Shrieking girl. There it is. I’ve been trying to think of a less gendered, less belittling phrase for the subject of a video that went viral this weekend, a black female student at my alma mater, Yale University, letting rip her frustrations at a mobbed college master. But shrieking she is, and not like an adult. ‘It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!’ (that’s one of the less expletive-laden sections). The trigger for this was Halloween, the subject at hand the question of who gets to judge potentially offensive costumes, and how. But how did we get to the point where students are brought to tears at the suggestion a leading university ‘should be an intellectual space’?
You can’t understand Yale today without understanding the Black Lives Matter movement. New Haven, one of the north’s poorest, densely African-American cities, spreads around a single island of privilege, Yale University. Last December, while I was back on campus to research my PhD, America learned that no officer would face charges in the death of Eric Garner, the black man killed in New York during an arrest for selling tax-free cigarettes (a libertarian cause if ever there was one). So each night I listened to angry protests spill out onto the streets – angry, but essentially peaceful. During trips to nearby New York, I hovered with the other awkward white liberals on the fringes of the perma-protest encamped at Grand Central Station, unwilling to walk past without a thumbs up or a few limp handclaps of support, but not sure if we were wanted in an African-American space and really quite keen to get on with our shopping.
This matters at Yale, perhaps more than any other Ivy League college. Europeans have always visited America and come back in shock at the implicit racial segregation visible on every street. (Americans, on the other hand, can never quite believe that Britain’s problems look different). But I’d never felt it in my marrow until I lived in New Haven. For the first time, I lived in a city where every single person on the margins was black, each one so much easier for the average white student to dismiss due to the darkness of their skin. For the first time I heard, with sudden realisation, a protestor declare: ‘we came to this country in chains, and they complain we don’t love America.’ No wonder Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bleakly pessimistic book Between the World and Me has taken America by storm this year – Coates’ vision of slavery as the original American sin undermines the myth of the great American melting-pot, the beacon for enthusiastic immigrants. Not everyone’s ancestors wanted to be here.
So, what does any of this have to do with Stepford Students weeping over offensive Halloween costumes on campus? Or in this case, weeping over the possibility of offensive Halloween costumes on campus. Or, to be even more specific, weeping over the detailed and careful suggestion, by the wife of a college master, that the wearers of offensive costumes should be confronted in discussion by other students, rather than banned by college authorities?
Because like every cultural crisis, there are two competing narratives for what’s going on at Yale this week, sprung at the intersection of two different political fault-lines. The first is that today’s students can’t cope with the world as adults, and remain on a rampage to censor the last vestiges of independent thought. The second is that Yale is a bastion of American racism, and the next frontier of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But what actually happened? Shortly before Halloween, a bureaucratic body, The Intercultural Affairs Council, sent out an email signed by several official Yale apparatchiks, listing in detail, type of costumes people might find offensive. In response to complaints, Erika Christakis, the new Associate Master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, sent out a two-page, thoughtful email drawing immediately from her academic work as a child psychologist, in which she suggested that Halloween should be a time for young people to break the rules a little. Her email considers questions of cultural appropriation and costuming from every angle, and is worth reading in full here, but sums up by suggesting that it should be students, not committees who start discussions about costumes which offend them. As an official, Christakis writes, ‘I don’t actually trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others.’ Welcome liberality from any university functionary. Yet Yale’s progressive brigade are now gunning for her resignation.
I never thought I’d be defending American Halloween traditions at all. When I was young, my mother banned us from celebrating a ghost-day on Protestant grounds – and what’s fun about a feast that seems based on extortion? (‘Trick or treat? Kinder Egg in our basket or broken egg on your door?’) So when I arrived at Yale, a lost, cold foreigner recovering from a nervous breakdown at Oxford, I found the entire concept of a university-sponsored Halloween culturally alien – some might say, offensive.
But in a new community, you muck in, and pretty soon I discovered a carnival so far divorced from ghoulish paganism as to have abandoned it entirely. Instead, emerging from the Mexican Día de Muertos, and the 1970s drag fests of San Fransisco, adult Halloween became a Latin-style Mardi Gras, a day when any thing goes. It seemed the only day in the year when the pains and pressures of late adolescence were abandoned in favour of something like community: in my second year, deep in nasty student politics, a bunch of us at each other’s throats suddenly dropped the malice and banded together as a beaming Henry VIII and his six wives. (Five years after graduation, Henry and Kathryn Howard are happily expecting their second child). Who ever heard of a carnivale with rules?
It’s this spirit of Halloween – and with it, the balance between adulthood and childhood – that Christakis defends in her email, as she has consistently done in her previous writing. She’s doing exactly what an academic is supposed to do – drawing from her immediate research to inform university debate. ‘Pretend-play is the foundation of most imaginative tasks,’ she writes – in other words, our culture may be obsessed with authentic identity, but dressing-up still requires us to try out false identities instead.
That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype. Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?
There’s a deep irony in any student asking a university to censor them more, not less. These are students who crib Foucalt between classes, when they actually go to them (one student wrote that in response to Christakis’ email, ‘friends are not going to class, are not doing their homework, are losing sleep, are skipping meals, and are having breakdowns.’) But have they never discussed the institutionalisation of power?
The truth is that Yale has always encouraged students to talk back. In Britain, the student who screeched ‘F-you’ to a professor would be suspended: here, she’ll probably end up on a senior committee. It was this licensed rebelliousness that I loved when I first arrived, a refugee from stuffy, hierarchical Oxford. They really didn’t know how good they had it. At Oxford, it was hard to find a tutor who gave a toss for guidelines on sexual harassment – but at Yale, members of the Women’s Centre, with its safe rooms and empowerment seminars all funded by the university, felt strong enough to sue… the university, alleging that Yale failed to deal adequately with sexual harassment complaints. It is a liberalism to be celebrated, but a liberalism dependent on a lot of money. And a liberalism that reaches stalemate when students ask, according to their rights as adults, to be infantilised, again, like the masochist who demands to be beaten. I used to think Yale was the great example to which all British universities should look. Now, I’m not so sure.