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.
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?]