolic language is out of all proportion to actual trauma. Add that to denigration of meritocracy and you have a recipe for disempowering victimhood that perhaps serves the interests of some, but does nothing to advance Yale’s students of color or race relations in general.

  • ldffly

    Let stand what Prof. Van Woodward used to say about American Studies. It’s a nonmajor.

    • Pitmaster

      Notice how there isn’t a major in “Physics Studies” or “History Studies” or “Economics Studies” or “Mathematics Studies.”

    • FlameCCT

      This opinion piece provides proof of that contention.

  • akihirochan

    Thank you, Professor Dudley for your inspirational column.

  • Greg Thrasher

    Superb commentary …In America far to often White America reaction of their racism is to indict the very people of their racism as the reason and basis for White racism…This is the narrative of late in far too many venues in America..

    ‘A familiar refrain in the current protests is commentary that aims to humiliate and pathologize activists and their peer group’

  • FlameCCT

    Good to know that Kathryn Dudley is Chair of the American Studies Program as well as her Progressive (Marxist) ideology where the collective is more important than the individual. Speaking of privilege and power, she wields both strongly in this opinion piece with no data in support of the contention. Makes one wonder what would happen to a student that disagreed with the premise in any her American Studies Program courses.

  • DZMLSIENCE

    It was only a matter of time before the white “queers” started to horn in on the action. Can’t you let the black folks have anything to themselves? Even a protest of micro-agressions? You couldn’t even wait for a macro-aggression to pop up?

    On the whole this essay is 8th grade silliness: “…cut our scholarly teeth on the endless reliving of this kind of encounter…”? I hate to tell you, honey, but those are teeth of an entirely different sort.

    The most interesting thing about this piece is to find out we are actually allowed to use the word “queer”. Where I come from it would be impolite to call someone queer unless you meant “weird” – but even then you would refrain in order to potentially avoid sending the wrong message. Now I hear people saying “nigger” all the time but I am still under the impression that one should NOT say that.

    One wishes the fraternity of victims could produce a style guide on an annual basis letting the rest of us know how they would like to be identified for the succeeding 52 weeks.

  • http://rasmusen.org/ Eric Rasmusen

    I’ve slapped together a web page to collect links on the Christakis affair:
    http://rasmusen.org/special/Christakis.htm.
    Please tell your professors in fields other than American Studies to sign on to the open letter supporting the Christakises, which they can still do at
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4vHP6e5yCwLakNmRW96eFlVOE0/view
    The number of signers has gone up by 80% plus since it was first reported in the media.
    —Eric Rasmusen, Branford ’80, M.A. ’80

  • http://rasmusen.org/ Eric Rasmusen

    “Tacitly assumed are the innocence of costumed play and the receptivity of the offender to a critique of their sartorial display.”

    What abominable writing! She really means:

    “They think costumes are innocent play, and someone who causes offense will respond to criticism.”

    Let’s go back to basics. Use the active voice, not the passive, unless you have a good reason. Use anglo-saxon short and simple words if you can get your meaning across with them, not latinate long and fancy words. Cut out words that aren’t doing work. Someone give this lady a copy of Strunk and White before she writes again!

    Eric Rasmusen, Branford ’80

  • Phil Ostrand

    Ms Dudley assumes negative intent by anyone who happens to offend her. She assumes that they are racist. That they intend to do active harm, and that you cannot negotiate or talk with them. Ms Dudley makes the mistake of a child, not an adult. Emotionally she has obviously not gotten over her childhood and still has issues to work through.

    Ms Dudley, to you and the other protesters on campus I would recommend this. Assume positive intent. Assume that people are not racist, but things that you find offensive should be pointed out to them in a constructive manner. Rather than a student f bombing a professor, tell that person how their actions make you feel, and how you perceive them to be demeaning.

    It is called being an adult. Maybe you should set the example, rather than pouring gasoline into the fire.