The summer after my first year at Yale, I woke up to a barrage of texts informing me that a friend of mine at the time was “canceled.” A screenshot of an old post wherein this person used a racial slur was circulating on Twitter and had gone viral. They were labeled “another racist”; the tweet included their name, social media details and the line: “[They] go to Yale. Someone like this should not be able to attend.”
Within hours, the Tweet was retweeted over 6,000 times. Many Yalies who knew the student shared the post, echoing calls for the University to punish or expel them. One Twitter reply included the name of their former high school and home address.
It was the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, and thousands of other posts accusing individuals of racism were already circulating online. I was home and stuck indoors due to the pandemic. At a time when human interaction was difficult, I was at a loss for how to respond. Friends told me to end my friendship with the person, either by sending a vitriolic text or simply blocking them.
I drafted a text to this friend, telling them that I was hurt by their behavior, that they should publicly apologize and that they should educate themselves about the history driving the offense they caused. It was a harsh message and it reflected the advice I had received from members of the campus community about how this type of situation should be handled.
When I reread the text before I hit send, I realized my words did not reflect my values. I come from a half-expat, half-local Hong Kong hodgepodge of a family, with roots all over the globe. Debates ranging from the importance of getting vaccinated to the ethics of abortion policy to the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protests are commonplace. Our capacity to even sit at a dinner table with either side of the family is dependent on two beliefs: 1) recognize that the values held by the people you love are a product of their own background, and 2) be willing to talk about those sometimes contradictory beliefs, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation gets.
When my mother dropped me off at college, she left me a letter that included the imperative: “Take time to listen to those who are unlike you.” I came into Yale hell-bent on listening to the caucuses of opposing campus political parties; on figuring out what some Americans found so enthralling about Greek life whilst others protested it; and on taking classes that made me question and reshape my own beliefs.
As time went on, I felt myself forgetting these values. One year in, I was ready to send a severe message to a person that I considered a friend without even speaking to them, let alone hearing their perspective. No matter how damning the original post was, I lacked context.
Instead of sending the text, I picked up the phone and called them. They told me they were 15 years old when they made the post, that they were already in contact with Yale to discuss the most appropriate way to issue a public apology and that they had received death threats from people online. They posted an apology, but the student body — or at least the vocal portion of it — had decided that it was too little, too late.
The student had become a temporary public figure, and their moral reputation was on the chopping block. On campus, their name and the post featured in casual conversation. Some argued that a 15-year-old should know better. Others said a student intelligent enough to get into Yale should be culturally cognizant enough to understand the significance of their words. While both arguments might hold true, what alarmed me was how quick Yalies were to outright condemn a member of their own community without even speaking to them — myself included.
My friendship with this person had other issues that later ended our relationship, but at the time I feared that if I remained friends with them, then I, too, would be ostracized. I worried that my peers wouldn’t take the time to speak to me about whether my values could be conflated with my friends. I see great merit in staying in somebody’s life to challenge their beliefs or hold them accountable — it’s a part of who I am. But part of me still wonders if I ended the friendship partly out of fear of guilt by association.
I’ve witnessed dozens of similar situations play out during my four years at Yale, from questionable Halloween costumes chastised on college-wide mailing lists to a turn of phrase used by an overzealous professor misconstrued in cruel CourseTable reviews. On campus, it seems we are swift to ostracize, condemn and shun and hesitant to discuss, debate and at least try to empathize.
At the same time, the impulse to simply pick up the phone and speak to somebody when we feel they have done something wrong has dwindled. We lack grace in moments when our values clash with those of the people around us. I fear that avoiding honest conversations with those that we disagree with prompts them to retreat further into their own beliefs. If the only people willing to accept you are the ones that didn’t believe you did anything wrong in the first place, wouldn’t you run toward them with open arms?
The greatest lessons that I’ve learned at Yale have emerged through direct conversations and bold confrontations. At times, that meant taking a class with a professor with a polarizing reputation. At others, it meant eating a meal with a student who held a radically different worldview from mine. My opinions have changed countless times as a result.
As I reflect and graduate, I wish I took more advantage of the unique environment Yale offers. At its best, Yale is a place where students can test their values. We are given an absurd amount of time to ponder the minute details of our social interactions. We spend hours politicking who deserves a place in a senior society or a club based on this aspect of their background or that demographic standing. We participate in intense moral debates and volatile academic conversations. Above all, we are invited to ask ourselves whether the values we were raised with — and the ones we internalized along the way — are the same ones we should emerge with.
Natalie Kainz is a graduating senior in Silliman College. She previously served as the News’ Multimedia Managing Editor.