On Race, Inheritance, and Struggle at Yale: An Open Letter to Erika Christakis

This post originally appeared on Conversation X.

by Viet N. Trinh

Associate Master Erika Christakis,

My mother was one of many thuyền nhân Việt Nam. English-speaking historians might call her a “boat person,” which is as good a translation from the original as any. Among the Vietnamese, stories like hers wield great power, communicate great pain, and symbolize the great burdens of my ethnic heritage. After the Fall of Sài Gòn in 1975, she became one of a million refugees who fled Viet Nam by water. Packed like a sardine onto a tiny boat—essentially, a rowboat with no working engine—she escaped from her war-torn homeland with nothing but the clothes on her back, trusting the capricious ocean fates to take her somewhere better. Many other boat people encountered pirates, who raped the women, killed the men, and kidnapped the children; my mother was fortunate enough not to fall victim to these predators. Nevertheless, weeks upon the water proved taxing: a fortnight with no food will drive people to desperate measures, and some on the boat even debated the possibility of cannibalizing the children. In fact, my mother had survived the thirst for that long only because her vessel entered a chain of raging storms, which poured upon them life-sustaining rain even as their rocky waves and turbulent winds threw a number overboard, where they were lost to the open sea. Eventually, her boat took her to Malaysia, where she found some semblance of safety. She would not come home for thirty years.

As I grew up in California, my parents’ troubled journeys were relayed to me in place of bedtime stories. Perhaps you, as a former preschool teacher, can sense what these tales meant to my personal development. People of color bear upon their shoulders the struggles and sacrifices of endless generations. In my family and others, heartbreak is passed down from father to son and mother to daughter—not through our umbilical cords or our genetics, but through the things we share amongst each other, through the lessons we teach our children, through the unfulfilled dreams we have learned to keep to ourselves. Our skin can be an incredible source of pride and power, but it is equally a source of unbearable pain, frustration, and—in our weakest moments—shame; at an institution like Yale, built upon the blood and sweat and tears of enslaved people, the hallowed halls amplify such feelings in ways that you cannot possibly imagine.

As you may have guessed by now, I am writing to you about the mass e-mail by the Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) in October and your incendiary response to it. I know that you and your husband have been besieged by many protests over the past two weeks, and this letter will be one more. From what I have seen and heard, your response (and your husband’s) has involved far more knee-jerk defensiveness than thoughtful listening, so I quite frankly do not expect you to answer. If you choose to do so, though, I hope it is only after very mindfully considering this message.

I have a multitude of points to make throughout this message, and intend to get the smaller ones out of the way before moving on to my central counterargument. For instance, you present the IAC’s message as “censure and prohibition… from above, not from yourselves.” Maybe your ears are not particularly close to the ground on such matters; I myself have seen and heard many students of color, and especially native people, protesting racist costumes both in person and online. In this sense, the IAC’s call for racially competent Halloween attire was not some oppressive demand from above. In fact, it reflected very accurately the cries and demands of countless Yale students. This story was not about out-of-touch bureaucrats imposing censorship; it was about Yalies of color being fed up with annual celebrations of blackface and finally being recognized by a small segment of the administration. Thus, when you delegitimized the IAC’s message, you delegitimized a small victory that too many students have worked too hard for. Accordingly, when you address the student body in your e-mails, I must ask whom “yourselves” refers to—surely, it does not reflect the Yalies of color who have clamored against these offensive costumes year after year. I daresay that you have shown your hand: when you claim that this call for racial competence does not come from Yale students, it becomes rather obvious to me whom you perceive as Yale’s student body, and whom you regard as outsiders.

Moreover, when you compare nonwhites’ offense against Halloween racism to religious conservatives’ offense against revealing costumes, you miss both the historical contexts and the power dynamics at play in these distinct situations. After all, blackface has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow oppression, while scantily-clad women are defying notions of female respectability-through-attire—they are challenging problematic ideas that hearken back to elitist Victorian sensibilities and the male desire for control over women’s behavior. It is (and please forgive my bluntness) exceptionally disappointing that one living on a campus full of critical race and gender scholars cannot grasp such rudimentary distinctions; perhaps you should be reading up on your Michel Foucault and your Jane Austen more vigorously. You also try to invoke the admittedly messy line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, but only in a haphazard way that makes me wonder how much actual effort you have previously put into understanding this topic. You propose “social norming” and “free speech” as solutions to racist attire in one paragraph, but hyperbolically describe the IAC’s gentle, civilized reminder as “censure and prohibition” in another. Under your standards of behavior, how, exactly, are antiracist and antimisogynist change meant to happen?

But, most importantly, your calls for civilized dialogue on a campus tormented by violent racism reveal a white privilege that I (and others) do not enjoy. You and your husband claim to value rational thought, and seem also to believe that the university is a place for such things. I too believe that schools like Yale are, first and foremost, a space of knowledge and learning, but I would argue that positivist rationality is an imperfect tool for thinking about the world. Individual context matters deeply; true knowledge is tremendously personal, and involves visceral emotionality as much as it does logical thought. Allow me to elaborate: as you may know, for generations, blackface was used to ridicule and degrade black people, all the while barring them from professional roles in entertainment; to this day, it symbolizes a Jim Crow past defined by white terrorism and black suffering. But because I am not black, I can never appreciate in its entirety what blackface means to black people. I did not inherit from my ancestors stories of slave ships, plantation labor, and lynchings; my grandparents and great-grandparents never knew anything of the Jim Crow South. Still, I do know how images like this and this make me feel, and perhaps I have some vague, imperfect frame of reference. You, as a white woman, could never remotely comprehend the anguish that this poisonous racism brings to nonwhite people.

This is not meant as an insult: even the most well-intentioned whites will only ever learn about racism through third-party observation, second-hand stories, and first-person book-reading; you will never learn about it from the barrel of a policeman’s gun, never feel the tears running down your face as drunken fratboys ban you from parties, never detect the sweat upon your own palms as you gradually realize that the world views you as an animal. Likewise, as a man, I could never grasp the sheer terror that must plague so many women whenever they walk home alone on a campus where rapists evidently run rampant. When you suggest that we should “ignore” or “look away [from]” racist behavior, which you indeed do in your message, you exercise a remarkable white privilege that illustrates my point more vividly than any contrived hypothetical could. You, Associate Master Christakis, have the luxury of ignorance; I—and other people of color—do not.

No individual is capable of becoming a master of all knowledge. To believe otherwise is to ascribe to a dangerous intellectual hubris. Such logics are the enemy of diversity, the bane of inclusiveness. To argue for some post-racial, gender-blind vision of rationality is to stifle the individuality in our identities, to make obsolete the very peoples most qualified to speak to specific issues. Please do not misunderstand my argument. I am always grateful for my white allies; historically, nonwhite activists have often found white allies fighting by their side. However, the best white allies know that they will never understand black or brown pain firsthand, and seeking to do so represents an exercise in futility. Let me be perfectly clear: your whiteness prevents you from fully comprehending our nonwhite suffering, but it forgives neither your whimsical dismissal of our outrage nor your uniquely egregious ignorance regarding the shadow of racism.

To be fair, “cultural sensitivity” is something of a misnomer, and I imagine it has led to some confusion among the public. I think that “racial competence” is a far more accurate term. When the IAC and other representatives ask for “cultural sensitivity,” they are asking for white students to display a modicum of common sense in the selection and design of their costumes, to work towards an environment where students of color feel some sense of safety. Even for the most open and rational thinker, there must exist some baseline of mutual respect and personal security. If—God forbid—multiple Yale students fell ill with symptoms of some especially deadly and contagious virus, responsible administrators’ first impulse would not be to calmly sit down and thoughtfully problematize the anti-vaccination movement; it would be to cancel all classes and notify the Center for Disease Control. Just as people cannot be expected to critically analyze an academic monograph or scientific study while they detect immediate danger—I assume this is part of why so many college women have spoken out against the ongoing epidemic of on-campus rapes—communities of color should not be asked to remain composed intellectuals when they are surrounded by symbols and processes that perpetually remind them of how precarious their lives are, of how instantly their worlds can be snatched from them in the blink of an eye. There is little room for civilized debate on a campus where one group is permitted to wear attire that is an affront to other groups’ very humanity; there is even less room when the latter groups face accusations of “censure and prohibition” whenever they point out that costumes can be offensive and kindly ask the former group to exercise judgment.

Along this line of thinking, I must inquire: where was your avid free-speech rhetoric when policemen pepper-sprayed nonviolent #BlackLivesMatter protestors? Where was it when Brian Encinia threatened and assaulted Sandra Bland for getting too mouthy? Where was it when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired Steven Salaita for his controversial pro-Palestine comments? Context, as most good linguists would argue, influences meaning. A demand for “freedom of speech” does not signify the same thing here as it does herehere, or, for that matter, here. By unveiling your free-speech defense only after the IAC’s Halloween message, you have made very clear whose speech you aim to protect and whose you do not. Of course, “freedom of speech” does not refer literally to our right to speak; it refers to our right to freely express ideas, to share important logics with the public. Thus, when you imply that the IAC, by discouraging racially incompetent costumes, has violated students’ freedom of speech, one must wonder what valuable and intelligent ideas, precisely, blackface- and redface-wearing Halloweeners are trying to share with communities of color.

For many nonwhites, practices like blackface and redface and yellowface constitute an offense for which we cannot and will not stand; they are remnants of a formidable white supremacist past that has persisted into the present, one that has haunted our peoples for as long as we can recall. In a nation where nonwhite lives consist of closed door upon closed door upon closed door upon closed door, daily life is a struggle for our very humanity and dignity. Surely, you must appreciate how this takes precedence over some lofty, ivory-tower standard of rationality and Socratic discussion.

I hope that this message helps you, in some small measure, to understand our grievances, but most of all, I hope it helps you hear our voice. When the most courageous among us share our stories, we are exposing our family secrets, our deepest insecurities, our dreams and our nightmares. We are laying bare a thousand generations of struggle and pain—visceral pains that cut deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel or bone saw could, pains that too many of us have carried for too long upon our shoulders.

Viet N. Trinh
Doctoral Student
Department of History
Yale University




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  1. le guester baiter November 16, 2015 — 2:05 am

    “By unveiling your free-speech defense only after the IAC’s Halloween message, you have made very clear whose speech you aim to protect and whose you do not.”

    I’m interested in how this was expressed in the e-mail at all. She was encouraging that people should have some flexibility in social norms by stating and e.g. “ave 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?”, and that people can ultimately distinguish between something truly offensive (e.g. affirmative action and profit gaps) and something as meaningless and expressive as a Halloween costume. She never coerced anyone to stop expressing further dialogue with her ideas as far as I know – in fact, her point still has not been refuted and has been contorted into something of a “racial issue on campus” instead. Where her argument had been minimizing “safe-spaces” where people cannot be remotely offended or troubled whatsoever, those who confronted her seem to be concerned with “giving an apology” to all the people of color on campus rather than expressing intellectual dialogue and stimulating some conversation. Some actually bothered to counter her arguments, of course, but no longer can be heard between partisan battles of radical political correctness and (sometimes misplaced) anger from pretty much everyone else. Her speaking out about not needing a safe space on a fun, vernacular event such as Halloween cannot be extended unto something of a different and more professional nature, such as the “unhiring” of Steven Salaita for his racy tweets (mind you, the campus was also under pressure from their students, quite angry that he had anti-Semitic content on his Twitter account).

    Further, I’m very disappointed that it is or has devolved in Yale and many other universities such as Mizzou, Ithaca, Claremont McKenna, Dartmouth, Amherst, et al. This “racial” issue(s) they seek to solve cannot be solved by forming safe spaces or purging your president or even the US president, if these issues at hand are even relevant concerning their educational rigor. These are all the result of social norms, media, and parenting. If you don’t like it, do as Erika suggested, try to change those factors. A forced upheaval and riot will do nothing but self-segregate and blot out any intellectual feedback about the issue and how to solve it. Her discussion simply warranted others to discuss the merits of letting people be exposed to some extraneous influences, and now people are crowding around her and her husband and yelling at them to step down? I’m sorry, but I cannot sympathize with those who put their fragile emotions before their intellectual ambitions in a place of prestige such as Yale.

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