What it’s really like to be a student of color in the Ivy League
Image taken from Flickr user slack12
By Larissa Pham
“I think it’s the architecture,” Dina says, after delivering a line during freshman orientation at Yale that earns her a year of therapy and a small audience of concerned white people writing in notebooks. The protagonist of ZZ Packer’s short story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is a nerdy, self-aware young black woman who is struggling to navigate the newly classist and racist space into which she’s been thrust, far from her hometown of Baltimore, with its Gothic colonnades and Georgian redbrick. “I imagined how the college must have looked when it was founded, when most of the students owned slaves,” Dina tells us. “I pictured men wearing tights and knickers, smoking pipes.” Packer’s protagonist is emphatically unhappy at Yale, a place that sees her not as a promising student but as a problem, one to be pondered over and solved.
I remember being giddy to the point of nausea during my own arrival at Yale five years ago, filled with a heady mix of excitement and trepidation. Rising through the silvered tunnels of Union Station and hailing a cab, watching the spires of campus puncture the bright blue sky during the drive to those astonishing towers that were to be my residence for the next four years. There, suddenly, was the incontrovertible proof that I was somewhere, somewhere exceedingly far from my hometown on the West Coast. Surrounded by an institution that had chosen me and that I had in turn chosen. This place, I recall thinking, was to be my home.
For the past two weeks, there has been a great deal of organizing and protests at Yale, notably led by women of color undergraduates on campus, stemming from two racially charged, inciting events occurring around Halloween. An email sent out by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council urged students to be sensitive in their choice of costume; following grumblings from some students, an email from Erika Christakis—wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of one of the residential colleges—suggested that students should be free to dress up in whatever costumes they wanted, offensive or no. Later that weekend, a black female student reported being turned away from a fraternity party on the basis that it was for “white girls only.” Tensions running high, conversations about race turned both inward and outward on campus, from closed-door meetings with college administrators to a thousand-strong March of Resilience from students on Cross Campus.
Yet the resulting media coverage has garbled what remains at the root of these protests, diluting their message entirely for those who have not witnessed the problem firsthand. The Atlantic
It may be difficult to imagine that life at Yale, a site of immense privilege as well as a seemingly liberal oasis, could be tough for students at all in light of other, more violent instances of racism occurring across the nation. Yet Yale’s high bar of entry and its utopian image do not preclude its students from being victim to ordinary, systemic injustice. In fact, entering into a place where privilege is so pervasive may only make it more difficult for students from diverse backgrounds to assert their own identities, making greater the inequality between those who have power and those who do not. The demand we make of these student activists, then, should not be How bad is it? or Does this really happen? For at the heart of what’s going on is the long-awaited release of years of pent-up pain and frustration, caused by the slow burn of chronic, systemic injustice. As Aaron Lewis, a current senior,
This breed of racism isn’t showy or overtly violent, which makes it hard to define, like a kind of low-grade radiation that kills slowly.
This tension is not new. It is a product of the systemic racism built into the institution, as ubiquitous as the architecture that characterizes the place in our shared consciousness. “Everyone who enters Yale is reminded that they’re in an environment that is a product of centuries of classism and racism,” Cynthia Hua, who graduated earlier this year, told me. “You can see it in the buildings. They’re symbols of the way society has been stratified—it’s even in their names.” (One of Yale’s residential colleges is named for the nineteenth-century politician John C. Calhoun, who advocated secession and spoke of slavery as a force for good.) And the problem goes beyond architecture—architecture just happens to be its most potent symbol.
This breed of racism isn’t showy or overtly violent, which makes it hard to define, like a kind of low-grade radiation that kills slowly. It’s being the only woman of color in a seminar room, or feeling physically unsafe on campus, or having to endure stereotypical assumptions about one’s race in even the most innocuous of situations. Zack Graham, a black student who graduated in 2013, gave me this anecdote: “I showed up for office hours and the TA asked which sport I played—as though the notion that I was a regular student accepted through regular channels was an impossibility.”
He was not an athlete.
Kendra Dawsey, another recent black graduate, recalled being stopped by a parent outside a gate on campus: “‘Are you a Yale student?’ she asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’”
She was not not a Yale student.
This subtle racism even obstructs students from doing their best academic work—ironic in a place that prides itself on its academic rigor. Lest we forget, Yale is an institution of learning, first and foremost. “I had to recognize that professors were resistant to investing in my academic topics because they weren’t interested in race or gender or sexuality,” said Santiago Sanchez, a recent graduate. Elle Perez, a graduate of the MFA program in photography, cited a similar experience. “I remember crying in the hallway with a friend after my second critique because I just couldn’t believe how absolutely blatant the difference in being talked to was between myself and the white male classmates. The amount professors can relate to you is directly influenced by your identity,” Perez said, adding: “That feeling of safety, of doing well, affects how many risks you take. If you feel unsafe you take less risks, and you grow less.”
Adriana Miele, a senior currently organizing and participating in the protests, related to me an incident in which, during an English class discussion of a poem about rape, she voiced her discomfort with the subject and her professor dismissed it. Instead, he embarrassed her in front of the entire seminar, standing up and suggesting that they could “set up a punching bag of John Donne in the corner” so she could beat it up. She hardly spoke in class for the rest of the year.
One’s experience of systemic racism is rarely one singular flash fire but a series of slow, agonizing burns that accumulate over time.
It may be no surprise to note, given this environment, that Yale has a majority white faculty and, despite a recently announced $50 million diversity initiative, is
One’s experience of systemic racism is rarely a singular flash fire but a series of slow, agonizing burns that accumulate over time. They take a toll on students. Many speak of the emotional drain of dealing with day-to-day microaggressions on top of Yale’s academic stresses, which already demand an enormous effort. “I just didn’t have the energy to make good work my second year because I was so drained from my first year, when I would regularly speak up about things I felt were discriminatory or wrong,” Perez told me. “There’s a silence and different treatment that happens via exclusion when you do speak up.”
Though Perez was an MFA student, the undergraduate experience is much the same, if not amplified. “I didn’t really allow myself to process racist things as they were happening,” one recent graduate, who requested to remain anonymous, told me. “I’d talk to other black female friends about it, but by the end of my time at Yale I realized I was extremely burnt out. I could hardly function.” Now a graduate student at Yale, and a participant in the ongoing protests, she fears for her personal and physical safety after witnessing the reception of a video in which a young black female student confronts Nicholas Christakis over the email and the college’s response. After the video was posted to Reddit and other platforms, the student in the clip began receiving death threats.
In her email regarding the matter of offensive Halloween costumes, Erika Christakis wrote: “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away.” Yet this sentiment implies that students ought to remove themselves from activities and events as a means of survival, excluding themselves rather than changing the status quo. Putting the onus on students to remove themselves from the university they’ve chosen seems a poor substitute for actual change. “‘Just look away’ turns into ‘Just don’t come to school,’ which turns into ‘Actually, just don’t come here at all,’” said Perez.
Indeed, trying to describe the racism embedded within an institution becomes largely a portrait of absences and exclusions. Systemic racism makes its existence known most insidiously and exhaustingly in its denial of the pain of those who call it out, manifesting in constant requests for proof that this pain is real. “It’s really frustrating that even with some of my dear friends who I care about and respect—they practically interrogate me and want me to tell these sad stories in order to justify something,” said Summer Baxter, who graduated earlier this year. “They need to hear a sob story to know that something’s true.”
Yale may very well be a site of privilege, but being born into privilege is not the only way one finds themselves sprawled out on an extra-long twin bed on Old Campus, staring dizzily out onto the green. The university is a place richly imbued with an aura that makes it easy to love, and to moreover want that love in return. “When you get here, it’s supposed to be your home, right?” Hua said. But for many students, of a variety of backgrounds, Yale doesn’t feel like the home they want to see or even the home they need. “You spend four years trying to adapt to the environment you’re in,” Hua continued. “My parents were immigrants; I worked all four years I was at Yale. I felt really conscious of this.” What should feel like home feels like a dislocation, forcing students to reconcile with the fact that this place they’re supposed to love—this place that they do love, as I love it, too—was not built with their needs in mind.
This reconciliation is at the center of much of the pain Yale’s students are channeling into protest. “I care about Yale,” Baxter told me. “It’s my home, and I love it, and I want to make it better.” Yet as Jelani Cobb wrote
If these anecdotes seem small, if they seem perhaps too subtle or too nuanced or too easily brushed off, that is the point. Systemic racism operates in pernicious ways. It feels like the things one ought to be able to push aside. It is shaped by exclusion and denial and silence, or silencing. “These things happen all the time,” said Miele, the senior who is currently part of the movement on campus. “They happen all over the world and they happen here and I never felt that I could talk to anyone about it here. It’s heartbreaking.” By its very nature it is a kind of gaslighting, excruciatingly difficult to pin down because to report it is to open one’s self to being accused of crying wolf, to immediate disbelief. “You go out of your way to talk about it because you care about these people, you want them to understand,” Baxter told me. “But nobody wants to believe you.”
The racist bias—unconscious or otherwise; implicit or otherwise—must be shed especially at the highest levels of the university in order to see real change.
Yesterday afternoon, following almost two weeks of protest, insistent media coverage, and a list of demands provided by Next Yale, an undergraduate organization, university President Peter Salovey outlined a four-point plan designed to give structure toward “building a more inclusive Yale.” The plan covers strengthening the university’s academics in the areas of race and social identity, including the aforementioned faculty diversity initiative; expanding services and support for students; improving institutional structures and practices; and adding representations of diversity on campus. Though on the face of it these points seem like a promising start, they’re also a striking symbol of how wide the gulf is between the Yale that exists now and the Yale its students would like to see.
“I have mixed feelings regarding Salovey’s email,” Adriana Miele told me. “I am so glad that he recognizes the significance of this historical moment, but I wish the university could’ve made larger commitments. That said, I think a lot of those decisions are out of his hands, like residential college names, which are up to the Corporation.”
Therein lies the true difficulty in dislodging injustice from an institution: how does one influence Yale Corporation, the financial side of a university that makes upper-level decisions, largely invisible to the public? The email from Salovey fails to address Yale’s endowment hoarding, which was targeted by Victor Fleischer, a professor at the University of San Diego, in The New York Times earlier this year. “Many of the persistent examples of racism at Yale have their roots in investment decisions,” writes Next Yale and GESO, the graduate employees and students organization, in their introduction to the teach-in happening this afternoon. The racist bias—unconscious or otherwise; implicit or otherwise—must be shed especially at the highest levels of the university in order to see real change.
Tangled up in that devotion is the understanding that the institution must change.
After I had moved into an apartment off campus to find community outside of the community I had been flung into; after I had sat on student panels in a stunted attempt to diversify the course offerings of my department; after I had largely given up on being understood by an institution that did not acknowledge the micro-aggressions I faced daily—I still found solace in spaces on Yale’s campus. In the Gothic arches and colonnades that let the light in in stripes and photographed so beautifully; in the courtyards of colleges with their magnolia trees and tulips in the spring; in the wide, comfortable steps of Rudolph Hall, where I took breaks from my job at the arts library to chat with friends passing by on the street. Even if it was hard, it was the place I was in. The place I had survived, the place where there burned a fire in which my strongest friendships were forged.
Even now when I think of Yale I’m filled with an intense, visceral devotion that seems almost unreasonable given how difficult it was for me to exist there. Its towers and flagstones and wood-paneled seminar rooms are cast with the bright hue of memory. But tangled up in that devotion is the understanding that the institution must change. The students organizing at Yale are striving to illuminate and dismantle the most secret and difficult of racisms, the kind that is built into the institution. And they are reminding us in their protest that this racism exists elsewhere, too. That it exists everywhere, that it is a part of your life as it has been a part of theirs and a part of mine. It behooves us all to listen.
Larissa Pham is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Adult Magazine, Nerve, New York Magazine, The Hairpin, Maxim, Full Stop Magazine, The Rumpus, Gawker, VICE, The Intentional, and elsewhere.