Just two years ago, I might’ve been killed by one of the University’s police officers, the same ones employed to protect me. Just three years ago, I might’ve had the police called on me if I’d fallen asleep in my common room after a long day of studying. Just four years ago, I might’ve been assigned to a residential college named after a man who didn’t believe someone like me deserved to be free — let alone walk the same halls he once did. Just over 300 years ago, the money from the sale of my body might’ve been used to finance Yale’s endowment.
Yale was never constructed with people like me in mind, but that’s not surprising.
The University was founded and developed in a society that hates people who look like me, a society that places whiteness on a pedestal, a society that has made whiteness the norm in every aspect of life — from pseudo-scientific measures of intelligence to standards of professionalism to conventions around acceptable physical appearance. In that way, my skin color, and the skin color of all Black Americans, have come to be an indictment of our character and capacity to contribute to society.
This is not novel information. Nor is how this crushing embrace of whiteness affects Black Americans. The pervasion of whiteness in America pressures Black people to conform in order to receive the respect and dignity every human being deserves. It forces Black Americans to engage in an intricate, dehumanizing, humiliating performance in order to enjoy the freedoms supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution. At Yale, that means being strategic about how you present your Blackness.
I have a “white voice” I use in seminars, discussion sections and interactions with non-Black Yale faculty. I bury my emotions when topics like slavery, affirmative action and police brutality arise. I pretend as if political and economic theories that implicitly endorse white supremacy are well-reasoned for the sake of robust class discussion. These acts are tantamount to my academic success.
The presence of whiteness at Yale, and in American society, is indicative of the problem Tocqueville warned of centuries ago: tyranny of the majority — in this case, one that sets and enforces the dominance of white culture. If I were more optimistic, I might’ve begged white people at Yale to learn about Black history, recognize the value in Black culture and accommodate the needs of Black people at Yale. But if recent history has shown us anything, it’s that many white Americans are still having a difficult time letting go of the power afforded to them because of their whiteness. So now I simply ask that Yale make space within its institutions for people with racially progressive values — especially BIPOC — as a matter of democratic principle.
Yale has made some positive strides — with endowment manager David Swensen calling for diversity from firms who want to partner with Yale, Yale’s board of trustees representing a relatively diverse range of racial experiences and Yale maintaining its commitment to diversity and inclusion through an office dedicated to those efforts (it should be noted, however, that Yale only has 91 Black faculty members). Still, simple diversity of race does not resolve the deep-seated issue of whiteness, perhaps made clear by the continued instances of racism across the University.
President Salovey has promised to examine Yale’s troubled history and commit to the pursuit of equity through the new Belonging at Yale initiative. As he begins this undertaking, I ask that he, and the rest of the University administrators, honestly and earnestly examine the ways in which Yale has perpetuated a culture of white supremacy. I also ask that, in Yale’s institutional reckoning, the University’s administrators look to Black New Haven residents and Black students for continued input on how to combat racism and discrimination.
Yale students and faculty must also take the time to reflect on their personal biases and consider how they have, both explicitly and implicitly, favored whiteness in their lives. Members of the Yale community must carefully examine who and what they regard as deserving of respect, questioning whether or not racial biases inform that perspective. Do you believe that the only meaningful contributions made in your class come from white students? Do you show more courtesy to your white professors/colleagues than to your non-white professors/colleagues? How do you view Black New Haven residents? What language do you use to describe your Black peers? And your white peers? These questions are just the start of what must be a continual process of self-evaluation.
In a country deeply divided along racial lines, Yale has an opportunity to become a shining example of respect, kindness and effective culturally pluralistic leadership — but only if students, faculty and administrators are willing to do the work. As members of the Yale community, we have already proven our ability to accomplish ambitious goals. Why not accomplish this one?
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. His staff column is titled ‘What We Owe.’ Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.