Almost a year removed from a series of events that rocked campus and drew national attention to Yale, University President Peter Salovey took his opinions about free speech, inclusion and the controversial events of last fall to The Wall Street Journal.
In an op-ed last Monday, entitled “Yale Believes In Free Speech — and So Do I,” Salovey argued that free expression and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive. Writing that university presidents across the country have faced the conflict between inclusivity and free speech, Salovey said he believes Yale is an inclusive community that also promotes free speech. Invited speakers are free to express their views, and the administration does not punish faculty or students for their opinions, no matter how unpopular they are, he wrote in the article.
“All too often we hear people suggesting that inclusion and free expression are mutually exclusive — participants in a zero-sum game. Yale is in a terrific position to refute that claim, and I feel a personal responsibility to help do so,” Salovey told the News.
But students interviewed disagree with Salovey on the University’s track record in upholding free expression while also fostering an inclusive campus.
In response to Salovey’s column, former opinion editor for the News Aaron Sibarium ’18 published a letter in The Wall Street Journal criticizing Salovey’s “misrepresentation” of the events last fall, citing fear among several students to voice their opinions on controversial matters.
“Many students were worried that there wasn’t a respectful climate of reasoned debate on campus,” Sibarium said.
Joshua Altman ’17, president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, argued that Yale failed to do so during the fallout of former Silliman Associate Head Erika Christakis’ email, in which she defended students’ right to wear culturally insensitive costumes.
“Claiming that the Yale administration succeeded in this goal last fall strays too far from the fact pattern,” Altman said. The Buckley Program was founded in 2010 by a group of Yale undergraduates in order to promote intellectual diversity on campus.
Yale never declared that even if one disagrees with the Christakises’ views, the two raised legitimate questions that warrant vigorous debate, Altman pointed out.
“While the Yale administration did not ‘punish’ [Erika Christakis] for her remarks, they also did not defend her or her right to free expression,” said Kyle Tierney ’17, vice president of the Buckley Program. “Simultaneously, Yale failed to offer an inclusive environment to the Christakises. When the Christakises were slandered and cursed [at] in the Silliman courtyard, the image of Yale as an inclusive place of free expression was shattered.”
The Christakises resigned from their positions in Silliman College this summer after facing strong backlash and outcry from students.
In his article, Salovey said Yale adheres to the principles of free speech espoused by the Woodward Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, a committee created in 1974 to promote the “fullest degree of intellectual freedom” on campus. The spirit of the report, Altman said, is not just that the administration does not censor speech but that it actively encourages debate and disagreement on issues such as race.
On Oct. 1, about 40 Yale professors gathered to celebrate the reprinting of the 1974 Woodward Report and listen to federal appellate judge José Cabranes LAW ’65 speak about the report’s relevance to the current situation of free speech at Yale.
Cabranes said the University’s “safe spaces” and the ways in which the free speech of students and faculty members is currently monitored jeopardizes the freedoms outlined and supported by the Woodward Report.
Still, students acknowledged Salovey’s commitment to free speech, as well as the administration’s efforts in that regard.
“If you want to have free speech, you need to be able to take offense,” said Alexander Sikorski ’20, who said he supports Salovey’s commitment to free speech. “By putting policies in place that prevent people from hearing offensive speech, you are limiting what may be justifiable opinions regardless of whether or not they are offensive.”
He added that he has not seen any case of violation of free speech by the administration.
Although the events from last fall still loom large, Altman said the climate of free speech at Yale seems better this year.
“As I wrote in the essay, our campus has proven, and is proving every day, that work toward the fullest possible inclusion doesn’t stifle speech but rather fosters it,” Salovey told the News. “Take our new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration: what a remarkable range of dialogue is emerging already from the scholarship, ideas and voices that are coming together there.”
The center, established in response to the campus racial protest, is an academic and research center focused on race, ethnicity and identity. Along with the center, the University has taken other initiatives, including a doubling of the budgets of Yale’s four cultural centers and providing training for members of the administration on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination.
When two black women stood up and left in the middle of the first act of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” Anna Deavere Smith’s fascinating work of documentary theater about the Rodney King race riots, I entertained the possibility that they truly had somewhere to be.
Then another pair of black women walked out. Most of the audience waited till intermission to escape: At the start of the second act, only five or six people remained in the audience who weren’t obviously associated with the play. The audience wrote their own review, it seems, and they weren’t very kind.
What went wrong?
Nine actors portrayed almost 40 characters in a series of loosely connected monologues, directed by Michaela Johnson ’17 and playing tonight at the Underbrook. Each monologue addressed race, violence, identity, family and politics, and each person is introduced by name, occupation and ethnicity. Actors were largely cast against their ethnicity and gender. A black man played a white woman, a white woman played a black woman, a black woman played a Korean man, and so on.
These casting choices are undeniably distracting. Of course, that is the point: to challenge our expectations of what bodies should play what roles. But it also feels like the wrong point. Isn’t the lesson of 1992 — and of 2015 — that race still overwhelmingly matters? That we need to let people speak for themselves, if we’re to understand their point of view?
And besides, the accents! White characters sounded like Southerners, or Brooklynites. One Latino character sounded Irish, while another veered into Eastern European mixed with Britishized Indian English. Korean accents were just as variable. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around it: The ethnic accents will be offensive to most people’s taste.
The brilliant conceit of the original production was that Anna Deavere Smith played all the parts. In the absence of an obvious plot, some of the drama must have resided in watching the virtuosity of Smith’s instantaneous character switches. And besides being a masterful actress, she had intimate knowledge of each character, having personally conducted the interviews that became the basis for the play’s monologues.
Johnson’s production does not compensate for the plotlessness. The show wanders, then drags. It lasts two and a half hours, and the bizarre second act dissipates whatever momentum the first builds.
Admittedly, the monologue-interview format is hard to pull off, since it presents the vexed task of sounding off-the-cuff without coming across as aimless. In their attempt to mime spontaneity, the actors wind up talking too fast, and still the monologues often fail to hold attention, or they hold it for the wrong reasons.
The cast is talented, and enthusiastically took up on the unenviable job of constantly switching roles. But too many characterizations were off-base or half-baked. Hershel Holiday ’18 provided a galvanizing bit of comic relief as Elaine Young, but at the price of turning a complex character into a ditz. Maxine Dillon ’17, too, is a compelling performer, but spoke each character’s lines in the same register. I was especially dismayed to watch Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a great orator, played like a narcotized Mariah Carey, breathy and incoherent.
Sensitive subjects shouldn’t be avoided in theater at Yale. Race still forms a deep and contentious rift in American life, and it’s admirable for this group of students to have confronted it. But to the extent that theater seeks to bring people together in conversation, it shouldn’t alienate people to the point of walking out. Johnson, in an email, wrote of the play that “in light of the atrocities of the past year, our team believes it is urgent.” She put on an earnest, bold, deeply flawed play — which seems far more worthwhile than shying away from the challenge altogether.
On Wednesday evening around half past nine, students began to arrive at the Native American Cultural Center. As they settled into place — shaking off the rain, dropping their bags and taking their seats around the long conference table — the group began to catch up on the usual things: the events of the week, how (not) prepared they were finals, events they were excited about.
In many ways, this was just a routine meeting of a Yale student group. But judging from the handful of students who had arrived early, it was clear this was a particularly active crowd. Those who weren’t wearing shirts from other student organizations had political stickers embellishing their laptops, or orange badges pinned to their backpacks in support of Fossil Free Yale. Despite their extensive involvement in other movements, the students present did have one thing in common: They were all DOWN.
DOWN, short for “Defining Our World Now,” is at once a publication and a movement of its own. As an online weekly written by and for students of color at Yale, it covers many topics — from police brutality to the need for an Asian American Studies department at Yale. But beyond that, it brings together activists and journalists in a forum that, prior to this year, never existed.
With her back to the table, Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Spenst ’18 wrote the unifying title on the board in big dry-erase letters: DOWN, with a downward-pointing arrow traveling through the “O.”
“That’s our new logo,” she said, satisfied.
Defining Yale Differently
DOWN has a multifaceted mission, but according to Eshe Sherley ’16, co-managing editor and one of the magazine’s creators, it addresses a need that has long existed in Yale’s communities of color.
“Students were saying, ‘We don’t have a space to talk about our issues, we don’t have a space to discuss what it’s like to be a person of color at Yale,’” Sherley told me. “It was really born from listening to that and saying, ‘Well, maybe we should create that space.’”
For that reason, Sherley said, she sees herself as a facilitator, rather than a founder, of DOWN.
Still, despite her efforts to minimize her role in the magazine’s creation, it was Sherley’s vision for a publication like DOWN that encouraged her former English professor, Briallen Hopper, to connect her with other writers on campus.
“When she mentioned she was applying for funding to start a magazine by and for students of color, I was thrilled,” Hopper said. “This forum is one that has been needed for a very long time, and it’s been marvelous to see it come to fruition.”
Hopper, who taught both Sherley and Spenst in different years, said she knew Spenst would be a good match for Sherley’s publication, and, after reading Spenst’s essays on race, knew she needed to connect the two.
All it took was one meeting for Sherley to offer Spenst the position of editor in chief.
“It just made sense,” said Sherley. “Our model is much more collaborative than the usual top-down structure. And kind of by accident, having a freshman as editor in chief makes that more true.”
When Karléh Wilson ’16 came to Yale as a freshman, she decided not to attend Cultural Connections, the pre-orientation program available for freshman students of color. Concerned that she might have to choose between her racial identities as both an African American and Creek Indian , Wilson felt uncomfortable, and unsure whether anyone would understand her mixed racial identity.
“I didn’t know who would accept the fact that I was black Creek and not just black,” Wilson said.
Upon her arrival at Yale, Wilson mostly stuck to the friendships she had formed within the varsity track team. It was only later, when she overheard two students talking about being Native American, that she discovered the community of the NACC.
For Wilson, who now writes for DOWN, the publication’s most important function is bringing together different cultural communities within Yale. She sees the necessity of a publication that extends beyond the bounds of any one cultural house.
“Whenever I speak about my experiences [within DOWN], people are giving weight to everything I say,” Wilson said. “It’s not taken as a stereotype — it’s taken as Karléh’s experiences.”
For DOWN’s other writers and editors, the magazine’s intersectionality — its willingness to address issues at the intersection of race, class and gender, rather than treating those identifiers separately — is one of its biggest strengths.
Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, who serves alongside Sherley as a managing editor of DOWN, pointed to thediversity of the magazine’s staff as proof of its commitment to connecting communities of color at Yale.
“You can’t get anywhere without that unity,” said Medina-Tayac. “If we put our voices together, we allow ourselves not to identify just as black or Latino or Native, but as DOWN. You can be white and ‘DOWN with it.’ It’s deeply tied to the recognition of how all of our issues are similar.”
A part of DOWN’s desire for unity, Medina-Tayac said, is born from a similar movement among campus activists: to amplify student voices by bridging gaps that separate marginalized groups.
Unite Yale, the organization this movement gave rise to, is, according to its Facebook page, “a coalition of student groups organizing to build student power and solidarity.” Many of DOWN’s board members, including Medina-Tayac, were involved in the formation of Unite Yale. They point to it as one sign of an increasingly intersectional and cooperative activist community on campus.
“This year, a lot of people who care about activism really came together, became friends and started inviting each other every time there’s an activist thing to go to,” said Wilson. “We all have different political ideologies, but any activist movement needs publication to tell people why they should care about it. Now we have that platform to write about why we care, and why others should, too.”
Making a Statement
DOWN intends to be a forum for articles of several genres, including opinion pieces, personal essays and reported journalism. By bringing together disparate styles and topics, the magazine will not only be a place for discussion and sharing, but will also become a source for local social justice news.
Establishing this common ground — somewhere between activism and hard journalism — has been an organic process, even though DOWN is still finding its balance.
“We’re still sort of trying to figure out what it means to occupy that space,” Sherley said. “We don’t want to be preachy. No one wants to read that, and we all actually have very different views.”
In fact, the desire for an alternative news source on campus, especially one that pays attention to race issues at Yale and in New Haven, was one of the major motivations for starting DOWN. Members of DOWN’s staff perceived a gap in the coverage of issues that matter to them.
“Unfortunately, because a lot of publications on campus are primarily white, the people who decide the publications’ content aren’t attuned to issues that affect people of color,” said Sarah Bruley ’17.
DOWN attempts to address the whiteness of Yale’s publications scene in its statement of purpose. Due to “the lack of inclusivity and respect for writers of color and the issues about which they are passionate,” Sherley and Medina-Tayac write, “many students of color [at Yale] choose not to write at all.”
Beyond the desire for a publication that covers the topics students of color care about, Medina-Tayac emphasized the role of DOWN in removing the barriers that currently discourage students of color from engaging in campus journalism.
Medina-Tayac, who wrote for the News as a sophomore, said that, as is the case with many older Yale institutions, publications like the News tend to lack diversity — racial and otherwise. Socioeconomic status, for example, often determines which extracurricular activities a student is able to pursue.
From personal experience, said Medina-Tayac, the commitment that an organization like the News demands of its members can deter students who need to carve out time for a student job.
“I don’t blame writers of color for not being able to write as much for the existing publications,” he said. “What DOWN really came out of is the need for students of color to write. And now we’re writing by our own effort.”
A New Generation of Student Writers
For DOWN, the future depends heavily on the magazine’s ability to encourage and teach its writers.
More than just ensuring that students of color have a forum where their voices can be heard, Medina-Tayac said that DOWN’s biggest job is mentorship.
“A lot of these students come from more difficult public school backgrounds, where writing might not be emphasized. So by saying we accept anything, we really do a huge service to aspiring writers on our campus,” said Medina-Tayac. “When I edit, I’m teaching. The privilege I have of coming from the [News] is that I can share that with our writers.”
DOWN’s young leaders stand to gain the most from this emphasis on mentorship. Of the dozen members of the Executive Board, half are freshmen.
“A week ago, I would have said I want to see more contributors, more articles, building our audience, that kind of stuff,” said Sherley. “But right now, I want us to become the editing resource our students of color need us to be. That’s the resource I hope DOWN becomes, and I hope it’s sustainable, so we can come back five years from now and see it’s still working.”
As for its freshmen leadership, editors like Oscar Garcia-Ruiz ’18 are optimistic about the future of the magazine, but emphasize that the magazine should stay true to its roots.
In addition to wanting the magazine to become a recognized presence, Garcia-Ruiz “[wants] to see it stay a close, tight-knit group of people.”
DOWN is also a third thing. In addition to being both a publication and an integral part of the activist movements on campus, it is a society of friends.
The project has taken a lot of work, but for Medina-Tayac it’s well worth it. “There are lots of late nights editing,” he said, smiling. “It’s been a big year.”
The first time Giahoa Nguyen ’17 and her mother visited campus, they were struck by its beauty: the dignified stone buildings, the enclosed college quadrangles, the architectural surprises hiding around every corner.
After touring Cross Campus and Old Campus, they made their way south to Crown Street, where they had heard the Asian American Cultural Center was located. Having walked a few blocks, they were surprised to find themselves surrounded not by ivy-covered stone but looming apartment buildings. The shabby facade of 295 Crown St., the home of the AACC, did not match the vibrant image painted in admission brochures targeted at minority students — a jarring experience that many students of color face when they arrive on campus.
“Is this even Yale?” Nguyen’s mother asked her.“You shouldn’t come here. It’s not safe.”
Two years later, Nguyen was one of dozens of students who crowded into LC 102 to share their experiences with Yale’s cultural centers at two town halls on Feb. 15 and 17. The town halls — led by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews, with Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley attending the first one — were forums for students to share their thoughts on a November 2014 external review of the cultural centers. But they quickly turned into a space for students to voice their concerns about the University’s approach to diversity in general.
Yale has made major strides in its racial attitudes, not only from its earliest days — its namesake, Elihu Yale, was a slaveowner, as were many of its earliest faculty — but also in recent years. The oldest of the four cultural houses, the Afro-American Cultural Center, was founded in 1969 and was followed by the Asian American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Native American Cultural Center in the subsequent decades. Yale University, once the bastion of privileged white males, is now 20 percent Asian-American, nine percent African-American, nine percent Hispanic, and two percent Native American. These statistics do not account for international students, who make up 19 percent of the University population.
“I think there’s a greater understanding now, more than ever before, that diversity in all of its forms equals excellence,” University President Peter Salovey said in an interview with the News. “You cannot have an excellent faculty or an excellent student that is not diverse.”
But Yale has been slow in realizing Salovey’s enthusiasm for diversity. The report that came out of the external review — the first of its kind for Yale’s cultural centers — detailed nearly 12 pages of criticisms. Of great concern were the myriad physical problems with the houses – ranging from unsafe locations to lack of handicap accessibility to the neglected presence of carcinogens. The report also called for greater administrative advocacy for the centers, equalized and stabilized funding for all four houses and enhanced community outreach efforts.
The report also described the confused leadership structure in the housesas “problematic at best.” Students themselves have echoed these complaints: Earlier this week, 147 students presented a 60-page petition calling for the removal of Assistant Dean of Yale College and Af-Am House Director Rodney Cohen, citing complaints of neglect, poor character and questionable financial management.
But particularly concerning were the report’s descriptions of “disjointed and episodic” diversity initiatives, which it said diminish the power of Yale’s stated goals.
“Because diversity is expressed as a major theme in the University’s current leadership agenda, it is essential that cultural centers develop […] a clearer sense of direction that articulates and grounds their work as being mission critical,” the report reads.
These are not new complaints. Last February, the Yale Diversity Summit — another group of external educators and administrators — released its Report of Discussions and Recommendations, expressing many of the same concerns. The University, it said, is “diversity conscious, diversity sensitive, but not diversity driven.”
Students within the cultural house communities echoed the sentiments put forth by outside experts.
“Yale likes to talk about diversity being a hallmark of the University’s mission and central to its thriving nature,” said Christopher Melendez ’15, a recruitment coordinator for La Casa. “It looks good on paper. It doesn’t always translate to reality.”
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
The first of Yale’s cultural centers, the Af-Am House, was founded in 1969 through the efforts of Yale’s small but rapidly growing population of African-American students.
“[It was] formed out of student protest over lack of representation,” Holloway said. “The mentality was that white students had Yale as their space, and black students wanted something different.”
The next few decades saw a rapid succession of initiatives, driven by administrators and students alike, intended to diversify Yale’s historically monochromatic campus. 1969 saw the creation of the Asian American Students Alliance, which would help found the Asian American Cultural Center in 1981. La Casa was born the same year. Students founded the Association of Native Americans at Yale in 1989, leading to the 1993 establishment of the Native American Cultural Center, although it would not receive its own building for two more decades.
But when the economy stalled in 2008, so did this steady progress.
The University’s endowment fell by 24.6 percent in the fiscal year ending June 2009. Budget cuts were implemented across the board, resulting in everything from layoffs to the postponement of major construction projects. The cultural houses were no exception.
According to Jessica Liang ’17, co-head coordinator for the AACC, the annual budget that the AACC receives from the Yale College Dean’s Office has fallen by $60,000 over the past six years. In the past year alone, the AACC’s funding has been cut by 40 percent, said former AASA co-moderator Candice Hwang ’16. La Casa’s allocation from the University has also fallen every year that she has been here, said La Casa student coordinator Evelyn Nunez ’15.
Such cuts are felt far beyond the walls of the houses themselves, as between the four of them, the centers are responsible for funding over 80 constituent undergraduate organizations.
“I don’t think the cultural centers have been singled out for budget cuts — they’re definitely happening all around campus — but at the same time, I would say we feel it pretty hard,” Liang said. “Especially when the University, while making cuts, is also trying to recruit more students who are from different ethnic backgrounds and who would identify with these cultural centers — the responsibility that comes with that makes us feel these cuts more.”
Goff-Crews told the News that the cultural houses, like any other space in the University, play an important part in forming the Yale community. But students from three of the houses pointed to the physical condition of their spaces as further evidence of administrative neglect — a point repeatedly raised at the first town hall. James Ting ’15 explained that because the AACC’s basement remains unfinished, there is no room large enough to host cultural performances. Roman Castellanos ’15 said that with a growing number of students affiliating with La Casa, there is insufficient space at the house to hold its traditional senior events, such as a dinner for students and their families. This year, the dinner will likely take place at the larger Af-Am House.
“We grew up here for four years, and now we can’t celebrate in this space with our families,” Castellanos said.
Location is also a concern. Three of the four cultural houses are located several blocks from main campus, on Crown and High Streets. Several students at the town hall complained that the remote location deters students from attending events and makes walking home at night feel unsafe. This problem will only worsen when the center of campus activity shifts northeast with the addition of two new residential colleges on Prospect Street — nearly a mile away from the cultural houses.
Students’ grievances with the physical condition of the cultural houses also extended to health and safety concerns. Wiring in La Casa’s basement poses the risk of electrical shock, Hwang said, and up until the end of spring 2014, one of the AACC’s conference rooms was contaminated with asbestos — a known carcinogen.
But while members of the cultural houses expressed discontent with the disrepair of their facilities, University spokesman Tom Conroy said the overall condition of space within the houses resembles the rest of campus. He noted that a total of $6 million has been spent on the cultural houses over the past 10 years, funding both the “comprehensive renovation” of the NACC — formerly used as graduate student housing — and various renovations at the other houses.
He added that the University’s next investment, in the AACC and La Casa, should be implemented by the end of this academic year.
Liang said she had not heard of any of the plans Conroy mentioned but is excited if they are indeed in place.
“I hope it means more than just fixing the heating system,” she said.
But the condition of the houses has a symbolic significance as well. The external reviewers emphasized the importance of physical infrastructure to the promotion of diversity on campus.
“The physical presence of the cultural centers will offer visible evidence of the quality of the institution’s commitment,” the report concluded.
OVEREXTENDED AND UNDERSERVED
But beyond improved facilities, the cultural houses also need improved leadership, the report said.
“Because of the range of responsibilities, extensive time demands and community expectations of the position, the current director/dean role is unsustainable,” it said. “The simple analysis is that there should either be additional staff assigned to the centers or the position should be redesigned with more streamlined responsibilities focused on the needs of the centers’ respective communities.”
Concerns about the difficulty of reaching Cohen, the current Af-Am House director, featured prominently in the petition calling for his removal. Cohen, who is also an Assistant Dean of Yale College, is responsible for overseeing the Science, Technology and Research Scholars program and also holds a position as a university fundraiser, said Eshe Sherley ’16, who is affiliated with the Af-Am House and was one of 147 students who signed the petition.
Although Assistant Dean of Yale College and former Af-Am House Director Pamela George suggested that conflicting responsibilities should not be a problem if a director has “a clear commitment and respect for the communities in which [they] are fortunate enough to serve,” students at the other cultural centers — who emphasized their productive and affectionate relationships with their directors — agreed that the leadership is overstretched.
Nunez said that while Amanda Lynn Hernandez MED ’16, La Casa’s interim director, tries her best to meet with students whenever they request meetings, she also must balance her duties as a student here at Yale.
Christopher Cutter, the NACC’s interim director, also holds an appointment at the School of Medicine.
And according to NACC staff member Leanne Motylenski ’16, “the under-resourcing and enormous amount of responsibility given to the directors has been a factor in some previous directors’ recent decisions to leave Yale.”
Of the four current cultural center directors, all except AACC Director Saveena Dhall did not return multiple requests for comment.
The directors are not the only ones who are overextended. The houses themselves simply cannot support the influx of students of color that the Admissions Office is working so hard to attract. Dhall noted that the University’s current Asian-American population is nearly 4,000 students, a number which will only grow after the two new residential colleges are completed, increasing the undergraduate population by 12 percent. The AACC’s largest room holds only 40 people.
In recruiting incoming students, Yale markets its cultural centers as a major advantage over its peer institutions, said Crystal Kong ’18, co-community development chair for AASA. Kong said she was disillusioned when she first became active in the cultural community she had heard so much about, only to find out that it was struggling to maintain its finances.
Yale makes a lot of promises about diversity, Liang said. But after students decide to matriculate, the University stops trying to make good on those promises.
For Melendez, who has worked as a recruitment coordinator for the Admissions Office since sophomore year, the problem of false advertising is particularly difficult. Working in admissions, he has watched Yale market its cultural center communities to great effect: the Class of 2018 includes the largest Latino population in Yale’s history. But Melendez worries that the environment awaiting students on campus will fall short of what was promised in admissions brochures or at Bulldog Days.
“The administration likes to make a point of this being something that’s not only relevant but integral, but it hasn’t taken the steps to convey that importance to the entire community,” Melendez said.
What frustrates Sherley most about the administration’s lip service to diversity is that these outreach efforts use Yale’s current students of color as a mouthpiece.
While there is nothing wrong with depicting Yale as a “vibrant, happy place,” Sherley said, the University should provide the actual resources to turn its glossy brochures into a reality for the students who are doing the hard work of recruitment.
“[Yale] students of color are put in this position where they make promises and say, ‘Oh, there’s a great community here,’” she said. “And there is. But we also feel uncomfortable talking about all the structural challenges we face because we don’t want to scare away other [prospective] students of color.”
“RESEARCH OR ME-SEARCH?”
Those in the know will tell you that if you want to get a Ph.D in Native American Art, you go to the University of New Mexico. But Anya Montiel GRD ’18 — despite being in the know herself — decided on Yale for its superior libraries and closer proximity to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
After doing her undergraduate work at University of California Davis — with its rare, autonomous Native American Studies department — Montiel was particularly disheartened to see the dearth of course offerings at Yale.
“I had choices, I took all the classes available,” she said of her experience at UC Davis. “But for the young undergraduates [at Yale] who want to pursue Native American art, I don’t know what to tell them.”
Across the University, student concerns about Yale’s commitment to underrepresented groups extend beyond the cultural centers and into the classroom.
With professor Ned Blackhawk as the only faculty member focused exclusively on Native American Studies, students interested in the discipline find themselves at with few courses to choose from. This semester, Blackhawk is teaching just two classes, only one of which is geared towards undergraduates. It’s a substantial course load for a professor — especially on top of independent scholarship — but it still leaves student interest unmet. Students who want to pursue senior theses or other independent work in Native American Studies can, but the process is difficult; with so few course offerings, it comes down to a lot of self-educating, Blackhawk said. Worse still, when Blackhawk goes on leave, there are often no courses available.
“The growth of cultural centers demonstrates Yale students’ tremendous capacity to query issues of inequality,” Blackhawk said. “But now that we have the centers, we should have the scholarship.”
Meanwhile, student demand for these courses is only growing. Several graduate students in Native American Studies mentioned oversubscribed courses from which tens of interested students had to be rejected. And the problem is hardly limited to their discipline.
American Studies professor Mary Lui is the one faculty member focused exclusively on Asian American Studies — a statistic Courtney Sato GRD ’19, an AACC Graduate Assistant whose work is in the field, described as “appalling.” Lui, who focuses on Asian American history, said she wishes Yale could offer courses in Asian American visual and musical arts, literature and sociology. She and interested students have been trying to carve out a larger, permanent place for Asian American Studies at Yale since her arrival in 2000.
Students interested in the discipline described the dearth of faculty — and subsequent dearth of course offerings — as the single greatest barrier to expanding ethnic fields of inquiry.
Recently named Deputy Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Richard Bribiescas said ethnic studies are a priority for Yale, and will certainly be included in upcoming conversations about faculty hiring.
But Lui and Blackhawk both said they are not aware of any targeted University efforts to hire another faculty member in their fields. Sometimes, hiring searches in other departments turn up candidates who specialize in one or more niche of ethnic studies. But so far none of these hires have come to fruition, and without a targeted search for an ethnic studies professor, there are no guarantees.
“There is a lot of improvement in terms of what Yale could do to support [this field of study],” Sato said.
Beyond just limited resources, the discipline has to contend with issues of perception. Lui said many people unfairly conflate the academic discipline of Asian American Studies with the cultural concerns of Asian-American communities. While intrinsically related, she said, the spheres are distinct and need to be treated as such so that the discipline can be taken seriously. LiLi Johnson GRD ’19, an AACC Graduate Assistant and student in the field, said another challenge to Asian American studies is distinguishing it from fields like East Asian Studies. Distinctions like these are crucial if it is to be recognized as an independent, flourishing field of study, she said. But Yale isn’t quite there yet.
“I’ve heard stories about Asian-American students, when they’re trying to work with faculty, proposing something Asian-American-related and getting asked whether this is ‘research or me-search’,” said Austin Long ’15, the student director of the Asian American Studies Task Force.
The first step in changing this perception may be demonstrating the groundswell of student interest in Asian American studies. One of the advocacy group’s most important goals, Johnson said, is to do just this. And bringing visiting scholars who specialize in areas of Asian American studies beyond Lui’s area of expertise will further expose the campus to the vast swath of work being done in the field.
Next week, Lui and other advocates will bring these areas of study to Yale for a day, hosting an Asian American Studies conference. So far almost 200 participants have registered to hear scholars from institutions like Wesleyan, Harvard and Syracuse discuss their work on issues including literature, film, migrant rights and minority empowerment. Lui said she made a point of featuring work outside her own expertise in order to expose students to scholarship they rarely see on campus.
“The hope is to convince programs, departments, administrators of the importance of having the scholarship here on campus on a permanent basis,” Lui said.
Sato said the conference is a tangible result of the student advocacy on these issues, which Johnson said is almost entirely driven by undergraduates.The conference’s turnout will demonstrate that there is unmet student interest in these areas of study, beginning a dialogue surrounding expansion of ethnic studies that Johnson said should never be considered over.
Kong, another student activist, said she believes the administration will take action if the Task Force can demonstrate that such action is necessary.
But ultimately, student and faculty efforts can only go so far.
“It’s going to be up to administrators, whether or not [a standalone department] is something they can carve out space for— it’s a question of staffing and faculty, and maybe that’s just not feasible,” Lui said. “But I certainly don’t see why we couldn’t have more Asian American Studies faculty represented across the disciplines.”
In the spring of 1970, Yale became the first Ivy League school to offer a course in Asian American Studies. Although Don Nakanishi ’71, along with several other members of Yale’s fledgling Asian American Students Association, convinced political science professor Chitoshi Yanaga — the first Japanese American to receive tenure at Yale — to run the class, the students largely taught it themselves.
But 45 New Haven springs later, there is still only one Asian American Studies course offered this semester.
When it comes to ethnic studies at Yale, not all disciplines were created equal. While some fields of study, such as African American Studies, have their own departments and offer independent majors, others exist as pockets of inquiry or tracks within larger programs.
History has shaped some of these differences. In 1969, African-Americans were conspicuously absent from history books and English syllabi, often only appearing in social science literature where they were represented as a “problem,” African American Studies Department Chair Matthew Jacobson said. In this hostile environment, AfAm Studies grew “out of quite a tidal wave of students’ civic protest,” Holloway said. Over four decades later, Yale’s department has grown to be one of the foremost such programs in the world.
By contrast, Blackhawk said Native American studies essentially did not exist at Yale before his arrival in fall 2009, as he was Yale’s first tenured professor in the discipline. Most Latino studies courses are housed in the Ethnicity, Race & Migration program, which was first offered as a major in 1997 but not as an independent one until 2012. And while Lui was not the first Asian American Studies professor Yale hired, she was the first to be given tenure.
But Jacobson added that historical trends are no excuse for Yale’s failure to maintain these areas of study.
“Part [of the problem] is University priorities, say what they will about Yale’s commitment,” Jacobson said. “We have not kept up.”
No one disputes the quality of scholarship put forth by Yale’s faculty in the study of underrepresented groups. But despite its overall strength, Jacobson said Yale is “nowhere near” achieving consistency between different areas of ethnic studies.
Lui said the programs within which Asian American studies exists — American Studies and ER&M — are comfortable places, and Sato said that at least for now, an autonomous Asian American Studies Department might not improve the discipline’s situation.
While Long agreed that it is not yet time to consider an independent department, he said he believes the ER&M program lacks Asian American representation in its curriculum. This sends a strong message that Asian American issues of ethnicity, race and migration are not as valid as those of other groups, he said.
“That’s the wrong message for Yale to be sending,” he said.
These curricular concerns are hardly unique to Asian American Studies.
Montiel expressed a similar concern about the American Studies Department, noting that undergraduates in the major do not have to take any Native American Studies courses. The major does require that at least two of undergraduates’ required fourteen courses are taken in “cultural history/cultural studies,” but these requirements are non-specific, and with minimal choice in offerings, students are unlikely to select Asian American or Native American Studies. This semester, Blackhawk’s only undergraduate offering is a capped seminar, and Lui is not teaching undergraduates. The AfAm Studies Department, by contrast, is offering more than 20 courses in topics ranging from dance and pop culture to antebellum America.
“You can become an Americanist without knowing anything about the native population,” Montiel said. “I don’t understand how that works.”
Melendez said the inequalities between disciplines are hard to deny and especially troubling given that many of those disciplines are housed within Yale’s American Studies program, one of the best in the country.
The uneven allocation of academic resources is yet another way Yale pays lip service to issues of diversity without translating its stated goals to reality, he said.
Still, regardless of the discrepancies in size and scope, scholars in each department emphasized that they are not competing. Instead of bickering over their individual slices of the pie, they said, they’d rather increase its size across the board.
“I don’t think it does anyone any good to be comparing or trying to reallocate a [budget] that’s already too small,” Johnson said. “The whole point is that they should all be growing.”
Although such programs seem to have escaped administrators’ attention, some acknowledge the issues facing ethnic studies. Holloway conceded that Yale is far behind where it should be on courses related to Asian American Studies.
For the first time this year, the Yale Group for the Study of Native America was allocated a small budget — enough to pay for its two lunches each month, Blackhawk said. They are also able to find financial support from areas of the University with deeper pockets, and when the group requests funding, administrators are receptive. But the YGSNA wouldn’t have to make these requests if it had a real programming budget, he said.
Salovey is very supportive of native students at Yale, Tyler Rogers GRD ’18, who works on Native American studies, said, though he hopes Salovey will show that support at an academic level as well. Next week, the Saloveys will host the reception for the Asian American Studies Conference in the President’s House. Several other administrators have also expressed enthusiasm for the event, Lui added.
Still, some students feel that the University is not putting its money where its mouth is on the issue of ethnic studies.
“The money is there — Yale has this massive endowment,” Rogers said. “It’s more so the willpower — that the higher administration doesn’t seem to be behind it.”
Until Provost Benjamin Polak responds to Holloway and Goff-Crews’s recommendations regarding the cultural houses, the future of the centers remains uncertain. Alongside renewed support for the cultural houses, perhaps the University will also turn its attention to ethnic studies. But the growth of underrepresented groups at Yale has historically come through student protest and advocacy. This trend is unlikely to change any time soon.
Blackhawk said he is confident in the abilities of devoted undergraduates to make lasting and meaningful change. And student leaders — even those who are graduating — don’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was taught a lot about the history of these centers and the struggle that students had to go through to secure these spaces,” Melendez said. “That’s why I’m dedicating so much time to this process as a second semester senior — not even for the students who are here currently, but to make sure that the future of these cultural centers are brighter than they are today.”
Dignified, mournful, resolved silence. Yale community members, from freshmen to faculty, stood up from their seats in seminars, lectures and meals across campus at 12:01 p.m. on Monday. They walked out in tens, and then hundreds, onto Cross Campus. The attendees, who gathered before Sterling Memorial Library, were from many demographic groups.
There was no yelling, there were no screams.A powerful resonance rang in the air, punctuated only by exclamations of hope.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom … we have nothing to lose but our chains,” said Alexandra Barlow ’17 to a crowd of roughly 300.
Barlowe quoted Assata Shakur, a freedom fighter in the 60s and 70s. After the rally on Cross Campus, students marched to City Hall to demand justice.
The Black Student Alliance at Yale with support from members of the Afro-American Cultural House organized the event — Hands Up Walk Out — in response to a recent grand jury decision that shook the black community at Yale and across the world.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old teenager, was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was black. Wilson was white.
On Aug. 20, 12 grand jurors assembled to adjudicate whether to indict Wilson for a crime. In the American judicial system, a grand jury has the power to indict defenders by evaluating the “probable cause” behind a crime. To indict Wilson, nine of the 12 jurors would have had to agree that enough evidence existed to bring him to trial. They did not.
On Nov. 24, it was announced that the grand jury elected not to indict Wilson on any charges.
THE FURY THAT FOLLOWED
“It was one of those situations where you will always remember where you were when you heard the news,” said Dara Huggins ’17, a black psychology major concentrating on law and social justice.
Huggins said that she had been following the case since day one, like many in the black community. That night, she was at the movies watching “The Hunger Games.”
“I knew it would be coming out at 9 p.m., so as soon as I came out of the film, I was constantly refreshing the feed,” she said.
When she saw the verdict, Huggins stopped in her tracks, in the middle of the street. Her heart dropped.
Travis Reginal ’16 was having dinner with his girlfriend’s family when the announcement came on the television. The complex case became one of the first discussions he had with her family.
Following the Ferguson decision, many Yale students came together in their concern for the grand jury’s verdict. A majority of students interviewed said that they were upset but not surprised.
David Rico ’16, who goes by Campfire David and who is of Native American descent, noted that he has experienced many negative interactions with the police, possibly due to his ethnicity.
“I do not know the African-American experience, or what it is like to be an African-American in this country, I just know how it feels to be discriminated against from the police,” he said.
Rico gave the example of the disrespect he was shown when policemen approached him while he stood outside, phoning his parents. The police did not believe he was a Yale student.
Yale student groups have taken to social media to raise awareness about the issue. On Wednesday, the Yale College Black Men’s Union released “To My Unborn Son,” showcasing black-and-white photos of members holding whiteboard signs with messages to their future sons.
“To my unborn son, the world is not yet ready for you, so I will hold you close and make it ready to love you,” reads one. Another simply says, “To my unborn son, I love you.”
The Afro-American Cultural Center has also played a crucial role in shaping the campus response, providing an open space for grieving and reflection.
“All it takes when something like this happens is an email to someone as opposed to reaching out and having to start a relationship. You have hung out with them, had study breaks and also had conversations about police brutality before it happens,” said Micah Jones ’16, president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.
“I am impressed with Yale’s response … It sends a good positive message about unity,” said President of the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP Dori Dumas.
Dumas said that she was impressed with Yalies’ eagerness to work with the New Haven community to protest and emphasized that she did not think that Yale voices would drown out the experience of black New Haven residents.
“[I like] the idea that people are really wanting to engage these really complicated issues and are trying to do it in a public forum — that’s what a university should be about,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway.
Still, Yale students are not of one mind. Some aren’t sure that the grand jury’s decision was unreasonable, or that the shooting was necessarily a matter of race.
Adelaide Goodyear ’17, a white student, agreed that racism plagues relations between the police and the black community, but said that the decision “is not about getting away with murder — it’s that it’s hard to find evidence in cases like this.”
Goodyear explained that the grand jury’s verdict was not an assessment of guilt, but an evaluation of the available evidence. She added that although Michael Brown’s death was a clear case of police misconduct, murder charges require large amounts of evidence to go to trial.
Christopher Taylor ’18, who is also white, agreed with Goodyear, saying, “This is definitely a problem with legal procedure.” He noted that police brutality against blacks is a large problem but that police officers are rarely indicted by grand juries.
Other students went further, noting that Brown’s death may not have been motivated by race.
“I think that people overreach and think that it’s an act of ‘the system yet again’ … A lot of people, especially at Yale, don’t even consider that there might not have been probable cause,” said a right-leaning independent student who wished to remain anonymous. “They think they know more than they do.”
Beckett Lee ’18, who is white and identifies as conservative, called for students to remember Wilson’s humanity. He added that police officers are killed on duty more than people realize and that Wilson could have been in survival mode.
“It is almost impossible for a human being to weigh all of the potential ramifications of what they are going to do,” he said of the shooting.
Still, students holding views sympathetic to Wilson appear to be in the minority.
Goodyear suggested that policemen wear cameras to provide evidence in ambiguous cases. Goodyear’s suggestion echoes that of Brown’s family.
However, the Eric Garner decision — in which a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who, in a videotaped encounter, killed a black man in a chokehold — on Wednesday prompted many students to question why no action was taken, even with what they described as clear evidence.
Yale students will continue to question the Brown and Garner decisions. Three separate events are scheduled for today — a die-in at the law school, an artistic demonstration on Beinecke Plaza and a #ThisEndsToday event on the New Haven Green.
“My brother is turning 20 next month, which means that he is solidifying his presence in a demographic of young black men between the ages of 19-25 in the United States who are disproportionately targeted by police brutality,” Karleh Wilson ’16 explained. “I worry about [my brother’s] safety under the hands of the law. My brother should feel safe among the presence of policemen, but he does not, and this is the same for all men of color his age in America.”
I was surprised when the public service announcement warned: “This play may offend white people.” It was an odd start to a play that aimed at breaking down racial barriers.
“The Dance and the Railroad & Bondage,” a back-to-back showing of two plays by David Henry Hwang, is the first Yale performance to focus on Asian-American identity, explains Assistant Director Elaine Zhang ’17. True to its goals, the plays definitely force audience members to explore how painful and complex race and gender can be.
The production is undoubtedly provocative, and in that way could be offensive to many people, regardless of race. But crossing the line of what is socially acceptable is necessary. The plays lack adventure and plot. The conversation is sometimes dry; the characters basically discover themselves, on stage, through conversation. But the play is redeemed because it is a risqué, straightforward and honest discourse on identity.
The backdrop is a simple white sheet painted with the outline of mountains and sun. In a matter of seconds the serenity is broken by Ma, a young, naïve boy who comes up the mountain during a strike to learn opera from Lone, a recluse. In a subtle twist, Ma is played by a girl, Stefani Kuo ’17. The gender switch is an excellent move; Kuo’s high-pitched voice and youthful enthusiasm captured Ma’s boyish naïveté. Gender becomes neutral, following the production’s aims.
At first, the dynamic between Lone and Ma is a bit awkward; as the tension between the jaded and the ambitious collide, the actors almost do not know how to deal with their historic roles. I did not feel a tangible relationship between the two — it seemed like two individuals in stilted interaction. Perhaps it is the nature of the script, which focuses on individual identity at the expense of realistic dialogue. Either way, with time, they warm up and begin to seem less scripted.
“Eight-hour day good for white man, also good for China man,” Kuo delivers in broken English. The meek delivery of the line poignantly captures the defeat, the exploitation, the cultural barriers and the racism that pervade the play. While the text was a bit dry, the actors brought the characters to life, making the production surprisingly captivating.
As the scene fades out, the painted sheet abruptly drops and club music comes on. All that remains is a glow-in-the-dark sign that reads BITCH. The change of pace is a false promise, because the next hour is another round of conversation between two people. With the new set comes a new play, “Bondage,” and a completely new perspective on the racial tensions in America. The play transitions 100 years from the historical, external obstacles immigrants faced to the internal identity issues of modern-day Asian-Americans.
While in many plays the setting is three-dimensional but the Asian stereotypes lamentably two-dimensional, these plays feature minimalist, two-dimensional sets to call attention to the many dimensions of the characters and their complex dialogue.
“Bondage” is not action-packed. It is not unpredictable. The setting is provocative, but not sensual. The real strength of the one-hour play is the way it explores territory where most people will not go. Its setting is an S&M parlor. Both characters, who are regular sexual partners, hide behind black ski masks and completely black clothes.
Its characters are playing with chains, whips and collars the entire time. It’s quite novel.
The premise of the play is that racial dynamics, like sexual dynamics, can have catastrophic consequences on people’s identities. At times the sexual atmosphere seemed to be unintentionally awkward. For a few moments it was powerful and jarring, but after an hour it had lost the shock factor that brought people in, and the dialogue dragged.
Director Crystal Liu explained that the two plays were meant to blur gender lines. In the gender flip of “The Dance and the Railroad,” the production was successful. I didn’t even realize Ma was supposed to be a certain gender until well into the play. In “Bondage”, however, the playing with sexual dynamics and gender seemed a bit coarser. Both the female and male parts were played by women, but this seemed to ignore the male-female dynamic that was meant as a metaphor for the dynamics between races in America.
While the deeply ingrained prejudices addressed can make the issue seem hopeless, Hwang leaves the audience with this thought: “The rules that govern the behavior of the old era are crumbling but the ones from the new have yet to be written.” The play is raw. It is unfiltered. Which is important, since the play is about digging below pretenses. It exposes “political correctness” as a masquerade of true racial acceptance, which means that nobody is safe from scrutiny, not even the “liberal.” This play is worth seeing not because it is funny or particularly well-written, but simply because it offers a fresh perspective on race and identity.
It wasn’t until Sep. 11, 2001 that I realized my hometown was only 12 miles from New York City. They were 12 very long miles though, clogged with traffic and striated with densely packed layers of the American cake. Crowded ethnic neighborhoods squatted near buttoned-up suburbs, which butted against gated mansions. Every day, my parents commuted to Manhattan from our home in Tenafly, New Jersey. It sometimes took them ninety minutes to crawl their way across the George Washington Bridge.
But we were still only 12 miles away, so in the weeks after 9/11 we could see smoke rising into our suburban sky. While my mother drove me between piano lessons, the library and Stop & Shop, I’d see plumes gliding like wraiths above us — cresting between treetops, appearing around corners, waiting for us at the tops of hills. Once, my mother pulled over near the golf course on Knickerbocker Road and we just sat there, gaping at the gray wisps that we might have otherwise mistaken for cirrus clouds. My mom already got a prime view of Ground Zero on her daily commute, but it must have been even more stomach-turning to see the smoke from our quiet town, where housewives tended their petunias with fierce precision and the rowdiest residents were Canada geese.
Two of my classmates even swore they could smell the charred rubble. I had never been a good smeller, so I just nodded along. I did a lot of nodding during those weeks.
I nodded when adults talked about “our big family,” and “lifting our neighbors.” As a nine-year-old with reserved Indian parents, I didn’t have firsthand experience of that hyper-American, vaguely Judeo-Christian lexicon of “community.” At first it felt strange to see grown-ups replacing tight handshakes with white-knuckled hugs, treating one another with what I assumed was a very sucralose brand of sweetness. It felt strange watching our disinterested school principal give a speech that actually brimmed with feeling. I don’t quite remember what he said, but he definitely tried to stitch together a flaccid metaphor about our school being like a beehive or an ant colony.
Soon, though, even my principal’s clichés began to make sense. I had never before felt part of a community outside of my family. Now, it was strange how little events accreted to produce a pull of pleasure in my gut: a “hello” from my cooler, blonder neighbor; a snug goodbye hug from my friend’s mother; a watery smile from a typically gruff teacher. It was like my town and school had extended long woven webs, and I suddenly found myself at home in their tangles.
These local webs all fed into the big star-spangled one. Until 9/11, I hadn’t thought much about what it meant to call myself “American.” Now, in Ms. B’s fourth grade class, we were coloring pictures of the flag and discussing national security policy — neither of which, I suppose, was a particularly age-appropriate activity. In our discussions, we learned to use phrases like “liberty versus security,” which we had learned before but had never corresponded to such tangible, kill-those-men-now stakes. For the first time, I found myself thinking about America enough to realize I might love it.
We also learned a few patches of world geography. Ms. B showed us Saudi Arabia on the map, explaining that 1. We got a lot of our oil from there, and 2. That was where Osama bin Laden was from. We talked about Afghanistan as well, but our focus lingered longer on Saudi Arabia, the country we saw as Bin Laden’s true progenitor. We didn’t learn other world geography that year, so I suppose that lesson had served the purpose of demonstrating the vast, reassuring distance between us and the people who lived “over there.”
But far more potent than knowledge of the 6,528-mile distance between Manhattan and Riyadh was the image of Bin Laden’s haggard face, which now stared at us from every television and newspaper. My classmates relished the opportunity to describe how scary he looked, with his grizzled beard, his wild eyes and dark skin. He was a perfect Disney villain. It was easy to imagine his long brown fingers folded together as he hatched diabolical plans.
I didn’t talk about Bin Laden’s face. My skin was his color. My father’s beard was dark and thick. Still, I also didn’t challenge the thought that Bin Laden’s features were naturally threatening, that something about their combination had formed evil incarnate. Later, it would scare me to think how little I questioned the nature of that feeling, the fear of my own skin that had come to rest in even my own bones.
So when my teacher led us in a discussion about racial profiling, I raised my hand with everyone else to agree that sure, yeah, of course it made sense. A popular classmate had shared a story about how her father had recently taken a flight alongside a bearded, turbaned man. My classmate’s dad had ducked into the bathroom and broken federal law by using his cell phone, calling his wife and daughters to say that there was a terrorist on his plane and that he might not make it home. I said that my father had a short beard and no turban. Indians with turbans were generally Sikhs, I said. They were people from an entirely different region than my parents who practiced an entirely different religion than we did.
And when my friend and I were swinging in the playground after school and she sang out “no offense, but your dad kind of looks like Osama bin Laden,” I didn’t know how to tell her I was hurt. Instead, I told her my family was Hindu, not Muslim. That wasn’t true. My father had been a card-carrying atheist for a long time, but “Hindu” now seemed a more credible alibi.
When the only other brown kid in the fourth grade got called “terrorist,” I sat silent. He was a recent immigrant with a strong Indian accent. I didn’t defend him from the name-calling because I was confident, and mostly correct, that my pigtails and lack of an accent would keep me safe from the word. I even savored a bit of schadenfreude when it happened, remembering the time he had chased me around the playground while spitting a Hindi slur that I didn’t understand.
I was called “terrorist” a few times, too, but the group of my detractors (a few third-grade boys with stringy hair) was much smaller than the group that taunted the other boy. I was more than a match for my bullies, shooting back with retorts like “I was born here, ass-wipe,” or “I speak better English than you, turd.” My voice seethed with the coarse, deliberate insults of the American-English vernacular. Try and deny me my nationality now, you cornholes.
In the years to come, as the U.S. dropped bombs and the brown bodies piled higher, I kept pointing, like Ms. B had, to the world map. I traced the distance between India, Iraq and Afghanistan with an insistent, angry finger, railing against American ignorance in my school, in the news, on the playground. Didn’t they know the different shades of brown? Why couldn’t they tell that mine was the harmless kind? In later years I lamented the poor geography lessons that made Miss Teen South Carolina refer to “the Iraq and the Asian countries.” What I was also saying was, “Go ahead. Just leave me out of it.”
Sep. 11 jumpstarted a years-long process of re-forging my identity, of scrubbing myself a little whiter, and redder and bluer. I played down my inconvenient attributes and played up my convenient ones. I responded to every racial taunt like a bargain-ready shopkeeper. “Go ahead, you can take this skin, take this heritage, take this bearded father — I don’t need them, anyway.” Just give me my home back, even if you have to cut it with a hyphen.
In the weeks after 9/11, people planted flags like flowers — big ones on lawns, small ones in windows, mini ones on jacket lapels. I came home from school one day demanding to know where our flag was. How on earth, I snapped, had Ba and Bapu lived here for fifteen years without buying at least one?
My father, in what might be called a very “American” move, did not drag me over his knee and spank the respect into me. Instead, he promised he’d buy us a flag on his next trip to Stop & Shop. When he came home a few days later, he told me the flags were sold out. Instead, he’d bought an eight-inch vinyl decal.
I complained that it wasn’t enough but I took it from his hand anyway, carefully peeling the sticker from its plastic skin. I claimed for it the most prominent territory in our white colonial house: the exact center of our front window. When passersby looked into our living room, they might see our brown faces, but they’d see the red-white-and-blue decal first. It would be a compass, one that never pointed east.
I wonder what they’d make of “Dutchman” in Brooklyn.
Playing this weekend at the Yale Cabaret, Amiri Baraka’s play makes mincemeat of the ironies we coyly use to talk about race. And fierce direction by Katherine McGerr DRA ’14 touches a modern nerve. It’s hard to imagine the 1964 script wasn’t intended to shatter the false securities of our ambivalently post-racial era, when it’s cool to subvert the last few decades’ political correctness so gingerly through our hipster ironies. But “Dutchman” is also far from PC—it rails precisely against mealy-mouthed racial niceties of any kind.
On a sparely set metro that the play never leaves, a black man sits reading a book. Smartly dressed, with khakis, a white dress shirt and tie, he looks up at a white Lolita in a skimpy summer dress and bug-eyed sunglasses strutting into view. She cuts a flirty figure, clearly, and in due time she’ll cast herself as the fast-talking-stripper-smartass to his baby fat and twinkle. Double bookkeeping the evening, always narrating her near future, the woman leads the man to wonder: Is she a television actress? “I told you no,” she says, “but I also told you I always lie.” Primadonna seductress, Lula—“say it twice,” she orders, “Lula Lula”— will play the race card like kabuki, manically mixing the stranger’s chocolate to her vanilla, but with enough sprinklings of racial epithet to eventually make him crack.
She rubs against him, setting her supersize imagination loose: “You ain’t no nigger…You just a dirty white man.” And that’s when he erupts. In that way, this otherwise compelling play hews close to a stale theatrical formula about racial tension: it simmers until it explodes. It really does.
And that, too, is extraordinary in this play where all is role-play until—snap—it isn’t.
Lula had wondered if is his name is Lloyd, Norman or Leroy—“one of those hopeless Black names coming out of New Jersey.” But it’s Clay, he says, and he playfully let her guess if his last name if Jackson, Johnson or Williams. (It’s Williams.) During the first half of the play, Clay cooperates with the irreverent racial scrimmage. Lula whispers enough sweet words to deceive him that she sees past the color line. Like a puppy, he answers to her barks of “boy.” Later on she’ll call him an Uncle Tom and, ever the actress, hobble around the stage like one.
Keywords of racism clutter the script, but the actors don’t let them pile up into a laundry list. Cornelius Davidson DRA ’15, as Clay, and Carly Zien DRA ’14, as Lula, act with the surgical precision of cruise missile strikes. Not a single cheap emotion crosses their faces. As composed as rocks struck by lightning, Zien and Davidson—especially Davidson—convey the gravity of the situation. Their deep focus belies the fact that “Dutchman” can come across as a morality play.
Sparks fly -— there’s too much romantic chemistry for the two to just plain hate. Davidson plays the part too adorably, too earnestly, to ever be mistaken for the stereotypic Angry Black Man. And Zien’s too complicated, troubled maybe, to just be a Frigid White Bitch.
At times it feels like “Dutchman” served as an echo chamber for Amiri Baraka’s righteous anger, and the script divides the play into two parts: her rant and his. She taunts him for the first half; he strikes back in the second. It’s a call and response effect. And at the rare moment when wit rears its head, it’s ugly. Lula asks Clay if the other white passengers on the train scare him, “because you’re an escaped nigger, you crawled through the wire.”
“You must be Jewish,” he responds. “All you talk about is wire.”
That’s a queasy line to take from Baraka, the poet-playwright who would achieve near-universal infamy with his 9/11 conspiracy theories in the poem “Somebody Blew Up America”: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed. /
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the twin towers/
To stay at home that day.”
In a way, “Dutchman” was the watershed in Amiri Baraka’s career that pushed him to write like that. Ultimately, the play’s an argument against the pretense of politesse in a climate of anger. “If Betsy Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have made her music,” Clay says. Charlie Parker “would have played not a note of music if he killed some white people.” Here, Baraka argued that Black art muffled Black politics. Art compromised politics.
And yet, the Yale Cabaret didn’t let politics compromise their art.
Did you know that Ron Paul went to Colgate University this week and admitted to an Eritrean student that he was racist? That was one of the many things that crossed my mind when I watched director Kesewaa Boateng’s ’15 interpretation of Rebecca Gilman’s 1999 “Spinning Into Butter.” The performance is effectively thought-provoking as it is meant to be, proof being the several relevant issues that crossed my mind as I watched the play: the egregious (from my perspective) column in the News last year calling into question the ER&M major, the millions of Tumblrs screaming “check your privilege” into the abyss of the internet, the Boston bombings and the reaction to the bombings.
But “Spinning Into Butter” revolves around a specific racial issue tackled by the Dean of Student Affairs, Sarah Daniels, portrayed by Mitra Yazdi ’15, at a small predominantly white liberal arts college called Belmont College — think a less diverse Dartmouth, but in Vermont. It follows her dealing with the fallout from a hate crime committed against an African-American student on campus, as well as her fellow administrators and teachers, all of whom range from woefully ignorant to unbearably pretentious. There’s race, there’s angst, there’s ignorance — by nature of the play, it’s a very juicy plot.
Despite the room the script gives the actors to bring these critical issues to life, the performance itself is a little stiff. Yale plays are often criticized for their over-theatricality, but “Spinning into Butter” was nonetheless overacted for my taste. The movements seemed almost too calculated, particularly in the second act, and the lighting was so dramatic to the point where it almost felt like they were shoving the symbolism and weight of the topic down your throat — a militant, less effective approach than a delicate touch for a sensitive topic. Although warranted, every line was screamed for the latter part of the second act, but I felt like they were screaming at me — and not each other.
These minor issues, however, were but few pitfalls in what is an incredibly strong story about a topic Yale needs to start an honest and open dialogue on. This story was, ultimately, aided by strong performances from two particular actors. Yazdi gave a notable performance, especially because she’s tasked with carrying virtually the entire play on her back. She delivered her lines with a reasoned tone that sounded less and less like she was reading a script (admittedly, it took her a while to settle into that rhythm). Her makeup and costuming added to the new wave “colorblindness” that her character embodies. I was particularly impressed with Yazdi’s delivery of the racist monologue which reveals all her character’s intentions (I won’t ruin it for you). She delivered it with just the right amount of poignancy and pain that I was waiting for someone, somewhere — maybe even me — to shout out “first world problems!” In fact, her performance was second only to the hilarious Leyla Levi ’16 who portrayed administrator Dean Catherine Kenney. With Levi, everything was perfectly timed, delivered with the right amount of socially awkward, self-centered frustration that we so associate with caricatures of administrators — I cannot praise her enough.
With regard to other actors’ performances, I followed a strange train of feelings — annoyed, confused, impressed, then confused — about Alex Saeedy’s ’15 portrayal of Ross Collins, the pretentious professor who sort-of-dated Yazdi’s character, then broke up with her, then remained friends with her (and maybe kind of dated her again?). At first, his speech patterns seemed unnatural and were off-putting, but later I realized that it was possibly to make his character more even more pompous. When his character seemed to come through in the clutch on behalf of human decency, I was impressed with his delivery of the lines and the genuine chemistry he displayed with Yazdi’s character in the second act; the line between romantic chemistry or just gay-best-friend chemistry is also playfully blurry. Unfortunately, this version of Ross Collins was completely inconsistent with the portrayal of him in the first act, which left me confused again, wondering if maybe the depth of Collins’ mysterious character had yet to be fleshed out.
Despite minor bumps in the acting, “Spinning into Butter” was incredibly thought provoking. This play is dramatic and intense — a combination sure to get students into discussion. Yale’s campus needs a change to the way we talk about race and relate to one another, and this show is definitely a way to get it started — it comes highly recommended from this reviewer.
“Spinning Into Butter” is showing in JE Theater from April 26 – 27.