Costumes, discomfort and free expression at Yale

    This Halloween gave me shivers. I’m not talking about glycemic shock from snarfing too many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. No, what really unnerved me were the recent eruptions at my alma mater, Yale University.

    This Halloween gave me shivers.

    I’m not talking about glycemic shock from snarfing too many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

    Nor the tilt-a-whirl of alarm, skepticism and relief as I followed the needles-in-the-candy story in Kennett Square, which turned out to be one more Halloween hoax.

    No, what really unnerved me were the recent eruptions at my alma mater, Yale University. In case you’ve been distracted — say, trying to keep track of the Republicans running for president, or hoarding your leftover M&M’s — here’s what happened:

    A few days before Halloween, Yalies received an e-mail signed by the college’s dean of student engagement and administrators who head religious and cultural centers on campus. The note urged students to be thoughtful in their choice of Halloween costumes — that is, to avoid feather headdresses, turbans, ‘war paint,’ blackface or anything else that “disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”

    There would be no “costume police” bouncing a white New Hampshire physics major out of the Haunted Hall Crawl if she came as Pocahontas. The note was a suggestion: that students consider the implications of their costumes and avoid unnecessary offense.

    Not everyone agreed. A few days after the Halloween letter, one faculty member — a lecturer in early childhood education who is married to the master of one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges — sent her own letter to students. She asked whether the administrators’ missive infantilized undergraduates by telling them how to dress for Halloween.

    More profoundly, she wondered whether such guidelines froze the atmosphere of free expression that a university should prize.

    Her letter raised important questions: At what point does sincere exploration and appreciation of other cultures slip into appropriation or theft? Shouldn’t students be able to ignore — or confront — a classmate in a tasteless costume? And isn’t Halloween, after all, a day intended to breach norms?

    More questions than answers

    I read both letters. I felt kinship with both sides. I can think of Halloween get-up that I would certainly find shocking or offensive: Someone tricked out as Hitler, or a Klansman, or as Dylann Roof, the man who opened fire in a Charleston church. How about dressing as a suicide, with a noose around the neck? Or as a rape victim? A Syrian refugee? Yes, I’d want members of my community to avoid costumes that trivialize real pain or make a joke of historic injustice.

    But I also agreed with the counter-letter. Halloween — at least, as practiced by adults — is a time for small transgressions. Poke a finger in the eye of authority? Sure. Use humor to unmask truth? Costume up in order to reveal? You bet. Just ask some LGBT elders who grew up in closeted times and cherished October 31 as the one day they could outfit themselves authentically.

    Today, someone dressed as a lesbian nun (rainbow socks under the black habit; labrys symbol dangling where the cross would be) might offend devout Catholics or homophobes, but wouldn’t her masquerade also prod us to think about the Church’s calcified views on sexuality and gender?

    As I sifted the arguments, I missed my college days, when we’d sit up past midnight to eat congealed pizza and engage in messy, protracted debate: Should the university divest from South Africa, even if that action put scholarship funds at risk? Should secret societies be dismantled in the name of democracy and inclusion, or preserved as emblems of university history and students’ freedom to form like-minded groups?

    I could imagine vigorous discussions over lentil-cheese loaf (or whatever they’re serving on the vegetarian dinner line these days) about the tricky questions this controversy raised: On a college campus, should civility and safety trump free expression? What does it mean to act for justice and accountability, on Halloween and every other day? Did the dean’s letter patronize undergrads? Did the professor’s response invalidate students of color?

    Chilling the dialogue

    But what unfolded wasn’t table talk. Instead, in a discussion held in a college courtyard and videotaped by a visiting scholar, a group of students confronted the Silliman college master, Nicholas Christakis; some demanded that he apologize.


    “As master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home,” one student said, her voice taut with emotion. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!” When Christakis said he needed to think about the request for an apology, the discussion devolved. “Who the f— hired you?” a student shouted. “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!” yelled another.

    And that’s when I felt chilled.

    For $134 a night, you can buy “comfort and home” at the Branford-New Haven Holiday Inn; for $62,000 a year, you ought to get something more: a place that nourishes and demands candid self-examination, intellectual rigor and a love (not mere tolerance) of varied and conflicting points of view. A place to practice both humility and strength of self.

    The good news is that Yale — despite recent announcements of two African-American faculty members that they are leaving for Columbia and its more emphatic commitment to diversity — is a much more heterogeneous place than it was when I attended 30 years ago. So is the United States.

    The bad news is that we haven’t figured out how to share power and privilege in that multi-cultural maelstrom, how to embrace stories that contradict our own. We’re a slow and sorry work in progress; you can feel the rumbles and touch the pain, hot as a third rail.

    Seek out the ones who are different

    I’d like to tell today’s Yalies to grab some cold pizza and look for the person at the party who seems most different — the one dressed as a sex slave, maybe, or as a terrorist. The biracial, transgender kid with magenta hair. The Mormon linguistics major from Kentucky. The one who seems richer than God, or poorer than dirt.

    Then I’d remind both of them that, no matter what well-paved or potholed road brought them to the Ivy League, they are privileged to have these four years to wonder and question and learn. I’d urge them to be creative and curious, sturdy and kind.

    And I’d tell them a story. One Halloween, I was a visitor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Costumes there were pretty high-concept; not a sheeted ghost or an eye-patched pirate in the place. But there was a guy with Post-its stuck to his sneakers: that’s right, a footnote. And a girl who must have raided her grandmother’s lingerie drawer. I was startled, then confused: a flesh-colored, barely-there, cleavage-revealing chemise with a sign that said “Oops” on the front.

    Then I got it. She was a Freudian slip.

    The Nov. 13 edition of WHYY’s “Radio Times” took on the campus speech debate with University of Pennsylvania junior Alec Ward and Swarthmore senior Kara Blesdoe.

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