Ivy League debate over Halloween costumes

Some of my Yale-graduate friends, most of whom are now college professors, were discussing the twisted panties at Yale regarding Halloween costume etiquette (see “The New Intolerance of Student Activism” for some background).

What is known is that a person currently named “Erika Christakis” wrote an email that some students didn’t like. The only other item regarding the email author that seems to be authoritative is that this person is married to “Nicholas Christakis.”

One of the Yale graduates in the exchange wrote the following:

On a campus where students of color regularly experience racism, a request goes out to refrain from costumes that mock and demean people of color. A request, not an edict, to refrain from hurting and dehumanizing others.

A straight white woman with no experience of being afraid on campus poo-poos the request, equating black-face with harmless child’s play. Her email completely ignores the issues which led to the request, as well as the tremendous imbalances of power that exist on a majority-white, majority-straight campus, where there’s no such thing as peer pressure curbing the impulses of frat boys to mock, demean, and threaten marginalized students.

[emphasis added]

Suppose that we accept the idea that the ideas expressed in what literature scholars call a “text” should be judged according to the sexual preferences and gender identity of the author. If we also accept the idea that biology is not destiny, is it reasonable to make heteronormative and cisgender-normative assumptions about an author? And who among us is qualified to look at a photograph of an email author and say “this person identifies as white”? Finally how does anyone know if another person has “experience of being afraid on campus”?

I prodded the author of the passage quoted above and asked how it was possible for us to know definitively that “Erika” identified as a woman and also to know what kinds of sexual desires were present in Erika’s brain. The Yale graduate responded with “It’s relevant that the author of the email comes from a position of privilege … It’s not a question of her ‘sexual practices,’ but of how she experiences the world as she walks through it – differently than the students who had a problem with her email.”

Christakis’s web page notes that her highest level degree is a master’s and that she specializes in early childhood education. In any other context she would be described as an underpaid victim of a society that doesn’t value K-12 teachers (they are so undervalued, of course, that hundreds apply for an open public school position!). Or she would be the subject of sympathy as an underpaid adjunct teacher and/or an exploited master’s degree holder at an institution where the people making real $$ ($820/hour at Yale!) are PhDs. But for this purpose she needs to occupy a “position of privilege.” A Yale graduate responded to this by citing a cartoon on everydayfeminism.com explaining white privilege. Yet the rest of the content on that site explains that women of all races in the U.S. are oppressed victims. Can Erika Christakis, if indeed she identifies as a white woman, simultaneously be privileged because of her race and an oppressed victim because of her gender identification?

Gary Shteyngart writes about being at a liberal arts college in the 1990s (previous posting):

I master an Oberlin technique called “As a.” “As a woman, I think …” “As a woman of color, I would speculate …” “As a woman of no color, I would conjecture …” “As a hermaphrodite.” “As a bee liberator.” “As a beagle in a former life.”

These self-identification prefaces still make logical sense in our gender-is-a-state-of-mind world. But how does it make sense to make an assumption about an author’s gender or sexual preferences unless one has intimate knowledge of that author? And if it is not reasonable, does that mean that entire careers of literature scholars are in jeopardy?

[Separately, if you’re an employer watching this unfold, do you want to pay a premium for a Yale graduate? What’s the value of an employee who will devote a lot of time and energy thinking about what people should wear to the company Halloween party?]

11 thoughts on “Ivy League debate over Halloween costumes

  1. To address the last point: I own a small firm. Our business is highly quantitative and the vast majority of our hires, especially those out of college, have degrees in STEM fields such as CS, EE, Physics, Math, and so forth. Generally I think these kind of ‘serious’ degrees tend to filter out folks who are overly concerned about privilege, microaggressions, and just spend their time solving problem sets in the basement. So, as an actual employer who interviews and hires Yale graduates, I don’t see a big source of concern here.

    On the other hand, I honestly don’t really know what the game plan is for students who obsess over these matters and get degrees in the soft sciences. Let’s say that you get into Yale and then get a degree in some kind of gender studies, or a similar field. Although you’re probably pretty smart (Yale is hard to get into!), I can’t imagine a traditional corporate employer wanting to hire you. If nothing else, the probability that you sue your employer for some reason must be orders of magnitude higher, no?

  2. Is this a literal quote?

    > A straight white woman with no experience of being afraid on campus poo-poos the request, equating black-face with harmless child’s play.

    Because doesn’t the Yalie know that 1 in 5 women are raped on campus!! And in getting her Master’s degree, surely Erika experienced a higher probability than that! Not to mention all the years she has been on campus since then.


    “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”

    I am stunned, stunned with the Yalie’s erasure of her experience.

  3. But how does it make sense to make an assumption about an author’s gender or sexual preferences unless one has intimate knowledge of that author?

    Oh, that’s easy – you just assume the “worst” about somebody whose positions you don’t like (the “worst” being a white heterosexual). Not only can you assume their sexual and gender preferences, but you can also assume that they act only with the most vile motives possible. It’s fun and easy to do this.

    “no experience of being afraid on campus” – as opposed to the PoC’s of Yale who are constantly being lynched by the Yale branch of the KKK. Actually, since Yale is located in a high crime (largely minority) area, I would think that she had plenty to fear. Among other things, she has (we are told) a 20% chance of being raped. (By the way, why is “colored person” bad but “person of color” good?)

    In the cartoon, one of the examples of “white privilege” is that a white person is about 4x less likely to go to prison in their lifetime than a PoC. This would make sense if going to prison was some random event like being struck by a meteorite. But the last time I looked, going to prison was associated with committing crimes. Is it possible that PoC’s commit crimes at 4x the rate of whites so that’s why they end up in prison 4x as much?

    Regarding employment, you really have nothing to worry about – “Screaming Girl” is not going to be applying for a job at your business or any business. She is either going to remain in the academic sector or work as a “community organizer” or somesuch.

  4. I think in the future, some neutral authority (a well paid bureaucracy staff by race and gender studies graduates, etc.) should award each person victim points (“Vicpo’s”) based upon a careful study of their race, class, gender, sexual preferences and so on. A white male Christian heterosexual would start out with zero Vicpos but might earn a few by being a feminist or an environmentalist or some such (but just a few). Just like a handicap in golf, VicPos would exist to neutralize white privilege and put everyone on an equal footing. Each person would carry with them a Victim Card, recording their official number of VicPos. Normally your # of VicPos would be constant, but after some important life event (being raped, changing your gender, etc. ) you could apply for an adjustment to your VicPos. Then in any dispute, such as the encounter between Screaming Girl and Dr. Christakis, it would be unnecessary for Screaming Girl to actually scream, or even say anything at all. The parties in question would merely pull out their Victim Cards and whoever had a higher number of Vicpos would automatically be pronounced the winner. You could also use your Victim Card to get a leg up in college admissions, job hunting, etc. and you wouldn’t have to go thru the tedium of proving your victim credentials anew on each application. It’s much cleaner this way and would produce the same results as the current system with much less shouting.

  5. What you are talking about Izzie is Intersectionality, which is a partial ordering across a bignum dimensional oppression space.

    As feminist scientists explore oppression space, society is often left unsure how to sort two items within the oppression space.

    Right now we rely on spontaneous intersection-offs that provide examples consisting of two or more elements who can be used to observe the actual sort order of the intersectionality space as it happens and then generalize from there. This observation often leads to discovery of not just the metric itself, but of entirely new dimensional basis that underly oppression space.

    About all feminist science has determined so far is that the highest intersectionality measure occurs for white cis gendered men. The value of the Intersectionality number for white cis gendered men is ℵ which is pronounced Alef male.

  6. Izzy L., please run for president of the U.S. You have my vote!

    PhilG, I seem to recall a guy I’m meeting for the first time in person (YOU) refer to me as a “rich bastard” merely because I was driving a 7-series BMW. So do you have any room to complain about screaming gal? Ahh, nope!!

  7. PS
    I want to see Screaming Girl scream at and invade personal space of Holly Holm.
    I sense screaming would quickly cease.

  8. PS 2
    I’m confused at how Screaming Girl deems it ok to SCREAM in the face of her college’s administrator yet it’s not ok to wear blackface.
    Violence is fine as long as you’re not in costume?

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