Thursday, October 25, 2007

race and violence: freshmen of color at yale

i have someone here at yale this year who i love very much. we have known each other a long time and he is a brilliant, forward thinking, conscious young black man. he is a freshman from brooklyn, new york with sensibilities he has gained from navigating all sorts of worlds - prestigious boys' school for the New York City elite, elementary school in clinton hill in the nineties, all sorts of neighborhoods in brooklyn and queens and the bronx, now yale's campus and new haven.

in the two months he has been at yale he has had white men threaten him multiple times with violence, with power, with their own acute and oppressive sense of entitlement. during his first days here he went to a party at one of the greek houses on campus with a large group of other freshmen. he alone was singled out of the line for entrance. he was not simply asked to show ID before being allowed in, which is standard procedure for racists about town who are scared of mixing company with the black and latino new haven residents who have been here long before they were accepted to yale. this young man was instead frisked by another student - a young white man who had the audacity to put his hands on another human being, without any authority vested in him by law, institution, or consent. he acted only with the authority he perceived bestowed upon him somehow by his whiteness.

the humiliation of being frisked in front of the other freshmen, othered in his construction as black, as latino, as a danger. of course, this white student who did the frisking would not have known what to do should he have even found a weapon. he did not really expect my friend to have a weapon. the frisk was merely an exercise of control: a performance of power. "This is my space, I can put my hands on you because I am white, because you are black, and because I decide whether or not you can stay here --- for now and of course, on my terms."

weeks later, when my friend - this young brilliant, good natured, resilient, black man - attempted to attend an "integrated" social event at yale with his dignity in tact, he was lifted up by the shirt by yet another tall, big white man and shoved out of the way. this man was drunk too. my friend responded. he let this other man know that he was never to touch him again, to use violence with him again, to move him out of the way as if he had ownership of the room, the whole planet, my friend's body. he was also never to assume he could do that unchallenged, without resistance.

three weeks ago, my friend's experiences came to a climax (for thus far, that is). he was sitting on a bench on high street across from a drunk white man. this man was with another male friend and his girlfriend. he called this young man that i know jermaine and then jerome, which my friend ignored. he asked my friend why he was here to which my friend replied, "i am waiting for my sister and her friends." the drunk white man then went on to say, "ooh - your sister is she hot?"

my friend went on to tell this kid to leave him alone, to stop asking him inappropriate questions about his sister, that he didn't know him. apparently, the kid's girlfriend shushed him. but he went on. "are her friends hot?" when my young friend told him again to be quiet, to stop harassing him, and to stop asking questions about women (of color) and their respective hotnesses, the kid announced: "whatever, he probably doesn't even go to yale anyway."

beyond failing to address my friend (probably lacking the courage to look him in the eye and say "you probably don't even go to yale anyway"), this drunk white man assumed that because of the color of my friend's skin and the manner of his dress he could not possibly be a yale student. and of course, to this man to be a yale student is tantamount to being his equal. what he was really saying was: "you are probably not even my equal." moreover, this other student's words reveal that other people, particularly people of color, are not worthy of his respect, time, or recognition, if they do not attend yale.

an argument ensued, during which the drunk white man issued threats such as "i'm twice your size." this man and his two companions made my friend acutely aware that he was outnumbered and smaller. being from brooklyn, the young man i know did not flinch.

my friend communicated - with no ambiguity at all - that this drunk white man did not know him, ought not underestimate him, and would not be able to harm him.

when three of the women of color my brother was waiting for arrived, they noticed the anger and tension in the scene. they told the drunk man's girlfriend and friend to take him home. "what kind of friends are you? leaving your drunk, belligerent, racist friend out on the street to harass people?" when tensions reached a climax, one of the young black women announced, "fine! i know you're not 21. let's call the police then!" they arrived in bold defense and solidarity, supporting my friend who was already handling himself well - unwilling to be diminished, to be harmed - with words or blows. the situation resolved and the three senior women walked with the young freshman man, welcomed yet again to this new academic community with accusations of non-belonging and with the desire of others to assert their own eminence through assaults on his mind, his soul, his self.

i am most moved by two things. first, the incredible pride of these men who continue to assault my friend. they all appear to have what some might call a God complex - they believe in their own eminence and invincibility; they believe that they have the power and authority to manipulate the life and rights of others. i am moved by friend's steadfastness and conviction in his own humanity and his own rights. that he would assert his self in the face of such danger, unafraid of defending himself, but unwilling to enter the sort of fray that might jeopardize an educational opportunity that he, his family, and his community have worked very hard to obtain.

my heart aches for this young man. he is a man of great promise, who has transcended all sorts of life circumstance, to arrive at a place of light and truth that included no pictures of such threats of violence in the glossy pages of a brochure.

earlier this year, Dr. Beverly Tatum came to speak to yale freshmen about her book Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations about Race. Dr. Tatum's presence was part of an innovative and important initiative coordinated by the yale administration and student leaders to pro-actively address issues of diversity and community. some freshmen (of many colors) objected to being assigned readings from Dr. Tatum's book and the "forced" dialogue about race and segregation and justice. to some, the talk felt like part of a propagandistic liberal agenda or a reinforcement of racial lines by talking about the existence and division of race in college.

in general, the response from freshmen was overwhelmingly positive; many felt the difficult conversations expanded their minds to new ways of thinking and opened their hearts to new ways of loving. only time will tell whether the program will foster unity and conscience. however, a few students deemed the events irrelevant or oppressive.

such students are the sort of folk that ralph ellison might call "sleepwalkers."

Open Your Eyes.

freshman year is not all dances and kegs and problem set parties for all freshmen at yale.

thinking of these experiences my friend has recounted to me, i wonder:

is there is an infrastructure to report such acts of violence, such grievances, such threats? is there a body at yale that students of color, that muslim students, that women, can report such acts to so that they might feel safe on the street and in their dorm rooms? so that such pride, irresponsibility, and hatred may not go unchecked, may not ever culminate in the violence that destroys fleshes and futures? something to think of blactivists and friends...

the story of this young man is not uncommon. i know black men who have had gate doors slammed in their faces, who have had the police called on them while they are doing their laundry in dorm basements, who have been told by campus police they do not look like yale students. i know black women who have been accused of stealing, who have had their bodies regarded as sites for conquest and control, who are punished for their spirit and their voice.

this is of course not typical of yale's campus alone. this is the treatment we experience as black students within the yale bubble, carrying IDs that prove to policemen and frat boys, however unbelieving, that we have a right to walk the streets of new haven. this is a right consistently denied to the citizens of new haven - who without the plastic white proof of belonging - are invisible and dangerous.

when i spoke to the aforementioned young man on the phone, he told me he was not scared. he's been attacked by drunk white men muttering the n-word on late trains coursing through brooklyn, where he lives. where i am from as well. this event was not upsetting for my friend because it had never happened to him before - it had. he was most upset because these sorts of encounters he is having on high street in new haven, connecticut are precisely the reason he did not apply to schools in the South.

welcome to New England.

since this young man has been at yale he has experienced all manner of racism. beyond this sort of incident involving a threat of violence, he has, of course, seen and circumnavigated and resisted many racisms that others might deem less "severe." These "subtler" forms of racism ---- underestimation by professors, objectification by peers, tokenization, dismissal, denial of history, social exclusion, sexual harassment, economic oppression --- injustices that are no less violent, less injurious, less unjust than white hands roaming, shoving, pounding.

while i believe very much in non-violence and the importance of peacemaking, i also currently believe very much that self defense is a human right. i worry to think of what would have happened should that kid have begun to swung at my young friend. i worry to think of who would have left yale, and who would have remained. i worry to think of how that story might have been re-spun and history revised.

all i can promise is that there would have been a rally, a protest, a movement: vigilant and committed organizing on the part of black yale and our allies. it is a wonder we are not doing all of this already.

perhaps it is the sense of complete involvement we have in our schoolwork. and surely, our educations are important. unlike many white activists at Yale who rhetorically and effectively dismiss school work as somehow irrelevant in comparison to the immediacy of "The Struggle," as students of color at yale we know that our presence here is political, that we inhabit yale in preparation for our return to the communities from whence we came to work collectively for real good; we know that the histories we are studying are our heritage and may be our deliverance. we know that these histories are ours to recreate.

however, although we regard our experiences in yale and in new haven as preparation, we cannot be still. our time in this city is time in "the real world," irrespective of what others might insinuate about what college is or should be. complacency will never be a part of a true education and our immersion in action, in reflection, in good work, and in each other will be what ensures that we learn.

press on, young one. the drunk white kids on high street can't take your education away. and in the words of e st v, remind those who would assault us, night and day, ceaselessly, with hateful egocentrism and cruelty:

See you in class.


Joshua said...

one of the best things you've ever written; beautiful.

rikyrah said...

Found this blog through Prometheus6. This is a fantastic essay. Many prayers to the Brother in this post, as well as all of the Black students at Yale.

Anonymous said...

Brilliance, yet again. _Umi

Anonymous said...

This is amazing and affirming- Ronke

Roxie said...

Found this from racialicous. I am too surprised at what he's facing at Yale.

I wish he wouldn't have written off the south though. Georgia State University is one of the most diverse in the nation...but anyway, more power to you and to him!

Anonymous said...

My black friend experienced awful racist service from an ice cream shop in Little Italy called Libby's this past summer. The older woman behind the counter was so rude and loud with my friend that (after he paid for his ice cream) he told her "It would benefit you to give all of your customers good service" and then put his ice cream back on the counter and left the shop. I also returned my ice cream in support of my friend and told the woman that she was very very rude. Ten or more white customers stood in line behind us with their mouths open in disbelief.

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Keep up the good work.

sunny said...

yo naima, this was a great post because of the truth it brought. sometimes life post-yale means folks hearing where i went to school and assuming a certain type of experience and i want to thank you for laying out the REAL, very REAL, experiences of students of color at an institution that can only offer the "Minority Advisory Council" as proof that it cares. i don't know if y'all know this but awhile back folks at dwight hall were planning to launch a web-based database of instances of harassment at yale perpetrated by yalies and administration alike. i don't know if they're still trying to get that happening or if they ever did but i do think that it's very important that people have that as a way to challenge the mainstream message of "diversity." ps, please blog about what the folx at spelman are doing around megan williams and the woman in florida whose name know one seems to use.

Anonymous said...


great post. from a freshman perspective, i agree that the discussions on race this year were very important, and need to be continued.


Anonymous said...

hi naima,
my name is virginia and i am a senior at wesleyan (not too far from you all!) i just came across this blog. it is really great and i found this post particularly beautiful and heart wrenching. i also wanted to let you know that wesleyan hired a dean for diversity and academic advancement two years ago, and in his tenure he has started a campus climate log, which is a log documenting hate incidents on campus. there is also a log committee, and im not as sure what it does, but i think it talks about the incidents that come up and ways to address them. anyway, i am sure he would be happy to talk to you more about it if you are interested. you can also check out the office for diversity and academic advancement's website at best of luck to you! youre doing a really good thing.
-virginia (

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