When I returned to Yale for the first time that summer, a group of Yale staff welcomed me by threatening to call the police.
I was inside a closed residential college, where I arguably shouldn’t have been. Looking back, I can only infer why I was fortunate enough to be confronted by Yale staff rather than being directly reported to the police — perhaps because I was a young Asian-American male wearing a white Oxford shirt paired with pale blue chinos and a silver watch. Of course, dressing more formally than necessary as a means of assimilation is familiar to most people of color who exist in predominantly white spaces. Botham Jean, the black Pricewaterhouse Coopers associate who was murdered in his own apartment by a police officer last month, remarked that he always dressed well as a means of avoiding conflicts with the police.
It’s important to acknowledge that my East Asian appearance shields me from the bodily violence that black and brown bodies have to face on a daily basis. But racism against Asian-Americans manifests itself in different ways, such as in the myths of “the model minority” or of the “perpetual foreigner.” Particularly during the summer, those of East Asian heritage are singled out, questioned and denied entry into Yale’s spaces more often than others.
Over summer break, edutourism at American colleges reaches its peak, with a large portion of tour bookings at Yale filled by Asian tour groups. University policy forbids groups without official tour guides from entering public buildings like Sterling and Beinecke; in doing so, it minimizes the security risk of rogue visitors and prevents Yale from becoming a kitschy tourist trap. Though justifiable in theory, the actual execution of this policy has led to seasonal bouts of racial profiling — when the tiring stereotype of Asians as “the perpetual foreigner” comes out in full force.
Over the summer, I worked as a Yale tour guide, leading majority-Asian tour groups. I was constantly hassled by Yale’s security guards and asked to verify my identity even as I wore a conspicuous lanyard proving my university employment. As a result, I wore progressively preppier clothes throughout the summer — by the end of the summer, I was dressing like an inveterate yacht boy at Martha’s Vineyard. Prior to my wardrobe overhaul, however, I was thrown out of places like the Yale School of Management’s lobby, where I was waiting to host a private tour. Why? Because a private event was about to occur. The event? The tour I was scheduled to host.
During the academic year, security guards once told my Chinese professor “no tour groups allowed” while she was taking our class into Sterling last year; apparently our navy “Yale Club Running” and “Yale Class of 2021” shirts didn’t ring any bells. Most recently, security guards assumed that a small group of Asian tourists was my own family. Compare this to a time that I led a tour of primarily white visitors: We were generously offered unfettered access to Sterling’s locked reserves, potentially because we seemed important.
Again and again, the physical gates of Yale reaffirm the disproportionate significance of our appearances, hinting at who really belongs on campus and who still does not. In Yale’s pursuit of playing down New Haven’s long-standing reputation as an unsafe city, profiling proliferates as a side effect of strict campus policing. Groups of more than four Asians are tourists. Unkempt dark-skinned men are criminals. I wish I wasn’t exaggerating. In 2015, Tahj Blow ’16 was mistaken for another black man and forced to the ground at gunpoint by Yale police, simply for walking out of Sterling at night.
Due to the fact that anti-Asian attitudes climax during the summer but subside during the school year, the temporary generalization of Asians at Yale as foreigners makes for a fascinating, self-contained case study in racial empathy. Have I been callous to dismiss the significance of others’ complaints about microaggressions? Is Yale not the most welcoming community it can be? Was it disingenuous to stand in front of Sterling and declare to tour groups that Yale is the most welcoming place I know, all the while being scrutinized by security guards for my race as I uttered those very words?
It certainly doesn’t help that racial tensions are magnified by our studentwide pursuit of a sense of belonging, upheld by an intricate ecosystem of residential colleges, fraternities, secret societies, sports teams and clubs designed to simultaneously include and exclude others. Comprehending and empathizing with those who feel shut out by the gates of Yale is sincerely difficult unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. For those that have never felt that sentiment, it’s important to listen and advocate for those who have.
As a tour guide, my job is to open gates to other people — to everyone, regardless of who they are.
Kenneth Xu is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com .