When I first wrote for the News as a sophomore, I was driven by an acute sense of frustration with the need to advertise personal identity in campus discourse. I criticized its underlying assumptions as a dishonest way of refusing to learn about one’s peers, an inherently flawed stopgap that would stifle our conversations and deprive them of true insight. Ultimately, what drove me to speak up was my conviction that I had something to say that wasn’t being said in the open.
Recently, I found myself defending intersectionality as the only “woman of color” (said with more of a grimace than a wink) in a conference room full of conservatives who approved of doing away with it altogether, convinced that it did not benefit them. It struck me as incredibly hypocritical that, for their own discursive convenience, they were willing to occlude all potential good-faith efforts to grasp the complex differences between individuals in larger communities. Intersectionality, when done correctly, accomplishes exactly that — which would address the issue they allegedly protest.
Over these past few years, various debates on campus have finely dissected all the ways in which people of all backgrounds, on all points along the political spectrum, have been prohibited from speaking up. But sincere expression is, if Yale has taught me nothing else, of paramount importance for an undeniably diverse community.
Professors and peers alike here have modeled both productive communication and awareness of different limitations. From their example has come a humbling understanding that a history of risky speech and accommodating discomfiting subjects has long preceded current debates on campus. Family and friends, at Yale and elsewhere, have taught me how to reevaluate my thoughts and to listen better. Teachers have engaged and encouraged me and, once, even slipped me a kind note at a talk after I nervously asked a question.
Last year, Yale’s first undergraduate research conference took place at a time when I and other Yalies, with the shadow of recent political events hanging over us, were wrestling with the decision to pursue academia at the cost of more direct, effective routes to political advocacy. The conference’s keynote speaker was none other than our very own former Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway. After a thoughtful and beautiful presentation on the history of African-American students, faculty and workers in institutions of higher education, he urged us to see the conference room as one of the truest pastures for progress. Concluding on a powerful note of encouragement, he asked us, “If you aren’t going to be in the room, who is?”
Over my four years, I have become increasingly of the mind that there is little excuse for — or at least a great deal of danger in — the abdication of speech, in one way or another. Many conservatives have become entirely too comfortable buying into the myth that they are an endangered breed on college campuses. They pitch jokes in liberal-free spaces, receding into boardrooms and ballrooms to bemoan the demise of free speech while helping to dig its grave, all the while pointedly ignoring the fact that bigotry marches side by side with challenges to free speech. Similarly, many liberals refuse to accommodate views that complicate an easily organized (and organizable) worldview, treating testimony as an exclusive advantage and claiming to empower unheard voices — except those they find inconvenient. In the worst cases, the stubborn refusal to speak betrays a distinct lack of humility. At this rate, who on earth is the table supposed to be for?
My time at Yale has introduced me to certain frustrating realities about the academy, about my generation, about modern American discourse. But it has also empowered me to speak up and carefully cultivate my thoughts, to notice which voices I have heard far too much from or not enough from at all. One of the most fruitful methods has been this biweekly News column, through which I have learned to interrogate moments of both certainty and discomfort while resisting the urge to equivocate — in short, to remain true to myself. (And, of course, making sure that my parents don’t fret too much over my columns.)
I could not be more grateful for all the insight these past four years here — at the News, in the Classics Department, in my residential college — have brought me toward realizing who I am, what I want to do and how to keep learning and listening after college. One of the most important things Yale can offer you is the time and the space to learn the art of reflection, to figure out why you think the way you do. Whether with friends, around a seminar table or even (God forbid) in a column, speak up — and speak to each other.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.