Yale has been the focus of rising concerns over academic freedom and the treatment of faculty after the appearing of a disturbing videotape showing Yale students abusing Professor Nicholas Christakis who sought to have a civil conversation over an email written by Christakis’ wife. Two of the students who were most vocal in this controversial confrontation have now reportedly been honored with the Nakanishi Prize selection committee deemed most deserving of a prize for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” on campus. Various cites have stated this year’s recipients Alexandra Zina Barlowe and Abdul-Razak Mohammed Zachariah were featured prominently in the controversy. However, the protests are not mentioned in the citations.
Lecturer, Erika Christakis is an expert in early childhood education and she wrote a good faith email discussing the effort to bar students from wearing Halloween costumes deemed offensive. The Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale had issued an over-bearing warning to students that it would be insensitive to wear costumes that symbolized cultural appropriation or misrepresentation, or both, like feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes that made fun of people. Erika Christakis questioned the implications of having students surrender “implied control” over Halloween costumes to institutional forces: “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious . . . a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” It was an honest effort to explore the issue of regulating Halloween costumes (an issue that we have explored on this blog — here and here).
She wrote the email in response to a directive from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale that warned students that it would be insensitive to wear costumes that symbolized cultural appropriation or misrepresentation, or both, like feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes that made fun of people. The result was a firestorm as students accused her of being racist and that anger was vented at her husband as he crossed the campus.
The videotape is striking familiar to other such confrontations across the country, including the recent confrontation of a professor who merely criticized a plan to force all non-minority students and faculty off campus for a day.
Barlowe is featured in an interview where she said that Yale was not safe for minority students. In the interview, Barlowe radically misconstrues the point of the email and says that the incident is an example of the dangers at Yale for people of color.
I expect (and hope) that these students are being recognized for more than just this controversy. This confrontation is, in my opinion, not worthy of recognition (let alone celebration). I felt that the university showed little concern for the uncivil and abusive treatment afforded to the faculty member. One of the most important lessons that we should teach on our campuses is the need for both free speech and civil discourse. I would not have wanted these students disciplined for such an encounter but I also hope that it played no role in this official recognition.