The Yale Halloween Controversy Over Issues Of Inequality, Safe Spaces And Marginalization

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Many debates and discussions have been going on in Yale University over controversial and sensitive issues of racial sensitivity and free speech. Apparently, these matters have gone beyond campus to reach the media and the national News. Two days before Halloween of the year 2015, the college committee on intercultural affairs notified the students via email to think twice and reconsider wearing Halloween costumes that might be racially insensitive and inappropriate. However, this did not gather the attention of many students. Within a week, protestation and confrontations between students and faculty members began on campus because some students felt offended and marginalized through the email that were sent. The problem seemed to be about the Halloween costumes emails, but the demand of free speech and equality between students were more important. Some students were offended by costumes involving “black-facing” as their significance pertains to segregation and discrimination historically in America. The context of these costumes maybe offensive to students of color and the university is put in the position of ensuring all students freedom of expression or creating a welcoming environment to all minority students at a predominantly white institution. Teaching political correctness is included in the ethical growth universities provide for real world experience.

I am using what happened in Yale University to help answer the question “For or against exposing liberal bias on colleges’ campuses?” I feel like there is a lot of discrimination in schools that affect certain individuals and the administrations do not play their role to ameliorate the situation. The purpose of my research was to further explore and analyze the Yale Halloween controversy over issues of inequality, safe spaces and marginalization, in order to better understand the points of views of the Yale students that felt offended by the emails that were sent out and how the media focused on only the aggressive reactions from some students rather than what they were asking for.

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Approaching Halloween of the year 2015, three emails were sent out regarding Halloween costumes at Yale University which started the controversy. The first email 'Letter to Yale Students' from the Intercultural Affairs Committee was sent to Yale students to suggest they be mindful of their costume choices, so as not to cause disrespect to others' race, culture, religion or gender. Email number two 'Dressing Yourselves' by Erika Christakis, an American early childhood educator and author who was also Associate Master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges, was a response to the Committee’s email. This was a response about students being told how to dress some students. She argues that students, who are adults, should be able to wear whatever they want even if “subversive” or “offensive” because Halloween is a fun opportunity to do this. The email also shows that she was not opposed to the idea of having guidelines in theory but she believes that it is being blown out of proportion. In response, a third email 'Open Letter to Erika Christakis' by Ryan Wilson, showed frustration to Erika Christakis' email. Wilson represents the voice of minority students and others, concerned about how Christakis undermines their cry for respect and equality.

In my research, I found a student who expressed his perspective on the controversy and the feelings of the minority students toward inequality and inclusivity and a journalist by the name of Nora Caplan-Bricker who also wrote on the matter. Yale student Aaron Lewis, a senior studying cognitive science and design and writer of “I’m a Yale student, and this school’s problems with race go much deeper than Halloween costumes”, gives a better and more hands-on understanding of the inequalities minorities suffered. Lewis start off his points by stating that there is a difference between what we as the outsider see and what they as the students experience at Yale University. By him stating that fact, it goes to show that the severity of the controversy goes beyond just what was shown or explained by the media. After he gave that bit of information, Lewis said “Much of the media’s coverage of Yale has made it seem like students are only rallying because of the email sent by lecturer…. However, students have had serious and legitimate concerns about race at Yale far before Christakis sent her email…Chronic racism isn’t newsworthy. It quietly whittles away at the hearts and minds of people who feel like they’re not being heard.” Having Aaron Lewis say this out his mouth just shows that the inequalities of minority students went unjust for quite some time; however, it is not these inequalities that reach the news. Instead, when the Halloween issue added to the fire that was already lit and minority students exploded, that is what reached the news.

Lewis also brought to light how long it was taking for a response from the Yale president. He said, “But it took almost a full week for Yale’s president to formally acknowledge students’ legitimate concerns about racial discrimination on campus.” The length of time taken here can be interpreted as not giving the same attention they would have given to their white students because had the shoe be on the other foot these issues would have been addressed right away or in a timelier manner. We have seen throughout the years in American culture, minorities have under gone tremendous hardships from different situations like being shot by the police even though they were complying with them or even turned away from jobs because of their skin. In addition, Caplan-Brick said, “It was distressing to watch as students at Northwestern filed a Title IX complaint against …cut[ting] the funding for their campus newspaper after it ran a critical op-ed about the Black Lives Matter movement.” What else is there to say other than the feelings of the students were felt by those who took the time to hear their voices and were just as shocked to know that Yale can undermine these marginalized and excluded minority students and transgender women as if they do not exist.

Shedding more light on the controversy was Pen America, who did a case study entitled 'Chilling Free Speech or Meeting Speech with Speech' where the authors state that, 'In the summer of 2015, inspired by successful efforts to decommission the Confederate flag after a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, activists launched a campaign asking to rename the Yale’s Calhoun College… which honors John C. Calhoun, a prominent proponent of slavery during the years before the Civil War'. Here is a demand for safe space, where the activists ask Yale to make a certain change to the campus, so that they may feel more at home and welcomed at the University. Having the name of someone who owned slaves in the past in a place where students have to go is thoughtless.

The student activists also said, 'We were outraged by Erika Christakis's critical response to the memo, particularly her refusal…to put the issue of the costumes in the larger context of historical racism'. The students are telling Christakis, that it is not just the wearing of the costumes that is a problem but it is deeper than that. The fact that you can encourage our students to wear anything even though it may be disrespectful to minorities shows Christakis has no regards for other races and it is telling fellow students to do the same. They are also asking, why we as students who came to this university, the same way as most, have to confront everyone who wears something offensive when it is the faculty at the school who should be doing what they can to help stop these ignorant things from happening. Padin-Dujon who gave his statement to Pen America said, 'When Christakis asks the students if they found something offensive to them then they should just walk away…or confront it…this can be extremely dangerous because often times the people who wear these headdresses are inebriated frat boys.' Here Padin-Dujon asks how students can turn a blind eye to what is going on when in the very place they call home someone could be wearing something offensive. Let's say the students do confront them, how do you think it will play out when dealing with intoxicated students. When students or people drink, their judgment is impaired and their wild side comes out so confronting them may end badly.

Political correctness is used to deny some cases of inequality, marginalization and the need for safe spaces they are time when the media and people in power use terms like political correctness to dismiss argument they might not agree with. The term political correctness as defined in the Webster dictionary means to avoid forms of expression or action that are viewed as excluding, marginalizing or insulting groups of people who are discriminated against. I do believe that there is a right way to handle racial issues, however, this term political correctness is often used by those who can benefit from it and use these to isolate minorities or people who goes against their views. For example, one of the points that was made in the academic article titled “Political Correctness on College Campuses: Should Colleges Strive for Political Correctness?” was that “Vox writer Amanda Taub wrote in January 2015: Their arguments are fundamentally the same: that marginalized people's demands for inclusion are just a bunch of annoying whining, and that efforts to address their concerns are unnecessary. They also betray the deeper concern: that listening to the demands of marginalized groups is dangerous, because doing so could potentially burden the lives, or at least change the speech, of more privileged people.” This shows that privileged people do not like to be challenged or address topics that are not in the favor of what they want. It can also be seeing as an act of dismissal with is an act of be marginalized.

The Yale Halloween Controversy mainstream media characterized students in a negative light. Some of the media, like Bill Maher, said that the students need to suck it up, siding with Erika Christakis. However, Jelani Cobb, author of 'Race And The Free-Speech Diversion' expressed his opinion that' This rhetorical victory recalls the successful defense in the George Zimmerman trial, which relied upon the tacit presumption that the right to self-defense was afforded to only one party that night coincidentally, the non-black one' (Cobb). Here he relates part of the Halloween controversy to other well-known instances of inequality, which shows yet again a disregard for the underdog (black life and other minorities). Trayvon Martin lost his life, so he could not speak for himself, but his family and loved ones demanded justice, yet with all the evidence, George Zimmerman was not convicted because of racial inequality. Cobb notes that, 'The broader issue is that the student's reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not.' This means, even though a young lady who was a part of student protest about the Halloween costumes at Yale expressed herself aggressively to the response of Erika Christakis’s husband and the email she wrote, the young lady was only asking for them to acknowledge they were wrong and sending the wrong message to Yale students. The incident was caught on video which showed her cursing and shouting, however, the media just tried to make it seem she was going overboard instead of hearing her out or trying to understand why she was so upset. While she responded aggressively, the media only focused on that part of the video not taking into consideration everything that has happened to push her to that point.

What also became clearer from further research was that the issues of racial inequalities were around well before those emails were sent out. To help further the argument of my research, David Cole, writer of 'Yale: Power of Speech' also voiced his opinion. In Cole's article, he gives a lot of examples and facts about the lack of diversity in Ivy league colleges, pointing out that at other colleges, such as Harvard, the University of Missouri and so on, students had been speaking up about similar issues they dealt with. This shows that the controversy over racial inequality is not isolated at Yale, but other campuses are dealing with situations just like it. However, the media is still disregarding the concerns of the students nationwide. Cole said, 'Racial bias, these students remind us, is not limited to police encounters in high-crime, inner-city neighborhoods, but permeates American life, including in the hallowed halls of our nation's best universities.' He's stating that we cannot forget that even though we deal with racial things every day, it also happens in the places we go to learn, even the ones that are supposed to be the trophies of America. Cole continues, 'And what they are fighting for is critically important, indeed necessary: an inclusive community that treats them as equals…sends a powerful message to students of color; they are good enough to attend, but not teach here…It also denies minority students the opportunities for mentorship that their white fellow students take for granted' (Cole). Cole is saying that the reason why these students are speaking out, is of the utmost importance, and the fact that minorities have so little support shows they are not treated equally. So even though they were good enough to get into the institution, they will never be in a position of power where it matters most and that’s what the students are fighting for, so they can have someone of their race to relate to.

All in all, the controversy at Yale was a tense one: minority students were going up against not only some of the faculty but the media. Students just wanted to be acknowledge and treated equally and feels as though they belong, but, instead of the media trying to understand why some students felt the way they did and spoke up about it, most of the media made it seem like they were making a big fuss out of nothing. In responding that way, it shows that the media fail to see the bigger picture. However, I do believe that the students had a right to feel and respond the way they did because the head people who are saying they are coddled and need to be challenged are not the ones who have to directly deal with the circumstances. So, like they say, until one lives in one's shoes they will never fully understand, but they could at least respect the concerns and lend an ear to hear them and a brain for understanding. Researching these sources not only gave me a better understanding of the controversy at Yale but It enlightened me to a deeper issue, which help my argument about students feeling unsafe, marginalized and unequal to their peers.

The issue brought light to me to a certain subject as I am currently attending a liberal and diverse college that I have not encountered the issue of open racism. These readings and stories made me reflect on the alternate reality where I could be at a university with few people of color. I think the university should play a role in ensuring a welcoming environment to all students. I would feel very disheartened if I was at a university that openly harbored racist acts and did not stand against hateful speech and acts.

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The Yale Halloween Controversy Over Issues Of Inequality, Safe Spaces And Marginalization. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 22, 2024, from
“The Yale Halloween Controversy Over Issues Of Inequality, Safe Spaces And Marginalization.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
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