The events of the past weeks at Yale and Mizzou have brought specific instances of racism to the nation’s attention. Such outbreaks are rooted, however, in a long-standing institution of racism that extends far beyond fraternity houses and classrooms.
Despite their indisputable connection, each individual incident has its own distinct circumstances and deserves to be evaluated as such. Therefore, this article will mainly focus on recent occurrences at Yale University, in the context of similar issues elsewhere.
Following a Halloween party hosted by Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), Yale student Neema Githere ’18 wrote a Facebook post expressing her disgust at an interaction she had witnessed in front of the house: as a group of young women approached the front door, an SAE member insisted that they leave, explaining that only white girls were permitted to enter. Githere added that she had personally experienced the same discrimination the previous year. Numerous students commented on her post, sharing similar stories of racism on the university’s campus.
An anonymous freshman disclosed that a fraternity member had turned him away from the same party. As he approached the house, a man in the doorway shouted, “Who the [expletive] do you think you are–you’re clearly gay.”
Another student claimed that SAE members had been going down the line of people outside of the house, picking out blonde girls and allowing them inside. The SAE president denied all accusations of systemic discrimination on behalf of the Yale chapter. The fraternity’s ongoing rejection of the experiences of minorities serves to perpetuate the enforcement of prejudice instead of prevent further issues. SAE has already been suspended based on a violation of Yale’s sexual misconduct policy, and scrambling to save face will only tarnish their reputation further at this point.
This is certainly not the first time that SAE has fended off accusations of racism. Last spring, members of the Oklahoma University chapter posted a video featuring a group of SAE brothers on a bus shouting a racist chant. The video spread across social media and was eventually brought to the attention of the university’s administrators, ultimately leading to the expulsion of two students.
In May, SAE’s Stanford chapter was put on probation after incidences of cyberbullying, Title IX concerns and alcohol related issues. These recent problems are by no means isolated incidents. SAE, like many fraternities, has been found guilty on numerous occasions of directly engaging in discriminatory acts.
Prior to Halloween, associate master of Silliman College Erika Christakis, a residential college at Yale, received backlash for an email she sent out in response to Dean Burgwell Howard’s encouragement of respectful behavior on Halloween. She urged students to dress however they liked, without concern for the cultures and identities that they may be appropriating, saying, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or, yes, offensive?”
Not surprisingly, the student body responded strongly to Christakis’ tactless approach to the matter, and more than 740 students signed an open letter confronting the offensive nature of the email.
Since the pervasiveness of racism at the University has become common knowledge, more Yale students have opened up about their experiences with various sorts of prejudice on campus. An appallingly large portion of the student body has experienced harassment of some kind in a variety of locations, from dining halls, to classrooms, to the streets. In addition, many students have come forward lately about inadequate mental health resources, the inefficient process of filing sexual assault claims and the larger impact of these issues on minorities in the community.
As more students begin to share their past experiences, it becomes clear that the University is not a safe space for a large portion of its inhabitants. Many victims of racism and prejudice evidently did not feel comfortable voicing their experiences and pushing for change.
It is impossible to separate the racist practices of university administration from those of individual fraternities, the Greek system as a whole and the rest of the United States. The country must address the issue at every level, however, taking into account not just isolated issues, but the conception of racism on a larger scale.
For those of us not at Yale, it is all too easy to let only the most blatant, absurd examples of racism shape our perceptions of what is really happening. We need to keep in mind that we are seeing these incidents from an outside perspective, and that they may look markedly different from the other side. Oversimplifying issues as complex as racism limits both the potential for positive change and the range of voices that are heard.
Although what happened at Yale connects to a larger picture, the focus should remain on Yale students–those directly affected by these specific events–when determining the outcomes of the situation.
The upheaval caused by these events will soon die down, but the nation needs to continue to address these issues, regardless of their prevalence in media and pop culture. Although the country’s overall indignation regarding the occurrences of the past few weeks indicates a positive development in public opinion, the nation should not wait until such an undeniable, conspicuous example as the fraternity controversy happens before we confront systemic discrimination. Not all instances of racism are as visible as mass emails and fraternity chants, something both colleges and the general public need to keep in mind moving forward.
—Emma Jones ’19 is a student at Vassar College.