By Aftab Ali at The Independent
A race row has erupted at one of the world’s most prestigious universities after two separate incidents collided to form debate on campus.
In the run up to Halloween, students at Yale University in Connecticut, US, were sent an email from the institution’s Intercultural Affairs Council requesting they be thoughtful on the cultural implications of their choice of costume.
However, according to the individual rights group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), Erika Christakis – who is an associate master at the university’s Silliman College – responded to the student body withan email of her own on the topic of Halloween attire.
In it, Mrs Christakis quoted her husband, Nicholas Christakis – master at the college – and wrote: “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”
Mrs Christakis also pondered whether a university should dictate what students should and should not wear on Halloween, and wrote: “I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”
After expressing concerns about how policing students’ costumes can limit free speech and expression, Mrs Christakis added: “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
A series of videos then surfaced on YouTube which showed around 100 students ambush an unyielding Mr Christakis on campus who, according to Fire, told the group: “I apologise for causing pain, but I am not sorry for the statement. I stand behind free speech. I defend the right for people to speak their minds.”
The confrontation quickly escalated into a shouting match with one student, in particular, filmed angrily calling for Mr Christakis to step down.
In an open letter to Mrs Christakis from – which has, so far, been signed by over 1,000 supporters – ‘concerned’ Yale students, alumni, family, faculty, and staff said:
In your email, you ask students to “look away” if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore. We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding. Giving “room” for students to be “obnoxious” or “offensive”, as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe.
Then, in a separate incident – which resulted in more than 350 Yale undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty to reportedly gather in the university’s Afro-American Cultural Centre for an open forum on allegations of institutional racism on campus – claims of ‘institutional racism’ came to light.
Students at the forum claimed that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity house on the campus had been turning away black women from a party – just days after Mrs Christakis’ Halloween email – having allegedly implemented a ‘white girls only’ policy.
As reported by The Huffington Post, one of the party’s attendees, who claimed she was turned away, took to her Facebook and wrote: “This weekend I was privy to both explicitly racist and absolutely abhorrent behavior at Yale’s chapter of the SAE fraternity.
“It’s about time we take a seriously critical look at Greek life in this country in general and the way girls of colour are treated at elite universities.”
Insisting how ‘racial intolerance should never be accepted, the SAE released a statementinsisting how its Yale chapter ‘is comprised of a diverse group of brothers and the event, likewise, was attended by a diverse group of students.’
It added: “In addition, Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national leadership has zero tolerance for any behaviour or action that deviates from our values and creed, and we will continue to investigate this allegation to determine additional information.”
Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, and college dean, Jonathan Holloway, also issued a joint statement shortly after – on both incidents – outlining their commitment to a ‘better Yale’.