This semester, I’ve finally mustered the courage to do something I’ve wanted to do since coming to Yale: act. I’m playing the fox in the theater adaptation of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella “The Little Prince.” The play includes a diverse cast of student actors. We sometimes discuss what it means to be putting on a production that will look quite different from its original iteration. We often ask ourselves what each choice, regarding the set design, costumes and music, should mean in this new context. The other day, our director said something that gave me pause: While we should be intentional about our choices, she said, we do not need to carry the extra burden of needing to do something different and meaningful at every turn because of who we are.
Many students who do not fit the perceived mold of certain ethnically homogenous Yale groups often have to bear a particular burden. When we make art, if often feels like we have to imbue our work with all the meaning and nuance of our identities. We have to qualify our choice to include more diverse voices or actors with a more carefully articulated message or meaning. We have to explain ourselves in order to make ourselves seen.
If something is unique in an environment, there will be a lot of weight placed on that thing by virtue of its singularity. To put it bluntly, there aren’t a lot of productions with racially diverse casts, so when we have one, we feel forced to try to say everything that is left unsaid in all the other productions of the year. We see this more broadly in national media with movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” that people criticized for having the shallow plot of a romantic comedy. Why is it that a movie, due to its inclusion of Asian and Asian-American actors, should have to represent the entirety of Asian and Asian-American experience? This is not the same standard to which we hold romantic comedies with white female and male leads, precisely because we have enough movies with actors who look a certain way that we allow those movies the freedom to explore a plethora of narratives, some trivial and some meaningful.
Everyone should be afforded that same narrative freedom: the freedom to just have fun with a piece of art, to not agonize over what it should have to say. Considering Yale’s current push toward faculty diversity, it seems that the particular pressure of representation is something that many professors of color face. I interviewed a female professor color earlier in the year for an article I published in the News on women of color in academia. She expressed that, at times, she felt as though she had to represent an entire culture as one of the only faculty members from her background in the department.
The relatively uniform composition of the faculty here is not something unique to Yale.
Faculty of color face significant obstacles in gaining tenure, in proving the value of their scholarship. An article published in the News by Alex Zhang ’17 on the “revolving door” for Yale professors of color highlights their mass exodus from Yale in 2015. Subsequently, the University created the Faculty Excellence and Diversity Initiative, to which Yale committed $50 million. Now in its fourth year, the initiative has allowed the University to continue to actively recruit faculty of color. The University has certainly made strides in this respect. But still, the University should prioritize both tenuring more faculty of color and bringing in more visiting faculty to ameliorate the experiences of those who feel the particular pressure of representation.
I often use the phrase “say something only you can say” as an inspirational motto for myself. But there are times when this sentiment can be stretched, can be made to mean that many students and faculty have to say something unique, have to represent the whole of an identity that is complex, that cannot be expressed by one individual or by any number of individuals.
If you are someone whose voice is often overlooked, know this: You do not need to represent the whole of an identity in your one being, in your words, your art. You simply have to make things, things that are funny, are silly, are deep, that mean something to you. They don’t have to mean something to everyone. You don’t need to make meaning of yourself and everything you do to be looked at. You should be seen in all your light, as you are, unburdened of all that you carry.
Meghana Mysore is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column runs every other Friday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .