Erika Christakis is an early childhood development specialist -- but I highly doubt she thought she'd be dealing with a bunch of babies when she accepted her position as head of Silliman College at Yale. As I wrote in You Say "Arrogant," I say "Right" - The Problem With Debating the Masses, it's always important to understand both sides of an issue, even if you find one side uncomfortable or offensive. Which is why I've spent time reading about and trying to understand the "other" side of the Yale Halloween email.
It seems like many people are upset because they see the email as condoning racism/sexism/____ism. In the words of one writer,
She wrote what was the equivalent of the "Why NOT Blackface?" email and said that it should be totally fine to dress up as Mulan since, when she, a white woman, went to India, she wore a Sari because it looked pretty and that's totally the same.
Having read and re-read the email, trying in vain to find the offensive part, I completely disagree with this interpretation. I didn't read it like, "Why NOT blackface?" I read it like, "Most people aren't going to intentionally dress as something racist or hateful, because social norms go against that. However, some people might accidentally offend you, and some people might even be a little obnoxious."
By today's standards of what's offensive, I am likely one of those "obnoxious" people. For example, I Dressed as Microaggressions for Halloween this year. My date dressed as Trigger Warnings. (We loved that Atlantic piece.)
I chose this costume knowing that some people might disagree with me -- and, in the name of Victimhood Culture, "be offended." So I guess that could be seen as "obnoxious." But guess what? I genuinely could not think of a reason anyone should be hurt by my costume... and I love intellectual discussions! Why dress up as some stupid pun or TV character, when I could dress as a cause that's important to me? (After all, as I wrote in Go Ahead and Let Your Tween Dressy Slutty for Halloween, it's so fun to be both smart and sexy!)
Two Halloween parties before that, I dressed as Bethany Hamilton, because she's a total major badass whom I totally admire -- and also because, due to a traumatic finger injury, I basically only had one hand. Plus, it was a party at a rock wall with lots of academic and outdoorsy folks, so I ended up having some great conversations about Hamilton's contributions to neuroscience research and getting some great surfing advice.
Oh, and by the way: I could totally climb a 5.6 with only one arm.
Finally, last Halloween, I dressed as (sexy) Allen Iverson. He's one of the most amazing athletes, like, ever -- and he's exactly the same height as me! How crazy is that? I don't see how anyone could reasonably be offended by either of these costumes. But, arguably, to some people, a non-disabled person dressing respectfully as a disabled person (who's still 100x the surfer I will ever be) or a white person dressing respectfully as a black person could be considered "obnoxious." And I'm pretty sure this is more in line with what Christakis meant in her email -- not that you should dress disrespectfully using hurtful stereotypes.
Also, because of Allen Iverson, my life goal in sports is to make my teammates better by practice. (I don't have to agree with everything the man says to admire him.)
While discussing some of the fallout from the Yale email (which, remember, was about HALLOWEEN COSTUMES! HALLOWEEN COSTUMES!) this morning, I said that it is disgusting to spit on someone for attending a conference at which someone supposedly said something you disagree with. He replied, "Yeah, but that joke about wiping out the Indian village was objectively offensive and not funny -- imagine how upset people would be if the joke was about white soldiers getting blown up in a war or people dying on Sept. 11."
It's a good point. People are more likely to be offended by something that is closer to the heart. Still, I kind of disagreed. I found this joke "obnoxious" and edgy, but not objectively offensive. But then again, I also wasn't offended in 2002 when someone at school told me the following joke:
Her: "Knock knock."
Me: "Who's there?"
Her: "NOT the Twin Towers!"
Was it horrible? Yes. Shocking? Certainly. But was I offended? No, not really. It was kind of funny, in that it very successfully violated my expectations. Of course, I don't know anyone who died in the Twin Towers -- and I definitely wouldn't have repeated the joke to anyone who did. Not in 2002, and, really, not ever. So context and intent clearly matter. But intuitively, I would also think that a joke about something that happened recently to someone you know is different from a joke about something that happened centuries ago to someone you didn't. So there's also that.
This civil conversation with someone who disagreed with me got me thinking, though -- as all good conversations should. I asked myself, "What, as a member of a historically oppressed group that continues to face assault and discrimination every day, do I do when something offends or disturbs me?"
Obviously, it totally depends. In For The Love of God, STOP Asking People if They're Okay, I wrote about how, when I play basketball, I'm pretty much always the only woman. Sometimes when we're matching up, men on my team will tell me not to guard the person I chose -- to instead guard some puny little dude who clearly isn't as fast, strong or talented as I am. How do I handle this?
I look them in the eye without smiling and say, "Why?"
That's usually enough to make them realize they're being a sexist d-bag, and they back down. Sometimes it's not, and they'll say some dumb thing, like:
"I think it would be a better match."
So I say, "He's five feet tall! Do you really think that's going to be a good match?"
Or perhaps, "Stop being sexist."
Then one of three things happens: 1) I get to guard who I wanted to guard and the game goes on as normal. 2) The guy tries to overcompensate for his "microaggression" by passing to me at every opportunity, even if I'm not completely open. 3) The guy resents me for confronting him and doesn't pass to me.
It sucks when the third option happens. It makes playing less fun for me, and there's not a lot I can do about it. I can try to get on a different team for the next game. I can try to make sure he doesn't get the ball much. I can ask him if he's blind, and why isn't he getting the ball to me when I'm wide open in the paint. Sometimes, I can even count on my teammates to see what's happening and call him out on it.
But what I don't do is run out of the room sobbing. I don't go complain to the gym manager that people are being sexist at me, or demand gym staff's resignation because one of their patrons offended me. I don't try to force a new rule that says opposing teams must always match up by height, no matter what.
Other times, when I'm working with tools, men ask if I need any help... and then literally take the tools out of my hands and start doing what I was already doing. So I tell them, "Do you realize that you just took the tools out of my hands?" A lot of the time, they had no idea. So I tell them, "Look, I'm not mad, but in the future, do you think you could help by sharing your knowledge, instead of assuming I need you to do it for me?"
When people praise me for mediocre work or offer stupid and unsolicited advice that I know they wouldn't offer to a dude, I tell them, "I'm not mad, because I know you didn't mean it that way. But to me, that felt really condescending. Here's what you should do differently next time."
When dudes I don't want touching me start touching me and acting all entitled to my body (something that isn't just condescending or sexist, but also physically threatening -- and it happens all the time), I say, "Why are you touching me?" "Stop touching me." "Stop." (For more, check out Women: Instantly Make Your Whole Life Better By Learning This ONE Phrase.) If I say no and they don't stop, I escalate the situation -- either by grabbing them by the throat and slamming them into a wall, screaming at them until they back down, calling the police or otherwise handling the situation.
But here's the thing. Yes, some dudes are genuinely bad and rapey people... but some guys are literally so clueless that they don't realize how inappropriate and creepy they're being. Which is why I wrote Dear Confused Dude: If You Had to Grab Her by the Back of the Head and Force Your Faces Together, It Wasn't a Kiss. Through my blog, I hope that, maybe, I can create some positive change (while helping clueless, rapey dudes develop social skills, while empowering women). Seriously, if one dude reads that post and decides that he shouldn't kiss rape women anymore -- that he should go 90% of the way to her face, and never the full 100%, or that he shouldn't try to force the kiss if she goes for the hug - I'd consider that a victory.
This is an approach that has worked really well for me -- and it sounds very similar to the approach Christakis recommended in her email. Perhaps even based on her own experience as a woman! It is empowering to feel autonomous, resilient and able to handle your own social interactions. It is empowering to see that, through direct conversations, I've gotten people to treat me differently.
However, I understand that everyone is different, and one single approach isn't going to work for everyone. But it never hurts to entertain another perspective -- and maybe even learn from it. Like, maybe you're not suddenly going to be comfortable slamming a dude against a wall for refusing to stop touching you... but maybe you will be comfortable raising your voice a little bit, instead of silently raising your eyebrows and hoping he gets the hint. Or maybe, in your experience, violence is never the answer, and you think what I did was morally wrong -- or even that, by making it physical, I am putting myself at a greater risk than if I just "let it happen."
You don't have to do what I do. You don't have to agree with me. But is there anything wrong with reading about my approach and how it has worked for me?
Another argument from the anti-Christakis camp is that free speech/intellectual freedom and safe spaces don't have to be mutually exclusive. But she never said they were! The very definition of a safe space is something that no one can clearly define or agree upon -- which is why we need intellectual freedom to figure out how to build a safe space!
For example, let's talk about cultural appropriation. It makes some people feel "unsafe." Some people are really hung up on the whole "I went to India and wore a sari because I thought it was beautiful" thing. Just like they're hung up on the "White people shouldn't wear Black hairstyles thing," or the "Stop wearing headdresses" thing. I totally get why people in America find this offensive -- to the point that, when I attend this annual Diwali party that encourages people to dress in "Festive Indian attire," I'm not sure if I'm allowed to do that, or if that part of the invitation was meant only for brown people. I'm now convinced that it is meant for all guests, regardless of skin color, because I see more white people in saris each year, and no one is offended by it. Instead, my hosts are delighted to share their culture with us! They distribute bindis and hire Bollywood dance instructors to teach us some basic Bhangra moves. They hire artists to paint beautiful henna designs on our hands. So clearly they are not offended by white people "appropriating" their culture, right?
Or, like, say you're a white girl with Afro-Caribbean braids. That's universally offensive and super shameful, right? Or does it matter that maybe you got them from a poor black woman during your trip to the Caribbean, and braiding tourists' hair is one of her few options for income? Does it matter that, maybe, she loves sharing her culture -- she loves practicing something her mother taught her when she was a little girl? Or that maybe, while she was braiding your hair, you had a really meaningful and eye-opening conversation with her about what it's like to be poor on an island with so many fancy tourist resorts?
Say you bought a beautiful, handmade sari in India, but you're white. Does it matter that your purchase has helped keep a culture, a tradition, an art form alive? In Bali, part of the reason so many locals can still make a living doing traditional arts and dances is because white people buy their crafts or take lessons from them. Do you think the women who made the sari, taught the dance or did the braids are going to be pissed at the white girl for cultural appropriation?
Intuitively, I would guess no. But the honest answer is, I don't know. Maybe it's both -- maybe they're grateful to have a livelihood, but resentful at how white people use/wear it without fully understanding the cultural significance. The only way to find out would be through a conversation.
But what if, through the conversation, you learned that the woman braiding hair on the beach loved sharing her culture with tourists...but the people of color back in the States were offended by the hairstyle. Whose feelings, opinions and interests matter more? What if some Indian people on campus think the (Indian) hosts of the aforementioned Diwali party shouldn't put bindis on white people? Whose opinion matters more? What if your blond-haired daughter were so into martial arts that she did this:
Is she appropriating culture?
It's a complicated issue, and I don't think there is one right answer. But perhaps it's possible to forge an acceptable path through discussion.
The point is, there is nothing anywhere in Erika Christakis's email that she should get fired, threatened, or screamed at over. All she wanted to do was provoke interesting discussions and show intellectual respect to the children she mistook for adults. But. Maybe they can all learn from this, and come out of this feeling empowered and validated and enlightened and stronger.
I really hope that's what happens. Because the alternative is terrifying.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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