If you’re “woke” on campus, this is the Yale history you think you already know.
The Pierson college “slave” and “slave quarters,” White Girls Only, Halloween emails, #NappingWhileBlack, Calhoun college name change, YPD pulling a gun on a black student, #JusticeforStephanieandPaul and ER&M’s fight for funding.
If you’re unfamiliar with these Yale events, I invite you to consider the privilege which has shielded you from being informed of this history. Today, however, I want us to think of the events and histories so deeply ingrained in the founding of this institution that to truly reflect upon them is to shake the grounding assumptions on which we stand.
The “discovery” of the Americas is one we know to be violent, filled with biological warfare, genocide and enslavement by European conquerors. What we ignore is the intellectual staging of the conquest, one that was not simply due to “human curiosity” but instead to justify the exploitative economic systems from which European empires extracted wealth from their new colonies. Academia allowed and continues to allow the violence of white supremacy to be masked in the veil of “lux et veritas.”
Anthropology is arguably the most well-known imperialist discipline. Early anthropologists studied the societies and cultures of those deemed to be “other” and used their findings to justify the inferiority of non-Europeans. While modern anthropology has reckoned with this history, the inherent power dynamic in anthropology raises questions of how it can ever step out of its imperialist roots.
Biology and anatomy were also used to create difference and reinforce white supremacy, specifically in the dehumanization and sexualization of black women which persists to this day. Research the history of Sarrtjie Baarteman, a particularly gruesome example of anatomy being used to uphold the goals of imperialism (rationalizing racial difference and using empire’s subjects to further “medical” research). Biological arguments and the choice of who gets to be studied are topics extremely relevant to science today in our data-driven world. Additionally, racial stereotypes which were established through these early “scientific” findings continue to be perpetuated through confirmation bias and selective focus in academic research.
At this point, I think it is important to reinforce that the white supremacy and racialization propagated by these and other academic disciplines (such as botany, geography, American Studies, sociology, philosophy, etc) did not emerge by accident or in a vacuum. White supremacy was created out of the capitalist necessity to justify the enslavement and violence on which their economic system relied. When thinking about these histories with this mindset, the past is not as distant as it may appear.
This history follows us into our classrooms today. Last week for class, I was assigned an article about a white linguist studying the Pirahã tribe in Brazil. The article gives no comment on the imperialist history of linguistics, nor shows awareness of the invasive methodologies and Eurocentric descriptions used throughout; instead it’s taken for granted that it’s okay in the name of “truth” and “knowledge.”
Now, these omissions are not omnipresent on Yale’s campus. In the introductory lecture for Race, Politics, and the Law, we learned about Yale’s history of academically sanctioned white supremacy: the headquarters of the American Eugenics Society was directed by Yale faculty who used Yale funded research to propel eugenics.
We can also track the influence of this history to 2013, when the Department of Defense granted the Yale School of Medicine $1.8 million to develop interview techniques to train special operations forces; New Haven was selected due to its large immigrant population.
As this training center teaches, we need to be aware of Yale’s donors and how they acquired their wealth. Yale’s history of accepting money from unethical sources goes back to Elihu Yale, whose wealth indubitably stems from imperialism through his involvement with the British East India Company. The very foundation of Yale is easily traced back to the exploitation of human labor.
Further, the land we are on at this very moment is stolen Indigenous Quinnipiac land that was designated as Connecticut’s land grant institution through the Morrill Act of 1862. States were encouraged to allow this land to appreciate and sell these “land grants” to raise institutional capital that permits Yale to grow even during economic crises.
Yale’s relationship with New Haven is constantly scrutinized today with demands that Yale respect New Haven. However, people often fail to acknowledge the depth to which Yale’s interests have shaped the city. In 1831, Yale leaders stopped an abolitionist effort to create a “Negro College” in fear that it would “stop the vital stream of the city, the influx of young men to Yale College” and risk Southern patrons’ donations (i.e. slave generated profits) the year after Yale initiated its first endowment drive. Here again is an example of racism being the child of economic interests. This is the money that built the foundation of Yale’s $30.3 billion endowment today.
At the same time, Yale needed to remain politically “neutral” as tension around slavery grew. As a solution, Yale led one of the most extreme branches of the American Colonization Society, founded to remove free black people from the U.S., which was viewed neither as pro-slavery nor anti-slavery. Yale continues to show a politically “neutral” face today to please potential donors when in reality inaction and avoidance is a political statement in and of itself.
So. We’re here now, somewhat aware of the history of academic disciplines and the ways in which Yale is implicated in imperialist endeavors. Further, you’re beginning to realize that you ARE Yale; while Yale is a corporation, it is also composed of individuals who will go out into the world spreading the messages of this institution. Although Yale is complicit, a phrase many of us, including myself, are quick to rally behind, you are complicit too.
If you’re like us, all this knowledge holds weight. You’re probably hoping that we’ll tell you a specific action item — Sign this petition! Pay me reparations! Anything to feel like “I’ve done my part and now can intern at JP Morgan next summer, guilt-free.”
The good news is there are things you can do. Demand all disciplines teach their comprehensive history. Appropriate university resources for a radical project. Pressure Yale to be transparent in its investments and divest from fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt. Hold Yale to its promises to employ New Haven residents. Look further into this history as to avoid inadvertently perpetuating these cycles of exploitation.
The point we want to make here, however, is that there is value and power in simply acknowledging and reckoning. Take action, do your good, but don’t use it as an excuse or distraction to not think about the deeper implications of where we are situated. Complicate the binaries we are trained to think in. Consider why we have been conditioned to treat education as a panacea for all social ills despite the fact that, as outlined here, education is the creator and propagator of social ills. Be uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Question this institution and yourself.
While this institution works on us, we also exert power in this institution. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” he describes Howard University as occupied with “the LSAT, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa,” versus the Mecca, “a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the black energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.” The beautiful and hopeful distinction here emphasizes a gray area: as students, we flow between the University and the energy-based community. Thinking about complicity in this way at Yale may help us somehow straddle the line between complicity and resistance, between accepting the status quo and creating a vibrant energy-based community within that can grow and reckon together.
If in the collective consciousness of the Yale population the history we have outlined here is held and acknowledged, what other ways of existing could we imagine? Could we create our own version of the Mecca here, grown from the seeds of history at this institution?
I honestly don’t know. All I can offer is the first step: reflect and reckon with this history and push your peers to do the same.
JORDAN ASHBY is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
DONASIA GRAY is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at email@example.com .