I quit the Yale College Council at the advent of its first black president. I give my warmest congratulations to Kahlil. This is not sarcastic. Seriously, you did great, and you’re making important history.
But why did I, a black woman, quit after the election of YCC’s first black president, when now, more than ever, I might be expected to stay on?
I’ll start with a backstory. I was at office hours for a lecture I took last fall. The professor — a notable one — abruptly interrupted our academic discourse for a pressing question: “where are you from?” Now to all the people of color reading this, you know this question. It comes with the dilemma of responding with either where you’re from or where you’re “from.” The professor is a person of color, so I figured he wouldn’t care for the second answer. I answered with “New Jersey,” to which he rebutted, “No, where is your family from?” with that characteristic emphasis on “family.” Yep — yikes. He didn’t remember me when I returned to his office hours later that semester. Oddly enough, his once insatiable curiosity about my ethnicity couldn’t jog his memory. So eventually, he asked the same pair of questions, but this time, added, “What do your parents do?” under the guise of innocence. I could tell he was trying to “figure me out.”
How could my Haitian immigrant parents afford to send me to Yale? Or were my parents somehow wealthy enough to have connections that got me in? But I was left with a more important question: why was my ability to be a successful student at Yale questioned rather than assumed? You get the idea.
Back to the point. This past spring, I was re-elected as JE senator for the 2019-20 academic year. Though I loved what I was able to do as senator, I wanted a new challenge. So I applied to the Chief of Staff position on the YCC Executive Board. As a rising Junior and a senator who had worked on rigorous projects, I saw myself as capable. You may remember having received an email about a “Pre-law Resources Handbook” now published on the OCS website. That was me. There was also a golden hour when you could freely check out graduate school test prep books from Bass. Also me. I had put in the time, I had the skills and I had the benefit of age on my side. I thought I had a good shot.
But I lost. I lost to a person who just happens to be a white male. (I only mention these details because, by now, you’ve hopefully noticed that this article is about intersectionality!) He was also a first year. No beef with him, he’s very nice and, undoubtedly, qualified. There must have been a reason I didn’t prove myself capable. Right? Maybe I wasn’t as experienced as the first year. The board was looking for the Chief of Staff to organize more YCC social events. Maybe I didn’t come off as social enough. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe there’s really nothing deep or problematic behind my failure. Maybe I’m just a sore loser. In the words of Beyoncé, “What’s worse, being jealous or crazy?” In so many instances, being a black woman means feeling undervalued while simultaneously second guessing if there was ever even a problem in the first place.
Perhaps I quit the YCC, because, with an admittedly bruised ego, I didn’t feel like helping the YCC reach its quota of black people. Still, the one silver lining in my departure is that a black woman took my place. Again, this is not sarcastic.
I know what you’re thinking. What about Kahlil? Unfortunately, his election does not absolve the issue of intersectionality in the YCC — or lack thereof — any more than Obama’s election solved the issue of race in the U.S. Simply observe the lengthy history of YCC leadership thus far. The same goes for most significant organizations: the News, the YPU and YIRA. Show me the black and brown leaders of these organizations. Though the number of black YCC members as determined by election is beyond individual control, increasing qualified black membership on executive boards, which is determined via appointment versus election, is a choice. We need to be more conscious of that choice.
The issue isn’t one of confidence. I tell myself “I know I can!” so often that you could call me the Little Engine that Could. But the engine will never reach her destination if no one lets her out of the station. Pardon the weird extended metaphor. I get my confidence from my mother: intelligent, smart, capable. It took her four years to get her first job promotion for a position she was overqualified for. And she was left with no explanation other than an insinuation of her lack of capability.
What happened at office hours, at my mother’s job and at other groups at Yale all involve a common underlying issue. I will not and cannot attribute my defeat in the YCC to any form of bias, but after observing the leadership demographics of most Yale groups, it places my failure into a disappointing context. We need almost every organization at Yale to do better. Sometimes being here at Yale can feel like being Kelly at a university full of Beyoncé’s. And we all know that Kelly had “IT,” but no one wanted to admit it. Fortunately, Kahlil’s election is a step toward moving the YCC in the right direction. But we need to finally start asking ourselves how we can initiate this sort of change, and more holistic change, across Yale.
Nathalie Beauchamps is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .