Last month, as a result of a growing awareness about the persistence of racial inequalities on campus — and in recognition of some ways in which Yale reinforces such inequalities — the portraits of John C. Calhoun were removed from the college still bearing his name. This act was a significant step forward for Yale — but it needs to be merely the first step towards rectifying the way campus artwork perpetuates racial, as well as gender, power structures.

In a letter to the Yale community Nov. 17, 2015, Peter Salovey pledged to address the issue of the representation of diversity on campus. Now, I urge the community to pay particular attention to the lack of diversity on the walls of the Divinity School.

Currently, the Divinity School displays portraits of 99 white men, five white women, one Black woman and two Black men throughout its campus. These portraits all make an appearance in the short film I produced, “Mirror Mirror on the Wall: The Legacies of Sexism and Racism at the Yale Divinity School 2016.”

The problem with the near exclusive representation of white men is that many of the images venerate a time when women and people of color were systematically excluded from education. The reason these groups don’t appear on the walls is that they bore (and still bear in many ways) the brunt of a society that refused — and too often still refuses — to recognize their full humanity. By continuing to enshrine the past in this visible way, we reinforce the old hegemony rather than ushering in a new era. We send the message that privilege and power belong to white men.

I first raised this issue in the fall of 2014 in an open letter to the Divinity School community and I was certainly not the first to raise it. But in the time since, few permanent changes have been made, save for the addition of the school’s only three portraits of Blacks mentioned above.

The following semester someone anonymously hoisted a huge black board onto the fireplace mantle in the Divinity School’s Common Room with the words “End White Supremacy” spray-painted on it in red. What was brilliant about this statement was that at the same height of the vigilante message, there hung 12 portraits of white professors staring back at you. The message was clear: In this room you literally look up to white people exclusively.

In a recent article published online entitled “God is not a Man, God is Not a White Man,” noteworthy feminist theologian Carol P. Christ GRD ’74 spoke about her own experience with the portraits on the walls of the Divinity School back in the late 1960s. She described that “the toxic atmosphere at Yale both created and reinforced by the mirrors on the wall makes women and people of color intellectually doubt our right to be there.”

The message sent by the near-exclusive veneration of men also reinforces the power structures that are responsible for our current rape culture. At a town hall meeting at the Divinity School on Jan. 28 we learned that nearly one in 10 divinity students reported suffering sexual assault in the recent survey conducted by the Association of American Universities — and that women and non-gender conforming students are disproportionately affected. The rate of sexual assault at the Divinity School is above the Graduate School average.

At the town hall meeting, Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling expressed his distress at the lack of respect for other people that the reports signals. But as current student Allyson McKinney DIV ’16 pointed out at the meeting, experts on the issue of sexual violence (like Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune DIV ’76) have asserted that the real problem is not simply an issue of respect. The problem is one of power and control. As we confront the reality of how our entrenched patriarchy continues to wreak havoc in the lives of our female students, it would serve us well to consider to the visual messages we consume daily that support the male dominance that exists in our community.

The problems of racial and gender inequality are systemic and deeply engrained in our society. They will take time to resolve, unfortunately. But establishing greater gender equality and diversity on the walls of the buildings where students are educated is relatively clear and straightforward. The Divinity school can begin by honoring a diversity of esteemed graduates of the Divinity School as well as other ethnic expressions of the Christian tradition. What is stopping them?

Simon Christopher Timm is a 2015 graduate of the Yale Divinity School. Contact him at christopher.timm@yale.edu .

  • 100wattlightbulb

    Now will white students at historical black colleges demand the removal of black images? Or how about we quit trying to erase what was, deal with what is and move forward? Social engineering reeks of the inauthentic carcass that it is.

    • Simon

      My argument is that the 99 images of white men are “what is” and that their presence shapes what is and also the way we move forward. Creating physical spaces that present sexual and racial equality is a matter of respect, not social engineering. Historically black colleges are not my concern.

      • CoryIntheHouse

        ” Creating physical spaces that present sexual and racial equality is a matter of respect”
        No, actually it really isn’t.

        • Simon Christopher Timm

          If you can provide some reason as to why it is not a matter of respect that would help advance the conversation!

  • brometheus

    You’d think that a member of the divinity school would have the mental agency to understand that the presence of pictures of white men (who presumedly sustained the school financially in the past, or made great contributions to the field) does not mean that the divinity school as an institutional supports the ‘dominance’ of males in society, or that it believes white males are superior. This would be akin to suggesting that pictures of past senators be removed from the walls of capitol hill or various state houses simply because they are white and male. History cannot and should not be rewritten to accomodate the immaturely held aesthetic preferences of today’s youth. We are smarter than to take the particularly topical analysis being put forth in this column, that equates the presence of history that is white and male with the abstract support of everything else included within that history, as truth. We are not psychological slaves to pictures on the wall. Why do we continue to behave as if we are?

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

      “You’d think that a member of the divinity school would have the mental agency to understand…”

      You’re already off track, already overestimating the denizens of DIV.

      • Simon Christopher Timm

        I’m surprised the Yale Daily News did not eliminate this inappropriate comment.

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

          Why inappropriate?

          To be safe, I checked again the ranking for Y’s top 12 professional schools and, again, DIV failed to make the cut.

    • Simon Christopher Timm

      I don’t see any problem with reviewing the pictures on the walls at Capital Hill and taking down pictures of senators we no longer want to revere. History is written in books not walls. I’m not suggesting that we rewrite anything. The whole reason we place pictures of great people on walls is that the pictures we place on the walls have an impact on us throughout the day. I never claimed it makes us psychological slaves, I just said it creates an atmosphere that affects us. Why should a picture be locked on the walls forever once it is placed there?

  • ShadrachSmith

    A carefully selected bunch of sheep. Not a man among you…apparently.

    • Simon Christopher Timm

      I’m surprised this unhelpful comment was not deleted by the YDN.

  • Phil Ostrand

    Destroy History!!! It is bigoted!!!

    • Simon Christopher Timm

      No, I don’t think we should destroy history but I do think we should be thoughtful about how we represent it on our walls. Do you think every picture that lands on the wall at Yale should exist there forever? True, some men and women deserve to be remembered for great stretches of time. For example, I have no objection to keeping John Sterling’s portrait in Sterling Library for as long as the building stands–and I would feel this way even if he hadn’t been homosexual. But few deserve veneration forever. Calhoun’s portrait was a mistake from the onset. Most others fall somewhere in between. In time, we gain perspective on how great a person’s contribution was and we should maintain his or her portrait or take it down accordingly.

  • Luc

    Thankfully the old white dudes who started this country created a government where this type of victimhood thinking won’t take hold beyond the inherently liberal bubble of university. Build forward, not backward.

    • Simon Christopher Timm

      This is not about victimhood. We should build forward but we should also be thoughtful about what we keep with us from the past.

  • Saph

    Just curious…what is the exact number of people of color and women you would like on the walls? Do we make it representative of the US population? This would mean approximately 14 portraits of African Americans and 18 portraits of Latinos, and a 50% division among men and women.

    Or would you like to address past imbalances by having 99 portraits of minorities, and the remaining 8 of white men?

    Then, do we update it over the next few decades as the racial make-up of America changes?

    Genuinely curious where you would like this to go if someone made you be specific.

    • Simon Christopher Timm

      My argument is that there should be gender equality and strong racial diversity on the walls. Your figures are a great goal. And yes, I think diversity needs to be an ongoing project.