“Why are you trying to start something?” I was faced with this question after asking a dining hall worker how she felt regarding one simple fact: of all the 12 residential college dining halls, which are primarily staffed by black and Hispanic workers, there is not a single black dining hall manager.
While at the inaugural Jonathan Edwards Freshman Dinner, I started to see the anomaly of race in the dining hall. Students, dressed in their finest clothes, sat in front of china sets emblazoned with small, green images of Jonathan Edwards, the slave-owning preacher himself. There were more forks and knives than I knew what to do with.
We started to eat to the tune of a Latin invocation as waitresses milled about, serving plates laden with prawns, steak and assorted greens. The people that seemed to be in charge of the dining hall that evening looked on, making sure that everything was going to plan. The student population was mostly white and Asian. The dean and head of college were white. Even the dining hall administrators were white. In fact, the group with the most people of color was the wait staff.
This is not new to us — we see the black and brown hands that take our plates or our ID cards. We chat and converse with people who have sometimes been with Yale dining for longer than we’ve been alive, but we don’t question why they’re not in positions of power. And we see the mostly white dining hall administrators overseeing our meals in ties and collar shirts. It is not my intention to “start stuff.” Rather, I’d like to point out what we see — but don’t really discuss — on a daily basis. Perhaps this is because this trend seems to be the way of the world.
Everyday, we interact with people who are caught up in the last vestiges of institutional and systematic oppression — but can we really be sure that these are the last remnants of years gone past? Or are we simply sticking our heads in the sand, failing to see the insidious resilience of this system?
Yale College has had only two deans of students who are not white men — one white woman, and one black man. The pace at which Yale has included its community so to speak vastly outstrips the rate at which American institutions have adapted to a new world. This isn’t 1865, nor is it 1965. The lack of administrative diversity in one of the most important sectors Yale employees — the dining hall work force — indicates a profound lack of diversity in Yale’s workforce. It’s horrendous and, to quote a dining hall worker that I spoke to for the sake of this piece, “un-fucking-believable” that among the shortlist of Yale College administrators, there are almost no people of color who are not a) Dean Holloway; or b) deans of cultural centers. This is unacceptable.
I do not want to imply that the dining hall managers, the deans, the heads of college or the Yale College administration do a bad job. I love my dining hall, my college and the people who run both. This is not about individual actors; this is about a deeply flawed system.
There is a reason that we do not see this racial stratification right before our eyes. It’s an institutionalized part of an old order that has remained static as the world around changes, grows and improves. It seems almost too monolithic and hegemonic to talk about; what’s the point of talking if nothing is ever going to change? Why would anyone want to “start something” against a calcified reality? Just because the scope of this issue extends far beyond what we see at school doesn’t mean that we should simply not talk about the injustices occurring right under our noses. Talking is a step forward from noticing without expressing, and a step closer to doing something.
From dismal diversity in the dining hall to the legacy system to the College Formerly Known as Calhoun, Yale has preserved institutions that are ethically wrong. Can change come overnight? No. How that change should manifest, I do not know, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to fit it into this short column. But Yale must change, one dining hall at a time.
Adrian Rivera is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .