What's Going on at Yale Isn't About Free Speech

Yale University campus at evening, New Haven, Connecticut
Yale University campus at evening, New Haven, Connecticut

I graduated from Yale in 2012. I absolutely loved my college experience and I am so grateful (and privileged, as my parents remind me!) to have received such a wonderful education.

By now, I assume most people know about the events that have caused an uproar on campus. An email was sent out from Yale's Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) before Halloween reminding students to be conscientious in their costume choices. Shortly after, another email was sent from Silliman's Associate Master Erika Christakis questioning whether she or the university should be telling students how to dress, telling students who see offensive costumes to "look away, or tell them you are offended," and asserting "free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

I don't think the IAC's message needed a rebuttal. Free speech is one of the things that makes our society great, but what inherent value is someone bringing to campus when they wear blackface or some other racial caricature? It's 100 percent legal but unnecessary and I don't know why I, as a black person who has encountered racism countless times, need to keep explaining to people why this centuries-old costume is bad.

That said, I've eagerly read the opposing viewpoints on this issue. In doing so, I've been really surprised at the number of people concluding that one email had enough force to send Yale students into a tailspin. I've been frustrated by the number of people who see this as an attack on free speech by "fragile scholars" who can't laugh at a genocide joke every now and then. I've been disgusted by a fellow Yale classmate suggesting in his Facebook status that a student filmed yelling at Master Christakis belongs in an insane asylum or the zoo.

This controversy isn't about free speech. Free speech is the tip of the iceberg. I'm not calling for anyone to be silenced or removed from campus but I do think everyone needs to understand why Christakis's email hit a nerve and acknowledge there's room for improvement at Yale (like any other place in this country).

Here are a few things I think "free speech defenders" have failed to consider:

Why are we so focused on a few students in a video clip? I have seen so many people comment on the conduct of a student yelling in a three minute YouTube video. Her words and the words of a few other students have been taken as evidence that this is all about cutting people off and silencing dissenters. The march of 1,200 people on Monday calling for changes to improve the racial climate on campus isn't as hot of a topic, I guess. For those who've chosen to focus on three minutes of this controversy, is that handful of students a fair representation of this entire discussion? Are the thousands of other students acknowledging that we can still make progress on fostering an inclusive community really just pushing to silence others?

A call to conscientiousness doesn't infringe on anyone's rights. The initial email asking students to be conscientious in their choice of Halloween costume was a reminder that we should all aim to dress in a way that reflects Yale's diverse, inclusive community. It's sad that this email still has to go out in 2015 but unfortunately blackface keeps popping up on campus. I don't think the administration's call for conscientiousness warranted a critical response but Christakis provided one that undermined that earlier request to be mindful. Why do we need a rebuttal to a call for respecting one another? Is asking the student body not to wear blackface or similarly offensive attire such a gross injustice that we need to mount a defense? Note that no disciplinary action or censorship was threatened as punishment for wearing an offensive costume. Asking the Yale community to be conscientious was not a limitation on any student's individual rights.

Let's be honest: Christakis's ideas aren't helping most people in an awkward situation on Halloween. In theory, I agree with Christakis on the importance of free speech and offensive costumes spurring open dialogue. In reality, however, I don't think things work out that way on Halloween night. Whatever your background may be, try this exercise:

Imagine you are in a room where you are the only representative of one or more of the following: your gender, class, race, religion, nationality, sexual preference, etc. You spot someone dressed in a costume that seriously disrespects that aspect of who you are. Are you going to put down your drink, stop the party and give them a TED Talk on why it's offensive? Will this person in costume absorb your well-articulated, scholarly points and abandon their offensive outfit?

If you can honestly say "yes" to both questions, that's commendable! But I can tell you with absolute certainty that my college self couldn't say "yes" to either. I've walked away from situations like those feeling uncomfortable, angry and even a little embarrassed that I couldn't muster the courage to say something. Regardless of what emails are sent, some people are going to choose offensive costumes. I'm not naïve. But the email calling for conscientiousness conveyed this simple message: the Yale community promotes respect. Christakis's email, on the other hand, let me know that I'm on my own and I should come ready to defend myself or else be prepared to "look away." No one wants to be promoted to ambassador for their own gender, class, race, religion or sexual preference on Halloween night. And no one wants to feel defensive in their own home.

It's not that these students can't bear to get their feelings hurt. I've seen a lot of comments from people saying Yale students are looking to be coddled and this is all about people not wanting to get their feelings hurt. Here's the kicker though: I contend that any student standing up and saying they're part of a marginalized group is actually very well-acquainted with getting their feelings hurt. In fact, they've probably been offended enough times in their life prior to recent events that they don't want to be told by Christakis that they need to open up to getting offended more. Christakis's email on its own didn't have enough power to send students into a tailspin. This is about anger and frustration that has built up for a while, maybe over the course of some students' entire lives, and is finally boiling over in light of Christakis's well-intended, but tone deaf words.

Yes, students at Yale are privileged but that doesn't mean they need to keep their mouths shut. I was really shocked to read The Atlantic article mocking students who now feel uncomfortable or upset despite access to top-notch facilities. On this same pristine campus, there are students saying they're being stopped to present a Yale ID based on their race, implying they don't belong there. Others have had classmates call them "ghetto" or hurl racialized sexual remarks at them based on their skin tone. Experiences like those, especially when repeated over time, take a psychological toll that isn't diminished by access to a nice treadmill. As a person of color, should I really turn a blind eye to any incidence of prejudice because I'm "lucky" enough to even be at a top university with "two Steinway pianos" and "a film-editing lab"? Is that really the attitude Friedersdorf suggests I should adopt?

Yes, you can definitely be marginalized at Yale. An opinion in The Wall Street Journal challenged the legitimacy of student accusations of marginalization saying "as though someone with a Yale degree could be marginalized in America." Are you serious? My degree definitely makes me privileged but the idea that my degree protects me from all prejudice is nuts! Unless you have your Yale degree tattooed on your face, you aren't walking around town with a magical shield deflecting all marginalization efforts directed at you. Even when my Yale degree has "protected" me, it's been when I've had to pull it out as my ticket to PROVE to people that I disprove whatever negative stereotype they'd like to pin on me. Is that the kind of "protection" I should be jazzed about? I don't have racist or sexist experiences from my time at Yale but I will never insult fellow Yalies by tuning out their stories and telling them that my experience is the only legitimate account of what happens on campus. I will never say something isn't happening just because it isn't happening to me.

You don't have to agree with how I'm thinking about this or what needs to be done, but please don't think that in doing so you're defending free speech.