When women of color at the entrance of a fraternity at Yale suffer, we all suffer. When the Legion of Black Collegians at Mizzou suffers, we all suffer. When teens in McKinney suffer, we all suffer. Ferguson. Charleston. Staten Island. Sanford. And revealed most recently: Chicago. We are all racism’s students, unwittingly caught up in a semester of suffering.
It is difficult to see how one more person pushing will help to move the boulder of institutional racism that has caused so much suffering. But isn’t that precisely the reason for collective action? I was emboldened by Rianna Johnson-Levy’s ’17 column asking students and alumni to “stand in support” (“How we do better,” Nov. 10, 2015). Many Yale alumni feel as if they are part of this movement. Current students do not stand alone. So here is another response to my friend’s call.
Teach-ins at Yale have educated many about racism and misogyny, but we’re all on different schedules of enlightenment. I was racially awakened in high school when “friends” hurled “blackie” and “nig nog,” and would click their tongues to imitate isizulu sounds, condemning my blackness as the reason for my acceptance to the universities that rejected them. At Yale I became proficient in the (subtle? blatant?) racism and femmephobia some gay men espouse in their “preferences.” Once I embraced and expressed my trans identity, I absorbed transphobic comments from hookup partners. A leader of the Black Student Alliance at Yale encapsulated my point best: “Yale is as much as it ever was.”
I now work at Yale-NUS College. While this distance from Yale can make my attempts to offer support feel ineffective, Singapore has opened my mind. Similar to Baldwin and Coates, living in a place where chattel slavery is not imprinted on societal memory — and where the population is majority Chinese — has provided a critical distance from which I have been forced to examine de facto discourses and internalized racial hierarchy in the U.S.
I’m not sure how to be connected to this movement from Singapore. I straddle the bridge Yale built into Asia, pulled in two directions by competing demands: current Yalies need support, but discussions at Yale-NUS require my full attention. The desire to bring the uproar at Yale into the Yale-NUS psyche is tangled in an unshakeable sense of futility: is it relevant to this Singaporean-majority campus, or am I devoting a navel-gazing focus to this issue?
On Nov. 11, Yale alumni working as Dean’s Fellows led a three-hour discussion about events at Yale, in which 28 Yale-NUS students, staff and faculty reflected on implications for Yale-NUS. Someone asked if Yale’s residential colleges were “homes” or “intellectual spaces.” Another student replied, “RCs break down that false dichotomy, like we do here.” Yale-NUS has three RCs, modeled after Yale. The conversation shifted. Did we feel like our RCs were intellectual homes? Does institutional racism exist in Singapore or at Yale-NUS?
Though 1,200 strong, Yale’s “March of Resilience” — larger than Yale-NUS’s student body at foreseen capacity — did not earn recognition from Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis or our school newspaper, The Octant. Perhaps contentious activism is where the hyphen connecting Yale-NUS to its parent institution — and future alumni association — tapers off. In New Haven, Yale President Peter Salovey responded to the march by detailing “four key areas” of focus for the administration to build “a better Yale.” All Yale affiliates must share that responsibility, or the crux of the work will not be achieved. This is far from the end, and we cannot lose steam.
The burden of change cannot lie with marginalized people alone. We need the harmony of voices that feel removed from suffering. My old a capella group is predominantly white, and I am the only black member in the past 12 years. Should they ask a black friend to educate them? I think not. No one should be asked to perform emotional labor. Minority-group membership should not be a prerequisite to thinking critically about racialized humor and problematic discussion threads. As in a capella arrangements, each voice adds power, and maybe even some shimmer. The onus should be on all of us.
Yale professor Crystal Feimster teaches that we all have “linked fates.” Yale-NUS students are continuing to build a school where everyone is respected even when they disagree. I hope everyone at Yale can zoom out from the instances that catalyzed this conversation and think about how they involve all of us. Think about who is included in your “we.” Start there. The task of combating institutional racism at Yale and across the U.S. begins with small conversations. Now is the time to put this issue on whichever table we frequent. Now: Speak.
D Dangaran is a Dean’s Fellow at Yale-NUS College and a 2015 graduate of Ezra Stiles College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.