An email concerning offensive Halloween costumes has sent Yale University into disarray, sparking a debate over free speech, safe spaces, and the treatment of minority students.
Yale president Peter Salovey reported feeling “deeply troubled” after meeting with a group of black students who were “in great distress.” The group was expressing concerns that the university was not doing its part to meet the needs of minority students, writes Liam Stack for The New York Times.
“The experiences they shared went beyond the incidents of the last few days,” he said in a statement. “Their concerns and cries for help made clear that some students find life on our campus profoundly difficult.”
The Halloween costume controversy began last month when an email was sent by the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee to the entire student body, requesting that students try not to wear costumes that could be viewed as “culturally unaware and insensitive.” The email went on to make specific mention of steering clear of feathered headdresses, turbans, or blackface.
In response, faculty member Erika Christakis, who is also a dormitory administrator, wrote an email to the students living in her residence hall, arguing that students should be able to dress up as whomever or whatever they want, even if it ends up offending someone. Using an example she took from her experience as an early childhood educator, she questioned whether a blonde toddler should not be allowed to dress up as an African-American or Asian Disney character.
The email caused an uproar among students at the college, as hundreds signed an open letter chastising Christakis’s argument that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence” should take precedence.
The email was responsible for at least one heated argument in which Christakis’s husband Nicholas, who is also a faculty member, found himself being pushed to apologize on behalf of his wife by a large group of students who argued that they did not have a “safe space” at the school.
A video posted to YouTube by a free speech group showed the students cursing and yelling at him after he refused to apologize. The video had been viewed over 450,000 times as of Sunday, writes Katie Waldman for Stack.
Racial debates have intensified on college compuses across the country over the last year. Last month, the president of the University of Louisville was pictured with a group of friends wearing ponchos, sombreros and mustaches for their Mexican-themed Halloween costumes. He later apologized to students for his actions.
A separate instance found at least 30 black football players at the University of Missouri refusing to play unless the president resigned because of perceived mishandling of previous racial incidents at the school. The school’s president, Tim Wolfe, submitted his resignation on Monday.