News about the white graduate student at Yale who called the police because a fellow black student was sleeping in a dorm common area has elicited the appropriate disgust from most Americans. But as a Latina professor at Yale, my reaction has instead been, “here we go again.’”
Almost every year I’ve been at Yale, something like this has happened with each event playing out in similar patterns. The story goes viral, the university frames this as a one-off event and places the blame on one individual, and the administration announces it will host a listening session or town hall for people to air their grievances.
And then we go back to the status quo until the next event when the cycle is repeated again.
This seems to work for everyone except for the staff, students, and faculty of color who are let down, once again, by an institution where we know these events are not a one-off, but part of a broader pattern of our daily experiences inside the ivory tower. And moreover, we know that these are only the big events, the ones that are outrageous enough to make the news. The ones caught on tape. But the daily backdrop to these events isn’t peaceful studying in beautiful libraries, it is an impossible environment where people of color walk on eggshells and are never fully embraced. And this is the much larger and unseen problem because when people walk in fear in institutions of higher learning, it impedes the mission of higher education.
To begin with, when the physical safety of students is threatened, they cannot fully focus on learning. It is hard to learn and teach in an environment where you have to police yourself every day. In such an environment, we cannot speak freely.
What kind of learning can happen when groups of people have to self-censor? When students of color cannot voice their real opinions?
Students have expressed that they simply do not trust their white peers. Yet others admit they write differently for white faculty because they know what they are supposed to say and what they are not. The kind of learning then happens is constrained to what is acceptable to our white counterparts.
I have seen this play out in my classroom on numerous occasions. Teaching human rights seminars always attracts a fair amount of underrepresented minorities, and perhaps being a Latina faculty does as well. A few years ago, after another high profile racial event on campus happened, I decided to discuss the events in my seminar. How could I teach about freedom of speech and not discuss what was unfolding on campus? I was nervous as I tried to carefully parse my words. Can I be neutral in approaching this topic? Should I be neutral? Would this be productive? I nonetheless went ahead but I feared it would go completely wrong. To my surprise, however, we had a good discussion and I was proud of my students. But I was naïve in thinking that what happened in my classroom was a free exchange of ideas. Like the town halls, it was just another performance.
Afterwards, in office hours or running into students, the truth began to emerge. One by one various students told me what they really thought about the events. They just did not feel they could speak up in the classroom, so they came to me in person. Both the students that were defending the institution and those against felt they could not speak openly. A student that was sympathetic to the university’s argument felt they would be seen as racist. They were also worried that I thought this of them and wanted to reassure me that they were not. Meanwhile other students of color were tired of having to defend their humanity, and one of them said, why bother? Yet another told me, I am just tired of saying the same things. So here came my lesson, that the classroom, even my classroom, was not able to produce the space needed for free exchange of ideas, and that the so-called learning that happened was a highly self-censored discussion.
Town halls and listening sessions are not going to fix the problem because they fundamentally miss the point that not all of us on this campus are able to speak freely.
We know the consequences of doing that. The listening sessions instead become performances where everyone plays their part: the administrators offer mea culpas and promise to do better while the students of color and allies lodge carefully crafted complaints, lest they be seen as troublemakers. Do we really want to keep doing this same old song and dance?
As students or faculty we have to carefully curate our images, and spend an enormous amount of mental energy enduring endless micro- and macro-aggressions, that we often cannot respond to. We spend hours weighing in on whether to respond or not. We scream in front our bathroom mirrors. Behind our closed office doors when we cry. At the therapist’s office. Or with each other. We do mindfulness. We hack our way into coping, so we can carry on with the mission that we are there to teach and/or learn. But what are we really teaching when our institutional behavior does not match the rhetoric? When students see the faculty of color that “made it” are barely surviving? When students worry about studying while black or brown. And when they are tired of yet another town hall to discuss race.
To be sure, being a student or faculty member at Yale poses challenges for everyone. Race is not the only issue or dimension that can impact the educational mission of the university, but as a Latina professor I know full well how racism affects Yale’s educational mission on a daily basis. When Yalies of color have to spend so much time and mental energy on making ourselves belong, we take away from the time needed for honest and critical learning, teaching, and research that brought us to this university in the first place. And when everyone is self-censoring, how can we build trust?
Rest assured that there will be other incidents like this. For these events are simply reflections of a broader institutional culture.
It is not enough to hire people of color and admit students of color while changing nothing else. If we do not create environments where everyone can be safe and thrive, we will continue to see faculty of color leave and students of color graduate feeling like they escaped the sunken place.
It is time to do better, and it starts by acknowledging what we have tried before is clearly not working. It’s not working at Yale, just like a one-day training isn’t going to work at Starbucks. There are no quick fixes to hundreds of years of institutional cultures, but there are many proposed solutions if we really want to start doing the work. These may include, among many others, holding individuals accountable that help create hostile work environments, revising protocols in how the spaces are policed, improving training of faculty and graduate students on teaching in diverse environments and implicit bias, or providing mentorship for faculty and students of color. We’ve had the listening sessions. Now is the time to act.
Thania Sanchez is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University