Letter to the Editor: Your Freedom of Speech Is a Threat to My Safety

Paddy O'Sullivan/Hands raised at protest

On August 5, Palladium Magazine published a long-form article by recent Yale graduate Natalia Dashan titled “The Real Problem At Yale Is Not Free Speech.” The article discussed the recent controversies and student protests at Yale and argued that these crises should be read not through the lens of free speech, but rather as reflecting a degraded and increasingly fragile elite, which lacks a proper conception of its own position.

Karléh Wilson, a Yale graduate who was involved in the protests, wrote a letter to the editor in response, offering a representative perspective on one corner of life at elite colleges like Yale and the thought processes and psychological environment of the student protest movement. The letter, titled “Your Freedom Of Speech Is A Threat To My Safety,” has been published as-is:

While I appreciate Natalia Dashan’s assessment of class relationships at Yale, I feel obligated to respond to her multiple assertions because they speak directly to my experiences there and involvement with the student protests that made progressive changes that were centered around the leadership of women of color. Free speech was never a target of our organizing strategies during that tumultuous time period. In fact, people who contested our belief that Yale’s campus should be a fully inclusive and safe place for women of color, mobilized around free speech in order to undermine our movement. As women of color, we specifically did not address free speech in efforts to keep focus on our goals.

I disagree with Dashan’s minimization of Professor Christakis’ email, as well as her description of our organizing tactics. Unfortunately, as overburdened, overworked, and overly ambitious college students, there were not enough hours in the day for us to organize quickly enough to keep up with the events that were unraveling on our campus. What Dashan and other critics have described as student protestors attacking the Christakis couple, was much less an organized demonstration than it was a genuine emotional breakdown amongst several Black female students who had been traumatized by racial microaggressions to the point that their emotions were put on full display for the world to see. The fact that their emotional vulnerability was video-recorded and published without their consent and then interpreted by the world as an “organized lashing out”, is in and of itself a microaggression.

It’s a microaggression because only through a lense of racial contempt can that scene be described as “organized” or an “attack”. There were multiple instances during my 4 years at Yale where I had emotional reactions to stressful and targeted events, but I was held at a higher standard than the usually white counterpart who had no idea how to appropriately communicate or interact with a person of color. At no point during my time at Yale did I feel that it was my job to teach my peers about diversity. I was whole-heardedly and unapologetically myself – and when I received racist responses to my identity, I internalized them instead of calling them out. There was no blueprint for instructing white Yale students how to act around Black folks, and I never observed upperclassmen doing this successfully.

Professor Christakis’ email was a boiling point because marginalized students had taken the bureaucratic route to addressing these issues by working within Yale’s administration to create safe spaces for students to express themselves and brainstorm tactics to make Yale a more inclusive space for us. The email that the Intercultural Affairs Council (IAC) sent to the student body was such a gentle nudge in the right direction, we did not think much of it. It was quite honestly common sense to us that we shouldn’t appropriate Native American culture by wearing headdresses for Halloween, or do any version of black face, or dress as Mexican cowboys complete with sombreros…but you might be surprised to know that there are a lot of Yale students who do not see a problem with dressing as a geisha or samurai ninja for Halloween. If anything, students of color at Yale have for so long repressed their speech in efforts to not distinguish themselves socially from their white and very obviously wealthy peers, that we were relying on the administration to do this diversity education for us so we could simply enjoy being students.

Halloween night is not all fun and games for people of color in Amerikkka. It’s not fun to party with folks who use the last 4 nights of October to dress up as people from different cultures and caricatures, especially when your culture is the butt of the joke. Halloween 2015 was especially special. Professor Christakis’ email essentially started a race war on our campus. Much like Donald Trump’s fascist language aids and abets white nationalists, regardless of Christakis’ stance or tolerance, so too did her email and lack of apology following the email.

That night, I did not want to leave my home. I was actually afraid for my physical safety. Some of my friends came over to my place and convinced me to go out with them. They didn’t want me to allow the color blinds and the color neutrals to steal our fun, so I finally agreed to go have fun with them at an apartment party in the building next door. On our short, less than 100 ft walk from my house to the next building, a tall, white male leaped at me, seemingly from nowhere. Even today, I still have no idea whether he was waiting specifically for me, or if he was ready to pounce on any unsuspecting woman of color that night. Thankfully I had about 5 friends with me, all shorter than me and considerably shorter than my attacker, who held him off and let me run away. Since then I have rarely walked around at night without at least one other person with me.

Rose Bear Don’t Walk, a Native American woman of Salish descent, approached a group of white male students who were wearing Indian headdresses on Halloween night to engage them in conversation about her heritage and explain why cultural appropriation is offensive to her tribe’s spiritual practices. Instead of responding intellectually, the bros used their large stature to physically intimidate my friend, hurl racist and sexist insults at her, and ultimately hopped in a sedan and drove away while mooning her. While Professor Christakis may have had good intentions when she encouraged students to engage each other, this is the reality of what happens when students of color try to speak up without support from a power structure.

Women of color are not physically safe on Yale’s campus, yet we were simply asking for the decency and respect for our cultures to not be ridiculed on this night, and white students interpreted that as a threat to their free speech. In an interview with PBS, Professor Jason Stanley spoke about his book, “How Fascism Works”, and highlights that free speech only functions when the members of society experience true equality. When your speech demeans and derides people from cultures that are different from your own, but is protected by institutions, this is a symptom of a lack of equality in our society.

Women of color who became organizers in the fall of 2015 did this work to stop this cycle of repressing and internalizing microaggressions and create opportunities for Yale’s administration to address the systemic discrimination that students of color face in Yale’s social spaces. The timing of these protests were not random or out of the blue. Women of color on campus had been dealing with these issues since they stepped foot on campus as freshmen, and watched the upperclassmen grapple with the deafening silence of dealing with it and essentially being helpless to the abuse. In a climate where Donald Trump was building his base and the NRA was as vocal as they’d ever been in response to Black men being gunned down routinely, female students of color were asking for a small amount of respect, only to be undermined by a concerned professor with intentions to protect freedom of speech. I’m not sure who said it first, but it’s widely held that when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. The students who mobilized around free speech after women of color doubled down on their Halloween costume choices, are the definition of the privileged who feel oppressed by equality.

The women of color who became organizers as a result of the events on Halloween did so not out of any opportunist aspirations – they were working from a place of self preservation. Natalia characterized us as very unorganized and entitled. It’s too bad she feels that way, but our work was equal parts strategic as it was draining. We made a lot of compromises and efforts to be fully inclusive in our work, but we also faced criticism from within. It was not easy, and was ultimately impossible, to make all voices heard while delivering a succinct message that the greater student body and Yale’s administration could understand. We knew we would be told that we didn’t make sense, that we were all over the place, and making too many demands. This is what happens when the majority of the group you’re speaking to is completely ignorant of the history and current reality of issues that marginalized students grapple with. This is reminiscent with the larger American polity as well, and like Natalia pointed out: what happens at Yale is important because what happens at Yale, happens in America.

The struggle to create a message that would be understood and accepted by Yale almost broke us. We cried, barely slept, and also fought internally about how to move forward. Natalia is right – friendships were stressed. I lost multiple friends, some of whom I was able to reunite with years after graduation. Ultimately, what drove us was the fact that we were trying to create a better Yale for the women of color who would be entering Yale’s campus after we were long gone. We wanted them to have better experiences than us, we wanted them to thrive and know that they were loved long before they were thought of. We desperately wanted to control our own narrative, but this became increasingly difficult as free speech advocates hosted debates and took to the media.

One of Natalia’s criticisms of our movement was that our efforts to change the title “Master” was problematic. This is an example of an issue that women of color wanted Yale’s administration to address, because explaining this concept can be emotionally deleterious when the facts surrounding slavery are treated as though they are up for debate. Proof that people of color bear an unfair burden to educate privileged white people exists in this article in and of itself, because almost 4 years later, I am still attempting to explain why students whose ancestors were forced to work for free under bondage of people they called “Masters”, don’t want to call the head of their college “Master”. While white students had the privilege of entering campus and understanding that the master of their college was simply a person who was in charge of the social atmosphere of the college, Black students struggled to understand what the college master’s role was. I personally never had a healthy relationship with the “master” of my college, because I immediately interpreted their role as one of authority, and never came to terms with the casual mode of interaction with them that I observed from my peers. Other Black students can speak to this experience as well.

We hoped that students who did not share in our experiences could be enlightened to the issues that we faced on campus, but much to the administration’s surprise, we had no intention of doing this work on our own, in our dorm rooms, at campus parties, or in our safe spaces. It was the quintessential Yale attitude to believe that if only Yale students were exposed to the herstory of ethnic minorities, they would inevitably be on our side. Light and Truth. Lux et Veritas. However, the administration set no sights on doing this work or making it a requirement that students at Yale learn about their diverse peers. We demanded diversity training for staff at Yale, and an ethnic studies requirement for all undergraduates. However, the pre-med students, overworked and over-ambitious as they were, strongly opposed being forced to take any more classes that required reading and writing than they already were, and mobilized against our movement. We were facing opposition on so many levels. We continued to believe that it was the administration’s responsibility, not ours, to educate students who came from privileged backgrounds about those of us who did not. While rich students may have hid under the radar and claimed to be too broke to get coffee, those of us who actually grew up in neighborhoods that were redlined and whose parents were only able to afford to visit us on campus once – at graduation – knew fully well who was rich and who was not.

We never said that free speech was a problem. We never acted to constrict anyone’s speech, so long as we were not the targets of their threats – but the fact is that we were. One student who’s Facebook status went viral that Halloweekend was turned away from a party for being Black. They only wanted blonde girls in the party, so the Blacks and Browns would have to find something else to do that night. Excluding people of color from a party is important when it happens at Yale, because it is reminiscent of the greater patterns of redlining and segregation that persist in our American neighborhoods. Black and Brown people have been systematically denied access to wealth in America, primarily by being refused loans to purchase homes in high opportunity neighborhoods. This practice began in the 1930’s and was commissioned by the federal government. When it was finally outlawed by the Fair Housing Act as part of the Civil Rights Acts of 1968, American cities had already largely been divided up and segregated along racial lines. African Americans and Hispanics would never see a return on their investments the way white Americans did, and banks continued to redline and discriminate by using code words like “credit history”. People of color are also routinely denied access to credit, even when they are equally situated with their white counterparts. In fact, white people who are less creditworthy than certain people of color still have more success gaining access to home and auto loans in this economy.

The protests and demands were never simply about a party or a costume. Women of color who were getting the same Yale education as their peers were fully aware that the racial climate at Yale was reflective of the future of our society since as Natalia pointed out, Yale produces our Supreme Court judges and Presidents. We demanded that Yale take a stance on race because we became targets as soon as we made our voices heard. We were not just snowflakes sensitive to feeling left out. After being vocal about my own experiences, I was verbally and physically accosted by a former friend in a bar in New Haven. These are the encounters that give you flashbacks of a civil rights movement that you weren’t even born to witness. As my former track & field teammate, a white female, derided me, cursed me out, raised her voice and got all up in my face in public, I stood there frozen because I knew that if I made any move to defend myself it would be interpreted as though I was the aggressor. I was one semester away from graduating, and I did not want to sabotage it. I should’ve seen this coming, since I remembered our freshman year when she drunkenly proclaimed that poor people shouldn’t get food stamps, they should just eat rice and beans and save their money until they have enough. Everyone excused her for saying this since she was drunk, but it was nothing short of a sobering moment for me. Now, four years later, I wanted the administration to protect me as equally as they were committed to protecting free speech for white folks. But free speech for this white woman was an active threat to my physical safety.

As the Class of 2024 enters campus this fall to start their journey at Yale, I know that they are attending a marginally more inclusive Yale than I did. This is a good thing, but of course the work is not done. I just hope the young freshmen women of color know that it’s not their job to be a representative of their racial and ethnic groups, because we out here, we been here, we ain’t leaving, and we are loved.