Yale University has been plunged into campus-wide debate and protest over issues of racial sensitivity and free speech so tense it’s turning into a national news story, and it all began with two emails about Halloween costumes.
On October 28, a university committee on intercultural affairs sent a campus-wide email urging students to reconsider Halloween costumes that might be racially insensitive. In response a few days later, a lecturer in early childhood development sent an email to the few hundred students in her residential college questioning whether the first email had been necessary and worrying that universities had become “places of censure and prohibition.”
Within a week’s time, the two emails had led to protests, dramatic confrontations between students and faculty members, and a statement from the university’s president that he was “deeply troubled” by students’ concerns.
The dispute that started it all might seem trivial. But the uproar is tapping into deeper issues of racism and free speech at the Ivy League university, issues similar to those faced by many American colleges that have come to the forefront this year.
Here’s what happened and why it’s become such a controversy at Yale and nationally.
How dueling e-mails about Halloween costumes led to protests at Yale
Every year, without fail, some college students somewhere take Halloween as an opportunity to wear something breathtakingly offensive, including students at Yalewho wore blackface in 2007. So, this year, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email urging students to consider whether their “funny” costumes might not be so funny:
Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.
Such emails are becoming an annual ritual on some campuses. The University of Colorado, the University of Minnesota, and Ohio University all urged their students to wear culturally sensitive costumes in 2013. One of the administrators who signed the Yale email, Burgwell Howard, sent an almost identical note to Northwestern students in 2010, the year after a blackface scandal at that university.
Erika Christakis, a lecturer at Yale in early childhood education, objected to all this. She sent an email to the few hundred students in Sillman College, one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges, saying she applauded the goal but questioned whether the e-mail was really necessary.
“I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others,” she wrote, adding:
I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.
She also passed along a message from her husband Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor of psychology and Sillman College’s master, saying that, rather than having the university tell students what to wear and not wear, students should deal with it themselves.
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
The email infuriated a number of students who saw it as downplaying important racial sensitivity issues. More than 740 Yale students signed an open lettercriticizing Christakis’ email for minimizing the concerns of students of color. On Thursday, some were reportedly drafting a letter calling for both Christakises to resign as masters of Sillman College.
Nicholas Christakis apologized Friday, though saying he thought his wife’s email was well-intended: “We understand that it was hurtful to you, and we are truly sorry,” he wrote in an email to Sillman students, according to the Yale Daily News. “We understand that many students feel voiceless in diverse ways and we want you to know that we hear you and we will support you.”