A Halloween costume debate and how we teach about societal issues (essay)

Student outrage erupted at Yale University recently when the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s call for students to be thoughtful in their choice of Halloween costume was denigrated by the faculty leaders of one of Yale’s residential colleges. Tensions were further exacerbated by reports of racist behavior at a fraternity party on campus during Halloween weekend.

Having spent 2013-14 at Yale as an American Council on Education Fellow, I know how deeply President Peter Salovey, Provost Benjamin Polak and Dean Jonathan Holloway care about equity and inclusion. It was especially disheartening to see this story in the national news just when Yale is launching an initiative to increase faculty diversity.

The IAC sought to remind students to be sensitive in their choice of attire; its message stressed that wearing costumes embodying stereotypes of racial or ethnic groups indicates to peers from those demographics that they are neither welcome nor respected.

Responding that “we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween,” Yale faculty member and Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis objected that it was not educators’ place to judge a student’s costume, that costumes are protected free speech, that college should be “a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience” and that it is up to students offended by a costume to start a discussion with their peers.

Her email to the college’s students quoted her husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a Yale faculty member and Silliman’s master, as advising that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”

These objections are fallacious, especially coming from faculty members who co-lead a residential college community and are therefore “charged with setting the intellectual, social and ethical tone of the college.” The original letter from the IAC called for students to be more thoughtful in judging their own attire; it is incumbent on each of us to consider how our free speech may impact another’s life; so-called transgressive actions that attack other members of the community do not create a "safe space" for intellectual maturation; and a university should help all students recognize when a situation raises issues worthy of reflection and debate.

Moreover, the topic was not simply costumes that an individual might not find to their taste, but costumes that are overtly hostile to entire racial or ethnic groups. As I discuss below, faculty and academic leaders should help students learn to apply the rigorous analytical tools they learn in our classrooms to complex societal issues they will encounter outside of academe; we do this best when we model this behavior ourselves.

It is good to see reports that Erika and Nicholas Christakis have since offered an apology, acknowledged that “many students feel voiceless in diverse ways,” and invited students to come discuss their concerns. When we cause others pain (regardless of our intention), taking responsibility and seeking dialogue are appropriate steps. I hope that the leaders of Silliman will be able to use this painful incident as an impetus to make their college, and the university, more truly welcoming of all students.

Beyond Yale

But the episode goes far beyond a single campus on a single holiday weekend. Indeed, it reminds us of the university faculty’s unique role in supporting free intellectual inquiry and teaching students how to take part.

The essential responsibility of a university educator is to teach students to gather information, analyze it critically, reflect upon its larger meaning and use it to make a difference in the world. Our special role is to help students consider how they will navigate society as adults and to help them acquire the intellectual tools needed for that journey. This involves teaching students how to have tough conversations about sensitive issues in a spirit of respectful inquiry -- including discussions with those whose views they neither understand nor share.

To this end, we must show our students how to discern when a situation raises challenging intellectual or societal questions worthy of their consideration. While it is not our job to tell them what conclusions to draw about a particular Halloween costume, it is precisely our job to help them understand that they should give the matter serious thought.

Moreover, to prepare our students to take up the mantle of free speech and engage in vigorous public discourse on the issues of the day (including the impact of racist Halloween costumes on a community), we must teach them how do so in a manner that respects the right of others to join the debate. We need to set standards in our classrooms and on our campuses that let those from marginalized populations know their voices are welcomed.

Until those students are invited to share their perspectives and questions, until their words are heard and accorded reflective (not reflexive) responses, they are not truly being afforded the education they enrolled to obtain. Until classmates from majority populations comprehend that their own understanding will be enriched by listening deeply to those peers, their educations are also being compromised.

Academic leaders have additional responsibilities in this arena because of the authority conferred by their roles. As the Yale incident demonstrates, communiqués from the campus’s cultural diversity center or inclusion committee are not always accorded the respect they deserve. The very fact that the group is formally charged with speaking out on topics related to inclusion can erode their messages’ perceived legitimacy and impact.

Conversely, when other university leaders stand up for the principles of equity and diversity, this is received as a more neutrally grounded and less biased expression of support for these themes. Given this, we who are officers of the university must publicly support the importance of paying attention to (and openly discussing) civility and community. Our doing so fosters the very sense of safety and trust that is essential for broad-based public conversations about sensitive issues.

Similarly, faculty members who are accorded privilege by their race, gender, ability or other personal characteristics should make an effort to model inclusive principles for students, rather than relying on our colleagues from underrepresented groups to do so. We should show publicly that we are open to becoming more aware of the unearned benefits our majority status confers and to better understanding the ramifications for other community members. We can do this, for example, by reading some of the many books and blogs on these topics and by listening attentively when members of marginalized communities raise concerns -- even when the subject matter is painful to face.

We can examine relevant evidence in our classrooms, to show that these topics merit the investment of precious course hours and warrant intellectual discussion by all students, regardless of personal background. When we see a questionable Halloween costume, we can express our concerns and ask others what they think, rather than making it the responsibility of the person whose ancestry the costume mocks to open the topic.

Some critics claim that campus diversity centers are trying to cocoon students of color, students with disabilities or students on the LGBTQ spectrum, to shield them from the rough-and-tumble world of free speech.

I firmly disagree. Based on what I have read, observed and heard from my own family and friends, individuals from marginalized populations in our country do not generally have the luxury of living in a safe, sanitized bubble. Like it or not, issues of race, power, gender and ability confront them daily -- often quite literally, in the form of microaggressions, slurs or threats hurled without provocation. Indeed, it is only those of us in the majority who have the luxury of remaining oblivious to these considerations as we choose our Halloween costumes.

The university is intended to be a safe space for intellectual growth, a place to test ideas against the best available evidence, a place to deduce the concrete implications of theoretical visions, a place to examine unfamiliar or uncomfortable issues. Clearly, even such a plebeian topic as the choice of holiday attire offers rich opportunities for applying tools acquired in the history, sociology or philosophy classroom.

Through our daily work, professors and university leaders should show students how to be responsible members of a diverse community who listen carefully to opposing views and reflect upon the impact of their actions. If the university is to truly become an academic haven for all our students, we are the ones who must make it so.

Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.

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32nd Annual Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity

Mon, 04/25/2016 to Tue, 04/26/2016


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International Conference on the Global Status of Women and Girls

Thu, 03/03/2016 to Sat, 03/05/2016


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Student activists aren't all thin-skinned whiners, as often portrayed (essay)

Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.

Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.

At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.

But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.

We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.

Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.

When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.

When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.

Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.

On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.

In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.

These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.

Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.

I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.

Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.

This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.

We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.

Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.

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