Lessons From Halloween

Debates about racist Halloween costumes remind us that a university should teach students how to reflect on significant societal issues, writes Elizabeth H. Simmons.

November 9, 2015

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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