In the previous issue of The Bates Student, Harry Meadows presented an argument against Yale students protesting Erika Christakis’s email, stating that the protesters expressed “blunt and violent intolerance towards opposing viewpoints.” Respectfully, I wish to point out that his response – as well as the response from The Atlantic, Vox, and many other sources across the nation – directly engage with white respectability politics.
Allow me to expand: “White respectability politics,” a term becoming increasingly popular as the Black Lives Matter movement picks up speed, refers to the neoliberal assertion that people of color – and especially students of color – should abide by societal standards of politeness when engaging in political discourse on race. Within the context of BLM, the disruption of society through public occupation, protest, and expressions of anger directly defy the polite mode of action that should (i.e. that white people would find most comfortable) be taken by people of color to discuss their own oppression.
What Meadows misunderstands about the occupation of Yale, the anger of these black students and its manifestation on this campus, is that black people do not owe white people comfort. Let me say this again: black people do not owe white people any form of comfort in discussing their oppression. When black students feel their concerns are being undermined by a privileged white womyn who neither understands their immense fear nor deep-seeded and historical pain, there is no reason to prioritize her or her husbands’ comfort – especially when she has instigated the argument.
Meadows quotes Christakis’s email in his article, defending it as a “reasonable” rebuttal to the “questionable” announcement originally sent out by the Intercultural Affairs Committee and several Yale faculties. I would argue that these adjectives should be reversed. Yale has a long history of racially insensitive action on the part of its students – from the blackface events of Halloween ’07 to the recent “white girls only” party at the school’s SAE chapter. Furthermore, schools across the country, including the University of Colorado and Ohio University, have sent out emails similar to this one in the past. Distributing an email asking students to remember, as they have neglected to do in the past, to consider the implications of their costume – to remember that other cultures deserve respect – is only ridiculous because it has reached this point. It is only ridiculous because students must be told, again and again in our modern time, to respect each other. This is not a Yale-specific problem; this is a systemic, historical, racially driven problem.
In her email Christakis states that she does not want to “trivialize” genuine concerns by the student body over race, respect and safety. My question is, then, why did she not take greater caution and kindness in its formation? She explicitly asks at one point: “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?” Citing her experience as a former preschool teacher, Christakis expresses genuine confusion over the fact “there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.” There is no way that I can approach this section of the email without an intense sense of anger, confusion, and hurt for the students that have to know this person is in a position of power over them. To answer her first question: no. There is absolutely no room for people to repurpose the culture of other people because Walt Disney, a known racist and bigot, decided to create a children’s film riddled with stereotypes about Chinese culture. My question for her is: if you, as a child psychologist, understand the importance of introducing lessons to a child during their early – and thus, developing – stages of life, would you not rather capitalize on this opportunity to teach children not to perpetuate these stereotypes? Would it not be more beneficial for all people of color (the people that you claim to have genuine concern for) to explain to white children especially the racist implications of these costumes, still so readily available in the 21st century?
On the issue of Nicholas Christakis: it upsets me that Harry has forgotten to mention the master’s advice to all students prior to the video released of the student yelling at him at Silliman College. Written in his wife’s email, N. Christakis aptly told students that if “you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.” This statement is riddled with the privilege that has brought America to these racial tensions. Firstly, simply “looking away” does not erase the image from someone’s mind; this is blatantly rude and ignorant advice. Second of all, people of color are told – through social media and everyday interactions – that their lives are insignificant. Why then, would someone assume that they could simply approach another person to let them know that they are “offended” – the most lenient, problematic description of a student of color’s pain – by what they are wearing? Daily, systematic abuse of our cultures and populations wears most of us down to the point where we cannot stand to teach white America anymore about why their various actions and lifestyles are wrong (another whole issue that needs to be discussed.) How, then, are people of color supposed to gather the strength, and persist past the pain, to explain again to someone why their costume offends?
Furthermore, this media and social backlash against the student in the video exerts the very issue of respectability politics. Instead of focusing at all on N. Christakis’s shortcomings as an academic authority or his offensive comment, the media has attacked the legitimacy of the student’s tactics. Both Christakises have dismissed the very prevalent and historically ignored concerns of these students with an email. Why, then, would that student – or any other of color – owe them their kindness?
Subtle and unconscious expressions of intolerance and racism will persist long past our lifetime. Vocalizing our ignorance is, as Meadows aptly alluded, the only way to continue educating ourselves. However, there is a difference between productive discussion and assumed authority that has been left undistinguished in the Yale case. I hope here at Bates we continue such discourse among ourselves and keep the relevance of these issues alive.