Connecticut – Day 3.5: Standing up for Racial Justice

Brittany Swanson   October 19, 2015   Comments Off on Connecticut – Day 3.5: Standing up for Racial Justice

So, on my third evening in Connecticut I Couchsurfed with Alex. Alex is a first year law student at Yale University. Originally we were supposed to have dinner with some of his friends and then go out for a drink. Unfortunately, his friends bailed last minute. Instead Alex decided to go to an event on campus and he invited me to tag along.

The event was a meet and greet for something or another. At the time, I had no idea what exactly we were going to, but Alex said there would be free food, so I was game, though I did feel a little awkward. Alex assured me it would be good for his fellow students to meet someone from outside the Yale bubble, to expand their horizons a little bit… Ok, sure, whatever you say…

When we arrived and knocked on the door I noticed a plaque on the side of the building that said Master’s House. Immediately a few red flags popped up. Where exactly were we going? What were we doing? But I decided to let it play out. When we moved into the dining room there were a handful of other people there. Mostly white, and most looked to be around my age, no one young enough to be in undergrad. Though I thought that’s what Alex had said, that this was a college of undergrads and he was like a mentor or something.

Anyway, there were grapes and strawberries and some hummus and pita chips and chocolate cake and both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. I had a few grapes, and then introduced myself to a few people, kind of wishing Alex hadn’t been there and already introduced me as a guest and non-Yale student. I don’t know, it might have been fun to pretend to be a student for a night. In fact, I’m pretty sure Rory does that when she visits Yale doesn’t she, or is it Harvard? Whatever.

At some point, I got a plate with some strawberries and a piece of cake and we were directed to the sitting room where there were chairs spread out in a circle. We went around the circle and everyone introduced themselves. Name, what you’re studying, what you’d like to eat on a study break. I went with, “Hi, my name is Brittany. I don’t actually go here. I’m on a road trip traveling to 50 states in 50 weeks and I’m couchsurfing with Alex tonight. I don’t have to study anymore, but when I did I enjoyed fruits and vegetables, because I usually wasn’t getting them otherwise.”

As we went around the circle I learned that everyone was, in fact, a grad student of some sort. They ranged from first year law students like Alex, to sixth year med students like the student who was in charge of the meet and greet, whose name I’ve forgotten. In case you’re curious, from what I remember, the group was made up of about seven girls (four Asian, one black), and eight boys (one Asian), everyone else was white. I learned that the gathering was a meet and greet for the Graduate Affiliates of Pierson College. Real quick: Yale University is made up of twelve residential colleges that students are assigned to. The residential colleges are basically what they sound like, it’s the people students live with when they’re at school. The residential colleges are the students’ school family and the place we were in was where the Head of the Residential College lived and frequently hosted events. The other people at the event were grad students who served as mentors for the undergrads.

I sort of zoned out for a minute during the Q & A part of the night, so I totally missed what question the student leader asked Stephen Davis, the Head of Pierson College and our host for the evening, but I did hear his response. Davis started by asking if we had read the email he sent out earlier in the year. A few people nodded, a few shook their heads, myself included. He boiled it down for us: in August he had sent an email to the members of Pierson College asking that they no longer use his official title of Master Davis. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, so the heads of the residential colleges at Yale are called Masters, that’s their title. So Davis, as the Head of Pierson College, was technically Master Davis. Davis went on to explain that the response he got to his request was not what he had expected. While a number of people showed their support, a surprising number lashed out at Davis choosing to focus on him rather than on the larger implications of using a term like Master to denote a person’s position of authority within the university.

He went on to explain the source of his discomfort and reasons behind his request. One reason was that the building behind the Master’s House, the house he now lived in, used to be nicknamed the Slave’s Quarters. He also told us that until sometime in the 1990s the Pierson College mascot was the Slave. No joke. I sat there astonished, dumbfounded, and a little disgusted. While I was completely engrossed in what Davis had to say, I’m not sure everyone else at the meeting felt the same. Perhaps they were thinking about all the other things they could be doing rather than listen to this guy talk about archaic uses of language that offend some people. I, however, was riveted.

Davis brought up an interesting point about his interactions with his fellow staff members of the university, particularly African-Americans. Despite his insistence that they call him Steve in conversations with him, he noticed that when they talked about him to other members of the Yale community they reverted back to his title, something that made him incredibly uncomfortable. He went on to say something about how when there are systems of authority and authority comes with a title those titles shape the way we interact with people and the relationships we are able to build with them. Thus, by being in a position of authority that comes with the title Master and interacting daily with people of color, especially African-Americans, who are expected to call him Master he felt he was perpetuating the systemic racism of this country, and I have to say I agree. I cannot think of a single reason why an American University in 2015 would still be using archaic terms like “Master” as part of its hierarchy, especially considering the current racial climate in this country.

Apparently both the Yale Daily News and an independent poller at the university polled students to ask whether they favored changing the title of Master in light of Davis’s request. According to the Yale Daily News results, thirty percent of students were in favor of a name change. The university didn’t seem to think that was a substantial number, but isn’t it? If thirty percent of the population feels marginalized or in any other way put off by the structures in place is it not the university’s duty to make a change? Wouldn’t twenty percent be enough? Or ten? Don’t they want everyone to feel included, welcomed, and respected? Furthermore, what does it say about America’s “best and brightest” that seventy percent of the population can turn a blind eye to or are completely unaware of the structural racism right in front of them?

On the flip side, in a National Review article by Rich Lizardo, a 2015 Yale College grad, Lizardo argues that Davis is taking the term Master out of context. Lizardo quotes the Dean of Yale College who says the term is based on the Oxford system which Lizardo then extrapolates to mean its intent is harmless. However, intent and perception are two completely different entities. A fact Lizardo completely ignores. Lizardo quotes and yet neglects to discuss the statement Davis made about some students moving off campus to avoid the “system where the term ‘master’ is valorized.” I think one of the African-American students who responded to the Yale Daily News poll said it best:

“I don’t want people to feel like I did, uncomfortable because of the potentially historical connections that can be drawn. Respect is of the utmost importance, but that’s respect for those in positions of authority as well as respect for the students. Should the comfort of those that may feel weird about the title not be respected?”

Seriously though, there are African-American students at Yale University in 2015 who are expected to address someone in a position of authority over them as Master. How f*ed up is that?!

In case you were wondering, the demographic breakdown of Yale students is as follows*:

  • 2% American Indian/Alaskan Native
  • 17% Asian
  • 8% Black/African-American
  • 8% Hispanic/Latino
  • >1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander
  • 62% White
  • 3% Unknown

*This data is based on University wide enrollment for U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents for Fall 2013.

So yeah, my two cents is that if a substantial percentage of the population is asking for a change, and really, in this case, if anyone is asking for a change, the university should recognize and accept that there is a problem and work to immediately address it. Furthermore, based on the numbers, I’d suggest Yale work on educating its white students about the systemic racism of which they are a part, since it appears they are under-informed. If you’re interested in reading more there is also a Yale Daily News article on Davis, as well as one in the Washington Times. What do you think? Should Yale change the title of Master? Does it matter how much of the population thinks it’s a good idea? What percent would be enough to warrant a change? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, so please comment below!