Column: Yale administrators fail to cultivate safe space

Yale University students and supporters participate in a march across campus to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in New Haven, Conn. (Ryan Flynn/New Haven Register via AP)

Halloween weekend at Yale was marked with racial tensions on both the student and administrative levels. In addition to administrators defending culturally insensitive costumes, women of color allege that they were turned away from a party based on their race and gender. 

As reported by Yale Daily News, sophomore Neema Githere posted on Facebook on Oct. 30, 2015 to draw attention to alleged instances of misogynoir at a party hosted by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity (SAE). 

The post, which reads “I’d just like to take a moment to give a shoutout to the member of Yale’s SAE chapter who turned away a group of girls from their party last night, explaining that admittance was on a ‘White Girls Only’ basis’ has garnered massive attention. Five students of color sounded on similar experiences in the comments section of Githere’s post. 

In comments made to the Yale Daily News, chapter President Grant Mueller categorically denied any accusations of racial discrimination.

“Obviously I was shocked and flabbergasted [at the idea] that anyone in SAE would even have these words come from their mouths,” Mueller said. 

This is not the first time SAE has made national headlines for racial discrimination. In March, brothers of the University of Oklahoma (OU) chapter were under fire for a video that surfaced of brothers gleefully singing along to a chant which called for the lynching of black men before there would be a “n****r SAE.” As reported by the Washington Post, the chapter was swiftly closed by national SAE leadership, who conducted an investigation that revealed the chant was likely learned four years prior on an annual leadership cruise, before being formalized in the OU chapter pledging process. 

Regardless of whether the accusations are true, the situation with Yale’s SAE chapter is a classic case of institutionalized oppression at work. In an interview with the Yale Daily News on Sunday night, Githere said that an SAE member has told her in the past that admittance to parties is based more on attractiveness than race. Not only is this sexist, because it holds women accountable to strict beauty standards, but also inherently racist because of clear cultural dominance by European beauty standards. 

The phrase “White Girls Only” is birthed at this intersection of race and gender. The “we have brothers of color” defense used by Mueller fails to recognize that when racism and misogyny collide, black women are left out entirely. 

This intersection of race and gender politics is further nuanced when one considers the ways in which black women are given access to on campus justice following racially violent interactions. It has been suggested that, based on SAE’s earlier racist incidents as well as repeat performances of misogynoir by the Yale SAE chapter, black women simply should not go to their parties. 

The misunderstanding lies in the notion that it is the responsibility of the disenfranchised, in this case, women of color, to avoid racial violence. To suggest that students should simply avoid white-only space is to give a nod to white-only space. 

Mueller wasn’t the only one on Yale Campus failing to cultivate safe space during Halloween Weekend. As reported by the Huffington Post, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who hold the titles of Master and Associate Master of Silliman College respectively, criticized an email from the Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee urging students to be culturally sensitive when selecting costumes. 

An email sent out by Erika Christakis told students “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” 

The ability to take offense should never be equated to the ability to sustain repeated racial violence through controlling images. Students seeing blackface being used to mock the identities of themselves and their ancestors are never in a position to "tolerate" such offense. This is violence; to place the burden on students to defend their very identity to their peers is an unbearable task.

Administrators are responsible for cultivating space where all students feel included and safe. On a campus where students are accusing their peers of discrimination, Christakis’ comments are all the more troubling. Both instances have sparked student protest campus wide, which is especially notable on the heels of the resignation of the University of Missouri President which was driven by student protest of administrative silence on issues of discrimination. 

The marginalized voices of Yale University are ready to welcome a new order in the ivy tower.


Haddiyyah Ali is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at haddiyyah.ali@uconn.edu.