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 firstname.lastname@example.org .