To be a Black student at an institution such as Yale is to be perpetually hyperaware of your identity. It is to question how others perceive you: an affirmative action case, a criminal or someone otherwise undeserving of a spot on campus. To be a Black student at Yale is to have your rights, and the rights of those that look like you, examined through moral and legal frameworks in class, then to turn around and see the pain and suffering in your community as those frameworks play out in real life. To be a Black student at Yale is to be forced to shove down the sadness and despair you feel when state-sanctioned violence claims Black lives in order to focus on the endless array of problem sets and papers to get done. To be a Black student at Yale is to never get a break, and to recognize that though you face your own challenges, the ones your community faces back home are immeasurably more urgent.
There is a world that exists beyond Yale. For us, it might be easy to remove ourselves from the injustices that happen to the Black community, to frame them as academic talking points or social justice projects, but so many others can’t do that.
The lack of justice for Breonna Taylor has left our communities hurting once again. For those who have grown up with dark skin, it is easy to recognize a pattern of Black lives being taken and no accountability for those who perpetrated the theft. Thus, the grand jury’s ruling on Breonna Taylor’s case does not come as a surprise. It does, however, send a powerful message to Black Americans: Your life does not have value, you do not deserve justice and you can –– and should expect to be –– taken advantage of by society without regard for your humanity. That message has been playing on repeat on this side of the Atlantic since 1619.
Processing the racist signals sent by American institutions hurts, and yet, when I get overwhelmed, frustrated or discouraged, I can retreat into my Blue bubble and remain largely unbothered by the outside world. Living in Saybrook College briefly relieves me of the near-paralyzing terror that comes with simply existing as a Black person. At Yale, I am allowed to have hopes, dreams and aspirations. I can engage my intellectual curiosity to my heart’s content. I can explore the vast collection of books in Sterling, stroll around campus admiring the University’s architecture or just relax in my college’s courtyard after a long day of classes. I can just be.
The escape to safety and freedom that the University provides, however, is only temporary. Fear and pain are key components of my Blackness, and the status of “Yale student” does nothing to change that. When I exit Yale’s broad gates and the towering Gothic walls of the institution fade in the distance, I once again become vulnerable in a world hell-bent on taking my life. When I return home after this semester I will inevitably become another Black kid in a city that has a history of brutalizing people like me.
My GPA won’t do anything to counteract the presumption of my ignorance whenever I meet a new person. My resume will not be sufficient evidence to prove to the white people who look at me suspiciously that I am not a threat. If a police officer deems me suspicious, I will not be able to use my Yale hoodie as armor against the bullets that will rip my skin apart.
In the words of former student body president Kahlil Greene, “Black is still Black, even in Yale Blue.”
My op-ed has no easy answers for you. No profound takeaway to meditate on. No new concept to consider. This is just a reminder that a world exists beyond Yale, and that world is hellish. Trayvon Martin showed us that. Rekia Boyd showed us that. Mike Brown showed us that. Sandra Bland showed us that. Laquan McDonald showed us that. Tanisha Anderson showed us that. George Floyd showed us that. Breonna Taylor showed us that.
They didn’t have an easy escape, but their lives sure as hell mattered.
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.