The Students of Color on the Front Lines of Yale’s Fight Against Institutional Racism

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Analysis Human Rights

The Students of Color on the Front Lines of Yale’s Fight Against Institutional Racism

Zoe Greenberg

“When we’re applying, Yale’s like, ‘Please come here, it’s so diverse, we do all of these things!’ But when we get here, it’s like, ‘OK. You’re on your own,’” Brea Baker, a Black senior and president of Yale’s NAACP chapter, told Rewire in a phone interview. “The Yale that we’re being sold is not the Yale that we live on a daily basis.”

Near midnight on October 31, 2015, Rose Bear Don’t Walk and two friends stood outside a bar next to the Yale University campus, waiting to get into a Halloween party. Bear Don’t Walk, a senior at Yale and a Native American from the Bitterroot Salish and Crow Tribes in Montana, usually dreaded Halloween, when many of her peers dressed up like caricatures of Native Americans, with “war paint” streaked across their faces and feathers protruding from their hair.

But this year she was having an unexpectedly good time. A woman dressed in a cartoonish Native American costume had actually taken it off and handed it over earlier in the night, after Bear Don’t Walk explained that the outfit was disrespectful. Now outside the bar, Bear Don’t Walk saw a group of three men, one of whom was wearing a caricatured Native American headdress. Buoyed by her earlier experience, she decided to talk to him.

A few days before, the Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) at Yale had sent an email encouraging students to avoid costumes that would be disrespectful to minority races or ethnicities. In response, Erika Christakis, a faculty member and administrator in one of Yale’s residential communities, sent a now widely read email, claiming that the IAC’s guidelines imposed unnecessary control over students’ behavior. Quoting her husband Nicholas, another administrator at the college, Christakis wrote, “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other.”

Outside the bar, Bear Don’t Walk approached the three men, who may or may not have been students. She began to explain that she was Native American and found the costume insensitive. Almost immediately, the men started screaming at her, according to her and another friend, Diana Orozco, who was there.

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“Shut the fuck up! Your life and opinion don’t matter to me!” Bear Don’t Walk remembered one of them yelling.

The men were large and very drunk, according to Orozco and Bear Don’t Walk. One of them walked into the middle of the street and started imitating a Native American war whoop on one knee; the other two continued shouting, “calling us bitches, whores, stupid,” Orozco said. Bear Don’t Walk added that the other people waiting in line at the bar, which is frequented by students and directly in front of a row of Yale dorms, did not intervene, but merely watched from a distance.

“I like to be strong and confident and self-assured,” Bear Don’t Walk told Rewire in a phone interview. “But it was a pretty helpless, terrifying situation, in the midst of so many people.”

Other Yale women of color were having similarly grueling experiences that same night. A few blocks away from the bar, an SAE fraternity member allegedly turned away “dark-skinned” women at the door of a party, claiming, “No, we’re only looking for white girls.” Tension was also mounting over Christakis’ email, which many saw as a suggestion that students of color should simply ignore racism by “looking away,” or shoulder the burden of fixing a systemic problem by initiating one-on-one conversations with peers.

In the days following Halloween, a firestorm of protests erupted in response to the email and the fraternity party, leading to a march of over 1,000 students, fierce confrontations with top administrators, and significant concessions from the centuries-old school (not to mention dozens of think pieces from Yale alumni all over the country). The uprising happened the same week protests raged at the University of Missouri as students spoke out about administrative inaction over racist incidents there. The events at Yale and Mizzou struck a national chord; since then, college students across the country have pushed their schools to confront racism on campus.

But much of the media coverage surrounding the Yale protests didn’t actually engage with the student organizers themselves, many of whom were women of color, to hear their stories and their strategies. These young women, like many women of color who came before them, played a critical role in pushing Yale to take decisive action, while simultaneously launching a national conversation about race at colleges and universities.

For this story, Rewire interviewed seven women of color on the front lines of the movement at Yale, all of whom are trying to change a university that, as they noted, was not built with them in mind.

***

The problems involving racism on Yale’s campus extend far beyond a fraternity party or a Halloween email. The women Rewire interviewed described a wide array of both micro- and macro-aggressions they face regularly on campus, including being repeatedly confused with “the one other Black woman in the class” and being asked to speak on behalf of their entire race in seminars with white peers. In addition, they have concerns about Yale’s inability to retain professors of color; a lack of institutional support for the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program, which does not have departmental status; and the monuments to racist leaders across campus, like the residential college named after John C. Calhoun, one of the nation’s preeminent white supremacists best known for his defense of slavery as a “positive good.”

They also detailed incidents of physical violence. Taylor Eldridge, a Black senior Psychology major who is deeply involved in the Yale Christian community, described an evening this past June when she witnessed a white man pull a gun on two Black kids walking on a sidewalk that cuts through Yale’s campus. After the campus police arrived, Eldridge said she spent 30 minutes trying to get an officer to listen to her witness account but was consistently rebuffed; it was only after she said she was a Yale student that a police officer stopped to take down her information.

Shaken by the event, Eldridge said it was largely dismissed by the administration. Only after “three days of persistent emails and a nearly three hour face-to-face meeting” with the campus chief of police and another administrator, she said, did the university even officially acknowledge the incident through an email to the college’s summer session students. (Rewire obtained a copy of the email.)

In recent years Yale has made it a priority to attract a racially and economically diverse student body. In the fall of 2014, the student population was 9 percent Black, 9 percent Latino, and 2 percent American Indian/Alaska Native. The university boasts that 52 percent of its undergraduates received scholarships or grants from “Yale sources.”

But students of color and students from low-income backgrounds say there’s a difference between the recruiting brochures and the reality on campus.

“When we’re applying, Yale’s like, ‘Please come here, it’s so diverse, we do all of these things!’ But when we get here, it’s like, ‘OK. You’re on your own,’” Brea Baker, a Black senior and president of Yale’s NAACP chapter, told Rewire in a phone interview. “The Yale that we’re being sold is not the Yale that we live on a daily basis.”

***

Student activists were quick to point out that the organizing happening after the Halloween email and the SAE party, to get the university to acknowledge the incidents and prevent future ones from occurring, didn’t come out of nowhere.

“This organizing, this coalition-building, has been going on for years. The media only picked up on it now,” Baker said. “This is nothing new, which is why it was so easy, because we all knew each other from previous actions.”

On Thursday, November 5, after days of talking in cultural centers and in off-campus buildings, activists forced the conversation, literally, into the open. Students had gathered outside of Yale’s main library to draw in chalk on the sidewalk—a common form of publicizing events or opinions on campus, like an outdoor broadsheet. They wanted to affirm women of color, who felt particularly targeted by the recent campus events. Jonathan Holloway, the first Black dean of Yale College and a renowned scholar of African-American history, showed up in solidarity.

Soon hundreds of students surrounded him, expressing grief and demanding a public response from the administration. Holloway listened.

“When the students spoke to me about their pain, I could listen to it as a historian. I could understand: There is a long history of this; I’ve heard these stories before; I’ve written about these things before,” Holloway said in an address to alumni a few weeks later. “But then it really struck a deep chord with me, because I lived this before.”

A few blocks away, students also confronted Nicholas Christakis, the administrator whose wife had quoted him as telling students to “look away” from offensive costumes in the original Halloween email.

Adriana Miele, a Latina senior who is a columnist for the Yale Daily News, was leaving a seminar on Thursday afternoon when she saw approximately 200 people walking purposefully across campus. It was an informal march, as organizers moved from the center of campus toward the Afro-American Cultural Center, or “the House,” to plan their next move after an emotional afternoon.

At the center, the students split into different rooms. Some talked about what to do next. Some talked about how the administration might respond. Others sat with whiteboards, pens, and paper, and simply started documenting, “writing testimony after testimony of racism and misogyny,” Miele said.

Everything was moving quickly.

Later that night Yale President Peter Salovey reached out to student organizers, and about 50 of them, including Miele, went to speak with him and other top administrators. For four hours, the students grieved, wept, and shared with Salovey their experiences of racism on campus.

“Knowing my own experiences and hearing them echoed over and over again was heartbreaking,” Miele said. She had once thought the issue was personal; that she was “just being dramatic.” But at the meeting, she saw the problem was bigger than “a few people being mean to me.”

At the meeting, Salovey told the students that Yale had failed them. He said the school would work to be better.

But now that Salovey had vowed to act, the activists wanted to help direct his next steps. The Black Student Alliance had already released a list of demands, but student activists from all of the cultural centers, including the alliance, wanted to create a more comprehensive one, and there wasn’t much time.

So over the course of the next few days, the students gathered again. Baker said the process took place over two days, for about 15 hours. There were about 50 students present, with some coming and going for class or meetings that couldn’t be missed.

First the organizers asked each other, “What do students of color, queer students, and the international community need, in general?” according to Baker. Yuni Chang, an Asian-American sophomore and leader at the Asian American Cultural Center who attended the meeting, remembered that someone wrote the list of needs on a large easel paper at the front of the room, which turned into two pages, then three, then five. Afterwards the group winnowed it down to material demands.

By the end of the hours-long process, the group had a new name, NextYale, and a list of six clear demands. Many of the demands directly echoed those Mizzou students released a few days earlier.

“I definitely felt like this was going to be way bigger than me and way bigger than anyone in the room,” Baker said. “I was anxious, hopeful, nervous: How would the administration view it? But most of all I felt excitement and pride.”

***

The intensive organizing, brainstorming, writing, and planning, did not happen without significant sacrifices though.

The organizers were still full-time students and many were also deeply involved in extracurricular activities and working one or two part-time jobs. All of the women Rewire spoke with voiced how difficult it was, both throughout their college career and in these few intensive days, to attend class, write reading responses, and participate in section while simultaneously battling racism built into the walls of their university.

Adriana Miele said that she’s dropping a class, and it may be difficult to graduate on time.

“This place is not made for me, and the fact that I’m in the process of changing it makes me not care about my well-being in these ways. These past few weeks are the first time in the past four years that I have really felt that I’ve had power here,” she said.

Dean Holloway told the Yale Daily News that he had urged college administrators to be mindful of what students were going through during the week of demonstrations.

“Students are dealing with emotional stress. Some are not getting enough sleep or are not eating enough,” Holloway said. “Our job is to be mindful of this.” He added that individual faculty members are responsible for granting leniency on class assignments, but that many had expressed understanding.

Chang said she couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that there were students on campus oblivious to the situation, walking around talking with their friends about movies or the weather or a difficult essay.

“That wasn’t a reality for me or for many of my friends. Being a student here during this time has been incredibly difficult,” Chang said. “That’s what it means to be a person of color­—particularly a Black or brown student—at a place like Yale. You can never just be a student.”

***

On Monday, November 9, more than 1,000 students gathered at the center of campus after a week of grief and outrage for a “March of Resilience.” Bear Don’t Walk says fellow student activists spent two days planning the event, designating media coordinators, police liaisons, and people to man the barricades on the sides of the street. The march featured music, singing, and dancing—a bright spot in a week of agonizing and agitating.

Dean Holloway spoke about the march in an address to alumni a few weeks later. He said no administrators knew about the event until the night before, a conscious choice on the part of organizers.

“We weren’t sure what to expect, and we were concerned about what might happen, quite frankly,” Holloway said. “And what happened was a thing of beauty. … Over 1,000 people marched down High Street, down to the Cross Campus Plaza, to say, in a sense, ‘This is our Yale also. We belong here also.’ It was a peaceful, civil articulation that Yale is capacious enough to handle all of our views. That’s Yale at its finest, I think.”

Dara Huggins, a Black junior and president of the Black Women’s Coalition, said the march was about shifting from a place of pain to a place of power.

“That was probably one of the most beautiful things that I’ve witnessed in my whole life,” she told Rewire.

 ***

Eight days after the March of Resilience, President Salovey released a statement outlining the changes Yale plans to make in response to the student activism. His letter began, “In my 35 years on this campus, I have never been as simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community—and all the promise it embodies—as in the past two weeks. You have given strong voice to the need for us to work toward a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale.”

The changes he noted included doubling the budgets of the four cultural centers on campus, reducing the income contribution for students on financial aid, and training administrators on racism and discrimination.

Many of the women Rewire spoke with after Salovey published his statement appeared battle-worn. They were weeks behind on schoolwork and spending their Thanksgiving break catching up on assignments. Some were cautiously optimistic about Salovey’s response; others were careful to say they appreciated what he said but he had not sufficiently addressed all of NextYale’s demands.

For example, while NextYale requested that the administration rename Calhoun College and name the two new residential houses after people of color, Salovey wrote that the Yale Corporation would be in charge of those decisions. And while NextYale asked for the removal of the Christakises from administrative positions, Salovey did not mention either Christakis in his email. (Since then, Erika Christakis has decided to not teach a course in the spring, according to Business Insider.)

The storm of planning, meeting, and organizing had passed, and some were uncertain about what was going to happen next. Would the administration actually follow through on its promises? Would the campus quiet down?

“At Yale, it feels very slow,” Eldridge said of the university’s response. “It’s hard to be patient when you’ve been experiencing these things every day. This is better than silence, but I’m not satisfied with the response … I’m going to wait to see the results.”

Chang also cautioned against seeing Salovey’s statement as a “final victory” in a short battle against the university. Instead she was energized to continue NextYale’s fight.

“NextYale is very much not over as a movement,” Chang said. “All of this is ongoing. Salovey’s email, and his recognition of that, is a first step, toward many, many more wins in the future.”