“You’re hearing this incredible pain and frustration related to the issue of being constantly marginalized, feeling that their speech and their existence simply doesn’t matter. They get that message from all kinds of different stimuli in their life, whether it’s the pop-culture world, whether it’s the stuff they’re learning in classes, or peers who don’t value them and their contributions.”
In an interview with Jelani Cobb, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, also the first African American to hold the post, described the climate which prompted a thousand students to march for justice on 9th November 2015.
Racial tensions on campus have been building over the past few months, and not just in Yale. Back in September, University of Southern California’s own student body president was the target of a racial attack. The students of Purdue University, Indiana, started the #BlackOnCampus online campaign, in solidarity with demonstrators on Yale and Missouri campuses. Several readers of the NYTimes wrote in with instances of campus racism – from discovering nooses hung around student centres to whites-only fraternity parties. You’d think it was Jim Crow all over again.
Responding to these incidents, the student community in various universities across the United States has organized mass demonstrations like the one in Yale. In fact, Peter Salovey, the university president, has committed to instituting measures for an inclusive campus, which include, among several things, a diverse faculty and mental health professionals with multicultural training.
Despite these victories, the student struggle has been sucked into the unforgiving and lopsided vortex of free-speech debates. At the centre of this is Yale lecturer Erika Christakis’ diplomatic sounding email, suggesting that the university ought to preserve students’ freedom of expression, even if that meant being “inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive.”
The email did not sit well with students from marginalized communities. Now, in addition to having to fight racist behaviour, students will have to fight the justifications for that behaviour. It’s clear as day that these justification, delivered in measured tones of respectability and couched in the language of ‘equalism’, do not take into account what it means to be marginalized, quite forgetting that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech.
As recently as 20th November, the portraits of African American professors at Harvard University were defaced with tape. One wonders whether Christakis’ and her sympathizers consider the act a constitutionally granted expression of individual freedom, or whether they would recognize the deeply racial, deeply violent intentions behind them – a cause for alarm, if there ever was one.
Read Yale Students’ public statement here.