Last Wednesday, a student dressed in a gorilla suit photobombed the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ 2019 class photo. Many assumed that it was an outside frat prank. However, we soon learned that it was a student of the school — a member of a secret society that “brings fun and whimsy” to the yearly tradition through animal costumes. Regrettably, the stunt ended up deploying age-old racist tropes. While a byproduct of good intentions and ignorance, it was symptomatic of a more deeply troubling pathology of racism and white privilege in the environmental movement.
This tone-deaf blunder coincided with a request from the school’s staff for students to remove two protest banners they had planned to hold in the class photo. These read, “Center people of color in the environmental movement” and “Yale is complicit. Climate justice NOW!” Many students felt tricked by the staff, who ignored the gorilla suit to instead focus on the banners. Citing student requests for photos without the banners, the staff pitted students against students by forcing protesters to choose between displaying the principles they believed in and considering their classmates’ supposed wishes. Prompted by complaints, staff waved away the gorilla only after removing the banners. What was most concerning about all of this was that the student body, including the student who dressed up in a gorilla suit, knew about the content of the banners beforehand.
The entire episode was bewildering, divisive and betraying to many. Some students picked up on the racist undertones of the gorilla costume immediately, while others didn’t. Students of color, allies and international students from Africa certainly did. Feelings were hurt. Uproar ensued. Later that day, an apology undersigned by seven F&ES students — some of them in the Ph.D. program — was forwarded to the entire community. The mea culpa claimed good intentions and ignorance of the racist trope.
Lack of ill intent, however, doesn’t lessen the implications of what occured. That many F&ES students will go on to “represent” the oppressed, “save” the global south and “lead” organizations with the same “good intentions” reveals the systemic reach of the gorilla fiasco. It is crucial that we reflect on this well-meaning, privileged myopia, as it has driven many a colonialist, missionary, voluntourist or summer intern abroad. It also drives the ongoing displacement of indigenous peoples and peoples of color in the name of conservation throughout the world.
The same goes for Yale right here, in New Haven. But sure, at least our school does work with “the community” in greening projects and employs people of color who face discrimination to reentry after incarceration. That is good. The problem is that both here and abroad, we choose to ignore the struggles of people of color against structural injustice while pigeonholing ourselves into our tree or animal-centered white savior fantasies. “Choosing your battles” quickly becomes code for normalizing the status quo.
Protests around these issues have been going on for a year now. Since they began, the school’s dean, Indy Burke, and the recently appointed assistant dean of community and inclusion, Thomas Easley, have backed students’ push to diversify the school and to hire faculty of color and women. Pushback, however, has come from older, predominantly white and male faculty who are either actively resisting change, too attached to white privilege or simply sleeping on the job (and perhaps on their retirement too). That the gorilla fiasco happened at all makes the banners’ messages all the more important. But even when calls to participate are publicly made and contents are shared beforehand (as was the case here), the admin and some students would rather be anxious about a couple of banners than acknowledging their problem with race.
Unlike the pranksters’ proposed solution to the class photo, we cannot photoshop out the unintended harm of militarized conservation and capitalist philanthropy’s “well-meaning” projects around the world. Yale’s speculative involvement (and disinvolvement) with its neighboring communities is part and parcel with this, as are the undisclosed holdings of its endowment in fossil fuels, Puerto Rican debt, private prisons and other exploitative assets. This harmful model has to end. We need to stop doing good and start doing right. We must empower people of color here and elsewhere, letting them assume the helm of their own affairs. This isn’t a silver bullet in itself but a necessary step towards justice.
There is no place for secret societies in communities — academic or otherwise — that have been hurt by discrimination and good intentions. While group discussions have been offered by F&ES leaders, they’re not enough. Too often, it is people of color who have to do the emotional labor of explaining the harm done. Displays of white fragility, such as requests to accommodate their discomfort, shame and guilt during events like these are simply inadequate. The same goes for symposia, coffee chats, initiatives and the like. As people of color, we’ve already highlighted the root problems and made the solutions widely known. Yale F&ES: Hire women and faculty of color with diverse world views while increasing diversity among domestic students. Yale: Become a leader in change by coming clean on holdings, divesting from problematic ones and reinvesting in New Haven and abroad. We have already done our part — to those on the other end, it’s time to realize that none of these changes will happen out of good intentions alone. Just like the photobombing gorilla was chased away, it’s time we chase away those who push back against progress behind closed doors. The ground is already moving under their feet.
Javier Román-Nieves is a second-year student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a 2019 candidate for a master’s in Enviromental Management. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .