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The Freedom to Discriminate

Imagine for a moment that you work in university student housing and your job description states that you are "responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college." Now imagine that a subset of your students has experienced verbal harassment, taunting, and bullying from some of their fellow students. In response to their mistreatment, the targeted students repeatedly complain to the administration. After some time, the administration sends out a campus-wide email diplomatically asking all students to be thoughtful about their behavior and avoid mistreating their fellow students.

Given all that, which of the following responses to the administration's email would fit your job description:

a) Calling into question whether it is the university's role to request that students modify their behavior so as to not harass, taunt and bully their fellow students.

b) Comparing student engagement in harassment, taunting and bullying to children engaging in make-believe and asking, "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?"

c) Tell the bullied students that "if you don’t like [someone's taunting], look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence [sic] are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

d) Call a meeting with your students and let them know that harassment, taunting and bullying degrade the educational life and character of your institution. Tell them that these actions deny their fellow students equal access to education, and as such are not tolerated on your watch.


If you said anything resembling response "d," I'd argue that there is a high likelihood that you are qualified for your job. If a, b and c seemed appropriate to you, it would be clear that you are not doing the job of protecting all of your students, especially if you included those comments in a long email sent to all of your students. In that case I think it would be appropriate to note the discrepancy between your actions and your job description. 

That is, unless the shape of the "social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college" is a two-tiered system in which one group is deserving of a safe environment for learning, and another group is not. If the set of appropriate actions for a university includes ignoring complaints of harassment, taunting and bullying when it applies to some students, while taking actions to protect others, then responses "a" through "c" are certainly appropriate. In other words, if discrimination is a part of your institutional culture then the defense of discriminatory actions as the right to free speech is certainly appropriate. In that case the "freedom of speech" would be equivalent to the "freedom to discriminate." 

A confounding factor in all of this is that institutional discrimination is very rarely explicit in nature. Instead of having official rules that state that certain groups of students are relegated to a suboptimal set of resources, experiences and opportunities, we must search for evidence of discrimination in the results of an institution's actions (and inactions), and more importantly in the outcomes of those actions (and inactions). Because the scenario above is not hypothetical, and played out on an actual college campus last year, we have an unfortunate, yet handy test case. 

This case is the story of Erika Christakis, a lecturer and associate house "master" of Silliman College at Yale. She's the one who sent the email questioning whether it is appropriate for her university to request that students refrain from wearing racist Halloween costumes "including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface." These costumes are just a portion of the harassment, taunting and bullying experienced by a subset of Ms. Christakis' students (I've written about this previously here, and here). 

And to be clear, that subset of students who are protesting their mistreatment looks something like this:


What are some of the outcomes of Ms. Christakis' actions? Well, she's faced criticism and anger from the mistreated students. Her husband was yelled at by a student, an experience so traumatic for him that he's taking paid leave from work—a luxury rarely afforded students of color who are verbally assaulted on a regular basis. But as we learn from a recent New York Times article, Christakis has kept her job as a house "master" in Yale's Silliman College (h/t Chanda, who linked to the NYT piece in her excellent recent essay). While she has been unable to make eye contact with people on her campus, presumably out of her own feelings of shame(?), she still gets to live and work there. 

The article states that this whole incident has been painful for Chrisakis, but doesn't really indicate why or how. Also, at no point does it draw a comparison between her actions and her job description. Indeed, Christakis doubles down and asks, "Should we be talking more transparently about when it's appropriate for administrations to insert themselves into issues that arise in students' lives?" There is no mention of her charge to protect her students, nor the specific complaints of those students. Indeed, after the author places scare quotes around those students' collective identity ("marginalized"), they are swept away so we can focus on Ms. Christakis' hurt feelings. Ironic given that the student protesters have been so frequently labeled as "spoiled" and "coddled."

Professor Stone (Yale Physics):
Christakis apologist and brave
defender of the status quo.
Also, instead of hearing from Yale faculty about how disappointed they are in Ms. Christakis' failure to care for all of her students, we learn that A. Douglas Stone, professor of applied physics at Yale is busily calling for support for her to keep her job. Prof. Stone states that the criticism leveled against Christakis "has had a chilling effect on faculty members who aspire to administrative positions." Apparently in his view, and the view of many of his fellow professors, Ms. Christakis' rhetoric was not only appropriate, but criticism of it is somehow threatening to people with job security for life. 

The complaints of hundreds of Yale students about harassment, taunting and bullying are ignored for years. Meanwhile, a house master, whose job it is to protect the wellbeing of her students decides to mount a defense of their tormenters. The outcome is that the house master has kept her job and her faculty have rallied around her. Editorials across the country call for a defense of her freedom of speech, despite the lack of any punitive action from the US Congress (do people even read the first amendment?). Instead, the students who criticize her for not supporting them are made out to be the bad-guys. The protestations of these students, which are echoed on campuses nation-wide, are viewed as somehow unworthy of careful consideration and dangerous by those in power.

Thus, this analysis reveals that there is, indeed, a two-tiered system of education in place at Yale, and at other universities across the nation. Students of color, the descendants of women and men whose lives and labor were stolen by white people to build this nation, or otherwise trampled upon by the US-American colonial project, continue face systemic and interpersonal discrimination, and are vilified for protesting their treatment. As Barbara Fields and Karen Fields astutely note, "The missing step between someone's physical appearance and an invidious outcome is the practice of a double standard: in a word, racism." 

In the stories emerging from Yale we're getting a clear glance at one of our country's oldest double standards. While most people in this country are busy averting their eyes and changing the topic to "freedom of speech," I'll call it what it is: the centuries-old defense of a white person's right to discriminate based on race. The words used to describe and defend this well-practiced custom have changed over the years, but the end result remains the same as it ever was. 

Students of color at Yale: I see you. I hear you. I affirm that the struggle is real. 

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