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Yale Students: Combatting Racism Is a Fight That's Long Overdue

Ryan Caron King
/
WNPR
Of 40 or so students, all agreed that this conversation is long overdue.

It was a chilly November day on Yale’s New Haven campus. Bulky headphones covered my ears, and a recorder dangled from a strap around my neck, connected to a big fluffy microphone.

Heading toward me on a sidewalk were several pairs of female students in athletic gear. The first few women were white, but there was a black woman in the last pair. I wanted to ask her about the climate on Yale’s campus, but I stopped myself. I imagined her being offended that I didn’t stop to ask her light-skinned peers the same question.

The air was thick with intensity. Students stared at me as if I were some intruding force. They've been criticizing media coverage, and suddenly I represented the thing they were fighting against.

Nobody was quick to talk.

"Excuse me: are you a student at the university?" I asked.

"Uh, yeah, I have to go, sorry," a student said, brushing past. Another student saw me and smiled at my efforts.

"Are you a student at the university, by any chance?"

"Yes," he said. 

"I’m working on a story for NPR about the student climate… no?" He shook his head and walked off. Many students appeared wary. 

Maybe they agreed with sophomore Matt Chisholm, who said the issue was too complicated and nuanced to explain with sound bites. "We just prefer the people who feel their voices have been silenced in the past would be able to voice their opinions to the media," he said.

Chisholm, a Caucasian student, stood with three white friends who nodded in agreement.

After speaking with about 20 students, I finally got freshman Brian Kitano to talk. "We’re trying to come together as a community, and understand how we can better respect each other, how we can better learn to grow as a community, rather than analyze the lines that divide us," he said.

A group of students calling themselves Next Yale has sent a list of demands to Yale’s president. They want Yale's Calhoun College to be called something else. It's currently named after a South Carolina politician who was a strong advocate of slavery. Also, each Yale dormitory is managed by faculty members called masters. Students want to end this practice because, for them, it's also an echo of slavery.

Next Yale is also asking for two professors, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, to step down as masters of Silliman College over statements made about Halloween costumes. Many people have defended the professors, and said the students are overreacting and being unreasonable.

There’s also been a lot of criticism over how students at an elite university could complain at all. Some have argued that this student movement is over something trivial, when the world is full of atrocities that would be more admirable to rise against.

Junior Brian Brooks countered that the students' concerns are based on an institutional problem that exists in colleges across the country.

"I think there's an ongoing narrative to people of color throughout history, that things are better than they used to be, so like why are you asking for more," Brooks said. "But when things still aren't equal, people aren't being whiny, they're just trying to make sure that in an academic environment people feel equal."

Of the 40 or so students I spoke with, all agreed that this conversation is long overdue.

Yale senior Rose Bear Don’t Walk is a Native American student from Montana. "The institution doesn’t do very much work on educating people about native issues, or having native classes," she said. "So I always have to make my papers or like my points in class about native-specific issues, otherwise people aren't going to know anything about it."

She told me about how tiring it is to be a full-time student while also being a volunteer teacher to both students and professors.

"A lot people don't really encounter names like Bear Don't Walk," she said. "So people are questioning whether it's real, people have asked me if it was a joke, people have said, 'Wow, did your mom really name you that?' And those are really instances where I just cringe inside."

The student group Next Yale is also asking for it to be a requirement for undergraduates to take an ethnic studies course. Few colleges across the country have this requirement, and no states require it through high school, according to Ron Scapp, a board member of the National Association for Ethnic Studies. 

Yale announced several changes in response to the students on Wednesday. President Peter Salovey said the school plans to launch a center devoted to race and ethnicity. Four new faculty positions will be dedicated to the histories, lives, and cultures of under-represented communities.

This report includes information from The Associated Press.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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