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Politics

Greeks at Center of Yale Controversy

 

NEW HAVEN, CT – Silliman College is one of 12 residential colleges at Yale University, the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States (behind Harvard and William & Mary), and one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Founded in 1718, Yale is actually older than the United States of America. When Yale was established, its home, Connecticut, was still a colony under the British Empire. Yale has maintained the British tradition of higher education, using the term “Master” to designate the heads of colleges that other institutions might call Dean or Provost (though Silliman also has a dean).

The Master at Silliman College is Dr. Nicholas Christakis. The Associate Master is his wife, Erika.

THE IAC’S EMAIL

An October 27 email sent by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) to its student body addressed the issue of Halloween costumes on campus, namely, avoidance of wearing ones that might be deemed “offensive.” Relevant excerpts follow:

“Halloween celebrations…on our campus…provide opportunities for students to socialize as well as make positive contributions to our community and the New Haven community as a whole…However, 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.

“Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

“The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc.

“In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their [sic] actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than

any apology could after the fact.

“There is growing national concern on campuses everywhere about these issues, and we encourage Yale students to take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have. So, if you are planning to dress-up for Halloween, or will be attending any social gatherings planned for the weekend, please ask yourself these questions before deciding upon your costume choice:

  • Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
  • Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
  • Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?
  • Wearing a ‘religious’ costume? Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?
  • Could someone take offense with your costume and why?”

CHRISTAKIS’ RESPONSE

Responding to the October 27 IAC email, Erika Christakis responded, directly to the Silliman College students and administrators. Relevant excerpts follow:

“Dear Sillimanders: Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween­wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people.

“As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion or children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

“When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades…Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.

“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense.

“I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional exercise of implied control over college students. It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue ‘signaling.’

“But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blond­haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.

“I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick…

“I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on

Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

“Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin­revealing costumes – 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.

“And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self­censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

“We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (‘liberal’ in the American, not European sense of the word).

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.

“As a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves)

on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

“Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not

mine.”

THE BACKGROUND

The raging fire among some of Yale’s students has been smoldering since earlier in the fall semester, and it had nothing to do with Halloween. Maya Jenkins, a 19-year-old African-American sophomore at Calhoun College, which, like Silliman, is one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges, said “I’m constantly thinking about Calhoun the slave owner staring me down,” the Washington Post reported. “It’s supposed to be my home, but I feel like I can’t be my full self here.” Jenkins referred to the man after whom the College is named, John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate who later became vice president of the United States (under two presidents, John Quincy Adams and later Andrew Jackson), and is known for his outspoken views on the virtues of slavery, having called the practice “a positive good.” In a meeting last week with minority students, Yale President Peter Salovey told them “We failed you. I think we have to be a better university. I think we have to do a better job.”

Notably, at the University of Missouri this week, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and President Tim Wolfe both resigned, amid student protests, highlighted by a hunger strike by student Jonathan Butler, over concerns of the college’s administration’s insufficient response to racism.

BACKLASH AGAINST THE CHRISTAKISES

At Yale, following Erika Christakis’ email, students at the Afro American Cultural Center last week became even more incensed as she sought to leave a meeting when attention turned to her email. They further assailed her husband, Nicholas, as he sought to calm them down, demanding that he apologize to them; he, in turn, asked that they apologize for keeping him from “other obligations,” the Post reported.

The situation grew even more tense, as students shouted to Nicholas Christakis: “You are a poor steward of this community, you should not sleep at night.” Subsequently, the post reported, Christakis responded in an email that it is his job to help students speak for themselves, not to speak on their behalf.

An open letter by “Concerned Yale Students, Alumni, Family, Faculty, and Staff,” assailed Erika Christakis for “trivializing” and “infantilizing” in her email, their contentions.

The Yale Master’s Office informed TNH that the Christakises are out of the country and were thereby unavailable for comment. Also, the Yale Hellenic Society at press time had not responded to TNH’s request for comment.

The Wall Street Journal in a November 9 editorial titled “Yale’s Little Robespierres,” wrote that the Yale protesters have “lost their minds,” and agreed with President Salovey that Yale has indeed failed them, but for different reasons: “The failure is that elite colleges are turning out ostensible leaders who seem to have no idea why America’s Founders risked extreme discomfort – that is, death – for the right to speak freely.”

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