Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Yale: It’s About Racism

I am on a short visit to the University of Michigan during my sabbatical and all hell is breaking loose at university campuses including Yale, where there have been angry protests.

Back home, campuses have been in turmoil over protests against institutional racism. I hardly expected US universities to emulate this to make me feel at home, yet here we are.

I read the original Yale email and the Erika Christakis response. It was the latter that apparently triggered the anger. Taken out of context, that email was not that big a deal (decide for yourself; read it here). Why did it elicit such an angry response?

Let’s see what the original email said – this is the most relevant part:

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 actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
The original email is an insipid mealy-mouthed attempt at labeling offensive racism as cultural insensitivity. The Christakis email attacks this as taking choices away from students.

Imagine for a moment it was the Halloween custom to dress up as Nazi concentration camp guards. Would labeling that as cultural insensitivity, with a mild attempt at discouraging it, be the appropriate institutional response? Would slapping down that mild admonition as impinging on freedom of speech be taken lightly by those targeted by Antisemitism?

In South Africa, a recurrent response from those who don’t get that racism is still a problem is that black people should just move on – apartheid is over. In the US, I detect a similar attitude – that race is an issue of the past. Unfortunately it is not, because people of color and minorities in general still suffer abuse on a daily basis. Politicians exploit prejudice; why is Trump for example able to lead the GOP field with openly xenophobic attitudes?

Racism in all forms is repulsive. It’s time everyone accepted that. Then possibly the victims can move on.

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