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Growing Up at Yale

A recent controversy over potentially offensive Halloween costumes at the Ivy League campus makes me ask: Where are the adults?

James Kirchick
November 10, 2015
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock

In 2003, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshman at Yale when the Afro-American Cultural Center invited the late Amiri Baraka to speak under its auspices. Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) had been a founder of the Black Arts Movement, Black Power’s artistic arm, but had more recently gained notoriety for his Sept. 11 themed poem “Somebody Blew Up America?,” a long-winded, malevolent tirade whose most infamous verse asked, “Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?” Calls came to revoke from Baraka the honor of Poet Laureate of New Jersey, and, legally prevented from stripping him of the title individually, the New Jersey state legislature abolished the position altogether.

Naturally, the decision to host Baraka upset many people on campus, not least Yale’s Jewish community. Appeals to the Afro-American Cultural Center to reconsider its invitation were dismissed. As a 19-year-old Jew from the affluent suburbs of Boston, whose only direct, personal knowledge of anti-Semitism had been as the recipient of elementary school joshing for not celebrating Christmas, I was therefore privileged to witness an eminent Jew-hater being welcomed to an institution I venerated and that I hoped would be my home.

Like my successors at Yale, I could have yelled at the dean responsible for the invitation and demanded her resignation, though I imagine that the sight of a white, male student calling a black, female administrator “disgusting” to her face—in observance of prevailing norms of campus—would have been met with something less than the indulgence that Yale officials show to their current batch of clamorous undergraduates. Challenged to explain Baraka’s visit, the then-dean of the Cultural Center replied with non-sequiturial whataboutery, criticizing a former Israeli military officer for “shar[ing] anti-Palestinian remarks” at a speaking engagement she had not attended. You Jews, read the barely disguised threat, are in no place to cry about anti-Semitism, and I will be more than happy to expose the racist skeletons in your closets if you don’t shut up.

Had Baraka spoken about his artistic career instead of merely reciting his poem and making assertions as to the factual validity of its deceitful claims, his presence on campus would not have been so objectionable. Baraka’s assertions of Israeli complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, which he reiterated after reading the poem with vague citations to Arab newspapers, were met with applause and a standing ovation from the assembled Yale students. When he noticed my skeptical expression from the back of the room, he diagnosed me as suffering from “constipation of the face” and being in need of “a brain enema,” to the uproarious laughter of my classmates.

I did not insist upon the establishment of a “safe space” to sulk in my humiliation. Instead, I retired to my dorm and wrote about the event, in my capacity as a budding columnist for the Yale Daily News. Baraka’s speech, and, more importantly, the rapturous response, I wrote, “was one of the most disturbing events in my entire life.” That this trial by fire was provoked not by the white skinheads or Muslim anti-Zionists I had naively assumed were the only purveyors of anti-Semitic hatred, but by blacks, who, because of our shared history of oppression, I had been brought up to believe, were supposed to be my allies, made it all the more distressing.

Today, I look back on the entire incident as a formative event in my evolution from teenager to adult. My experience at Yale of confronting painful ideas, emotionally vexing situations, and learning how to cope with them, informs my opinion about the events roiling the campus today. Looking back on 12-year-old news clips of l’affaire Baraka, it’s jarring to read the misplaced appeal to free speech offered by the former Dean of the Cultural Center, who defended Baraka’s visit by insisting that, “The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale and the Black Student Alliance at Yale declare their belief in the importance of free speech as a fundamental tenet of the university.” Free speech is all well and good, apparently, when the speaker is a bigoted lunatic from a “marginalized” group; not so good when the person in question is a Yale professor advocating for her students’ freedom to choose a Halloween costume.


For those who are less Yale-obsessed than I am, or less up on campus cultural controversies of the moment, I suspect that a little background may be in order here. Several days before Halloween, Yale University’s “Intercultural Affairs Council” distributed an email to all undergraduates advising against the donning of costumes “that threaten our sense of community” through offensive “cultural appropriation.” After imploring Yalies to “consider their costumes and the impact it [sic] may have,” the Council, a body comprising 13 administrators ranging from Yale’s Jewish Chaplain to its Office of LGBTQ Resources, provided a helpful list of “Costumes to Avoid.”

Understandably feeling a bit patronized about their wardrobe choices, a number of students wrote to professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis, the master and associate master, respectively, of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential houses. “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,” Erika Christakis wrote to the Silliman community. A child developmental psychologist, Christakis shared her concern that a proscription on “objectionably ‘appropriative’ ” Halloween dress was not far removed from preventing “a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.” Christakis ended her email with a heartfelt plea: “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

If the reaction of the over 700 students, alumni, family, faculty and staff who signed an open letter denouncing Christakis is any measure, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” Days later, another, separate, racially charged controversy heightened tensions on campus, when a student alleged on Facebook that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had hosted a “white girls only” party, and not for the first time. News of the discriminatory frat house spread like wildfire on social media and attracted international condemnation. A subsequent investigation by the Daily Beast, however, raised doubts about the story when it revealed that the sophomore who sparked the hullaballoo with her Facebook post had not attended the party in question. As to the retroactive claim of personally experiencing a similar indignation, as indicated by her having belatedly “remembered and realized the same thing happened” to her a year prior, that too was complicated by the testimony that “a lot of my memory is blurred because I was drunk.”

All this unease bubbled to a crescendo last Thursday, when hundreds of students dramatically confronted both Jonathan Holloway, the first black dean of Yale College, and Nicholas Christakis, the professor whose wife had sent the offending email on Halloween wear. Encountering Holloway on Cross Campus, Yale’s gothic heart, the students “said they respected Holloway and the weight of his responsibilities, but they were disappointed in him both as a black administrator and as a black man,” observed the Yale Daily News, which noted that one of the crowd’s demands was, “the provision of Dean’s Excuses for students suffering from traumatic racial events.” Finished with Holloway after “three hours of emotional confrontation,” this open-air struggle session migrated to Silliman College, where Christakis was ordered to “apologize” and confess to his crimes. In one widely circulated video, a student can be seen screaming at Christakis, calling him “disgusting” and asking, “Who the fuck hired you?” To the whoops and cheers of her peers, she decries his failure to create a “safe space” for students and informs him that he “should not sleep at night.”

With her bravura performance of both “victim and victor,” alternately denunciatory and self-pitying, this young woman is a sterling example of the “cry bully,” what British writer Julie Burchill classifies as one who “always explains to the point of demanding that one agrees with them and always complains to the point of insisting that one is persecuting them.” The following day, one of Christakis’ students published an op-ed in the Yale Herald stating that his stewardship of the college made her “feel that my home is being threatened” because he had failed to apologize for his wife’s email that “marginalized many students of color.”

Let me preface the following by stating that going to college is a challenging experience. And I don’t mean to downplay the difficulties that some students from historically disadvantaged communities may encounter at an institution like Yale, which for most of its history was not a friendly place for minorities of any sort, never mind people of color. But when I hear, in 2015, students complain about feeling “marginalized” at Yale due to their racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or any other identity—and, on top of this, demanding institutional retribution against those who mildly express viewpoints they don’t agree with and sartorial injunctions on pagan bacchanal holiday garb—I can’t help but think of James Meredith. Meredith was the first black student to attend the segregated University of Mississippi and had to do so under the cover of heavily armed federal marshals. When I see photographs of Meredith and other black students of the civil rights era staring down state-sanctioned American racism—not the rumored antics of inebriated frat boys or emails from well-meaning child developmental psychologists about the propriety of certain Halloween costumes—I don’t see people pleading for Dean’s Excuses so they can huddle in a “safe space” to recover from “traumatic racial events.” I see unbelievably courageous young men and women who, by keeping their heads high, exposed their spittle-flecked antagonists as the bigoted Neanderthals they were and changed this country for the better.

The sight of Yalies forming self-appointed people’s tribunals to stage show-trials of their professors inspires an obvious analogy to the period when students from Berkeley to Columbia staged “occupations” of the campuses in protest of their university administrations’ bureaucratic entanglements in the Vietnam War. But while the behavior and language may be similar, the objectives of the 1960’s student movement differed from that of today in at least one, crucial respect. 50 years ago, young people manned barricades demanding the overthrow of the system; their watchword was personal freedom. Now they desperately appeal to the system, insisting that it exercise even more control over their already hyper-managed lives. As Erika Christakis wrote in her triggering email, “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience.” Today universities have become cosseting nurseries for overgrown neurotics, who like the author of the aforementioned piece in the Yale Herald, proclaimed, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” Perhaps, then, she should take time off from class and see a therapist.


Upon reading about last week’s controversy, I originally felt irritation with the protesting students, as I did with my own classmates who cheered Baraka. And as was the case a dozen years ago, my initial anger eventually gave way to disappointment, as I realized that these students have not been equipped with the intellectual or emotional tools required for operating in a disputatious society. That inability to confront ideas one doesn’t like and engage respectfully with those whom one disagrees with is not only a failure on the part of the individual students, but of the society that has produced them. What we’re witnessing at Yale are the abysmal consequences of a decades-long inculcation of identity politics and grievance mongering, which hold that the relative virtue of an argument is directly proportional to the professed “marginalization” of its proponent, and it is destroying the ideal of a liberal education. Like the students who thought it entirely unobjectionable to hail an unhinged anti-Semite, (indeed, their joy at his defiance seemed inspired by an element of épater la bourgeoisie, precisely because he was unsettling their Jewish classmates), apparently no adults in these young peoples’ lives have informed them that shouting in the face of a professor, hurling imprecations at those who question their assumptions, and then demanding refuge from the tempestuous waves of intellectual discourse in the form of a “safe space” where their fatuous notions go unchallenged, is behavior befitting a toddler, not an undergraduate at one of America’s premier institutions of higher learning. No less a figure than President Barack Obama has assailed this rising tide of intolerance on university campuses, saying that “anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

Unfortunately, Yale appears to be letting the inmates take over the asylum. Instead of explaining to these students how their behavior is inconsistent with the minimum requirements of responsible adulthood, various administrators, including the University’s president, have pandered to the heckler’s veto, lauding their “thoughtful and constructive suggestions.” If the administration is truly committed to equipping young people for the real world and not a chimerical fantasyland where they never have to hear something disagreeable, the best thing it could do, both for their sake and Yale’s sacred mission, is tell them to grow up.


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.