Yale

On the privilege of ignorance

I remember the DKE chant incident of 2010. It was the beginning of my sophomore year at Yale. The whole thing had gone down less than a block from where I slept, but it felt surreal and separate. Sure, I was appalled by their language (“No means yes, yes means anal”), and I wanted them chastised. But when non-Yale friends asked me about what was going on, I said: we’re fine, it’s all fine, the media is really blowing this out of proportion.

Then the Women’s Center and a group of strong-willed, strong-voiced students came out with an official Title IX complaint and made it an even bigger national issue. They said that Yale was a “hostile sexual environment” and that fraternities were mainly to blame.

I was outraged. I loved my friends in fraternities! I loved that they welcomed me to their houses. I loved that one of them found my phone when it was lost, and that another worked with me on Econ problem sets every week. I loved that they were just like all the guys I’d ever known (but more fun, because #college). They were good and goofy and made bad jokes and some even told me I was hot. “Hostile sexual environment?”

NO, I said.

NOT TO ME, I said.

NOT MY YALE, I said.

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Did I mention I was 19? Did I mention I was white, privileged, and so young—young to life, young to bad things, young to my education as a human and as a humanist?

Ignorance is bliss.

But I couldn’t be ignorant forever. What changed: I took Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classes. I read books that expanded my feminist perspective (bell hooks! Betty Friedan! Virginia Woolf!). I had experiences in frat houses and at parties that made me uncomfortable. I heard raw stories from peers who had been hurt. I grew up, and in growing up I realized the incredibly simple fact that “my” Yale was not everyone’s Yale. My luck was not everyone’s luck. My privilege was not everyone’s privilege. It’s obvious in retrospect, but understanding the experience of others is often the hardest—and most human—thing we do. Especially when that experience is at odds with our own. Especially when it casts a dark shadow over something we love and are proud of. We don’t want to know.

But we learn. Just because I was not sexually assaulted or did not feel overt sexual hostility did not mean I could not accept, empathize with, or fight for the cause of creating a safer environment at Yale. It did not mean that I should not fight. And it did not mean that I was exempt from that fight.

Social justice is like this. We cannot all see, feel, or know the experience of other groups, of the subjugated or of the disenfranchised. We are not all in a minority; that’s what makes the fights of the underdogs so hard. We, the majority, are the oblivious upholders of a system that works for us. So it’s our responsibility to try our best to banish that oblivion. It’s our duty to accept full equality as a greater good in every sense, from the emotional to the economic. And it’s our challenge to fail less, work harder, and be more conscious every day. The minority does not “win” these fights. Rather, we all must come together better. The baseline gets adjusted.

– – –

My parents often ask me why college students are no longer activists. “Where are the protests?” they ask. “Why aren’t you marching against what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria?”

They were in college at the height of political activism during the Vietnam War. The threat was real then: fight against it, or you (or your friends) would be sent to a jungle from which you (or your friends) might not return. Mortal peril was in the mix. Everyone was in the mix. Everyone had to have an opinion because it was their world at risk.

2015 is a bit different. Political activism is passé; maybe we’re too removed from personal impact, or just jaded to violence and bad governance. Instead, the new activism riling our country is for social justice. Equality activism. LGBTQ rights, #blacklivesmatter, Lean In and Title IX and equal pay for women.

But the problem with these causes is that, by definition, they don’t affect the majority. And so, by definition, the minority has to work harder—speak more loudly, agitate more aggressively, demand more insistently—just to be heard, just to keep their place at the table. This is how systems of power and oppression work, and they continue to operate in social justice fights just as they work in everyday life.

They are harder to win because implicit bias is hard to acknowledge and harder to strip away.

And this is what’s happening at Yale right now.

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Photo by Philipp Arndt

– – –

The associate master’s email and the SAE Halloween incident are just two straws in an ongoing fight that is finally being brought into the light. That camel has had a damn strong back for many years. None of the fears, pains, concerns, or demands expressed by students right now are new. But now is their moment to make them known.

Yes, the national news media is turning this into a free speech debate. Yes, people are calling for Yale students to “grow up” and not expect to be coddled. The real world is hard, they say. Safe spaces don’t exist. Be less sensitive.

They’re right: the real world is hard. It is doubly hard for anyone who is a member of a minority group, who has faced—and will always face—discrimination on any number of levels.

But campuses are always where the movement starts; they’re built for progress, especially the liberal arts ones. No one is saying that Yale is that much worse than anywhere else. No one is saying that students at the University of Missouri, for instance, have it better. But the Yale students are saying: let’s start this at Yale. Let’s use our access to the national stage to make a strong, clear, and unambiguous point. Let’s set an example that will bring the country up with us. Let’s start at home, because that’s where change starts, and Yale is our home.

I am not on campus anymore. I can’t speak to the mood of the place, to the lived experience of students there right now. But I can say that I am proud to see productive, positive protest taking place. I am interested to see the demands drafted. I want to see activism and administrative action at work.

More than anything, as I’ve had urgent, thoughtful, and conflicted conversations with fellow alumni and current students, I want us—especially those of us who, in this case, are in the majority and have the privilege of ignorance—to do our best to deconstruct that ignorance.

Change does not come from the top alone. Structure and agency are both at play here: we can only ask the college administration to do so much to break down preconceived biases and systems of conversation and social structure. (Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in Tablet is a worthwhile investigation into the limits of this approach). Yes, Yale should create appropriate channels for submitting complaints; for educating everyone about cultural sensitivity; for improving diversity in faculty and in hiring.

But also, yes, every student and alum who wants to do better SHOULD do better, SHOULD be an agent of change. This is an open ask to people of color and others who want to participate: tell us how. Lead us there. Share with us the things that make you uncomfortable, that we have said or done that are not right. Teach us how to be better allies, so we can do our part to spread this change. Tell us what to read and what to watch. We will all shape our own opinions from this conversation, and not everyone will be on board. The debate will be real, and it will be healthy.

We’ve been ignoring it for too long and we’ve got to get started. It’s hard work. For many, myself included, it is often uncomfortable.

Let’s begin.

– – –

Further reading:

The Vilification of Student Activists at Yale | The Atlantic

The Yale Student Protests Are the Campus PC Wars at Their Best| Slate

Here’s What’s Really Going on at Yale | Medium

What We Want & Need: Black Student Demands for the Administration | DOWN at Yale

Student Activism Is Serious Business | The New Republic

Open Letter from Yale Alums

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The First Not-First Day; or, Not Back-to-School

I should have gone on a social media hiatus this week.

Instead, I’m obsessively trawling my feeds, which are filled with snapshots and comments about the start of the academic year. For many of my friends (now college seniors), it’s the “Last First Day.” For me and my 2013 cohort, it’s the First Not-First Day.

Sure, some people took gap years, or semesters off, or had unusual academic schedules. Whatever. In the end we were bound to the biological clock of the classroom since age 5 (or younger), a solid 17 years of schooling in which summer came to a close at the end of August, marked by the annual trips to Staples for fresh mechanical pencils and the agonizing search for the perfect bookbag. (The phases were endless: classic Jansport backpack, nerdy rolling pack, utilitarian canvas messenger bag, glitzy leopard-print tote, hippie cross-body satchel, leather carryall…) And of course there was always the critical question: binders or notebooks? And in college: Mead Five-Stars or Moleskines? Followed by the equally grave transition from forgiving, erasable pencils to indelible—gasp!—pens. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I can trace my growing-up—my personal journey to adulthood (or some semblance of it)—through the materials I chose to carry with me to school, the things I decided were worthy receptacles for my accumulating knowledge.

WLHclassroomWhich is all just to say that I didn’t do that this year. For the first time in memory: no back-to-school. Just another day out here in California (I know, life is rough). There’s something oddly final about missing out on that annual ritual. This must be what it’s like to be born on a Leap Year, when everyone just skips over your birthday. Or to miss New Year’s Eve while traveling across time zones.

Because back-to-school was always more than just a day to show off some fresh kicks, your summer tan, and a Lisa Frank sticker collection. Back-to-school was, each and every time, that most glorious of things: a new start. The night before, sleepless, I would resort to envisioning my new self for the year, seeing with eager optimism the bright possibilities. This year, I thought, I would be friends with her. I would hang out with him. I would talk like that. I would look like this.

The comforting regularity of the opportunity for reinvention was what gave school its everlasting charm as we got older and jaded by the persistence of homework, studying, the mundane reality of the academic grind. Finish off a semester or a summer and then, no matter what had happened, the First Day was a blank slate.

Wise people will tell you that every day is a blank slate. Today, they’ll say, is the first day of the rest of your life… etc. etc. Whatever. I’m 22; I am not wise. I’m coming off of four years fueled by the energy of words like FOMO YOLO young-wild-free live-while-we’re-young we-can’t-stop ’til-the-world-ends. Those are powerful mantras for recklessness and immaturity, and they’re a hard habit to kick. It’s not cool to be wise. It’s hard to be wise. It’s hard to remember that not going back to school doesn’t mean nothing has to change. It’s hard to feel the fizzy butterflies of a fresh start without everyone around me doing the same thing.

On the flip side, though, there’s a dark glamour in now feeling personally responsible for any changes I might want to make to my life. (I’m hardly the first person to say this, but bear with me.) If this is the empowerment of adulthood, it’s scary but encouraging. As I go back through those social media feeds and see the kids these days having their back-to-school moments at Camp Yale, bringing in the year with a bang and plenty of booze, I’m not jealous of what I’m missing. I don’t envy them their fun. Instead I envy how easy it is for them to engage in an institutionally-mandated reinvention of self.

They remind me that if I want to feel that First-Day fervor again, no one is going to serve it up to me. Like everyone else before me, I have to find it.

One month later; or, seeking nirvana

“…So you’re going to Yale. I used to want to go to Yale myself, once. Only I had to go where I could. I guess there is a time in the life of every young American of the class that wants to go to college or accepts the inevitability of education, when he wants to go to Yale or Harvard. Maybe that’s the value of Yale and Harvard to our American life: a kind of illusion of an intellectual nirvana that makes the ones that can’t go there work like hell where they do go, so as not to show up so poorly alongside of the ones that can go there. Still, ninety out of a hundred Yale and Harvard turn out but are reasonably bearable to live with, if they ain’t anything else. And that’s something to be said for any manufactory, I guess. But I’d like to have gone there…'”

—Faulkner, Mosquitoes

I went there.

When I graduated a month ago, everything happened at once: dark-blue gowns and cardboard packing boxes and parents. At night, there were clay pipes that we smoked and smashed on forbidden rooftops and lumps in the throat that wouldn’t go away, even when we sang and laughed and danced. Most people left in a rush—on to the next. I lingered, because I purposefully have no “next”, not right now.

In Mosquitoes, Faulkner’s character Fairchild—a talented novelist with an inferiority complex springing from his incomplete education—happens into a conversation with a young well-to-do man, Josh, who’s headed to Yale. Josh doesn’t much care where he goes; it’s not as though there were a choice, or as though anything different could have happened to him (and besides, he’s mainly interested in getting into a senior society). Fairchild only wishes had had the chance to go to Yale, even if the college is ultimately, as he says, “a kind of illusion of an intellectual nirvana.” It’s a nice snapshot of two men, separated by the birthright of class and money and reasonable expectations, yet both buying into the splendid myth of academia. Mosquitoes was first published in 1927, but Fairchild’s comment resonates with just as much bite and relevance today as ever.

No matter. The illusion—the myth—worked all its glory on me. And I know from experience that my friends were much better than “reasonably bearable” to live with. Luck shipped us all off to New Haven, and luck brought to us great people there who we learned from and grew to know.

But that was all a month ago. I’m home now, on the other, brighter coast. My friends and acquaintances are scattered far off in other cities, cultures, lives. The education from here on out is one we make, not one we take. The illusion of nirvana has ended; the quest for the real thing now begins.