It’s the Architecture
Photograph by Jacqueline Poggi
“I think it’s the architecture,” Dina says, after delivering a line during freshman orientation at Yale that earns her a year of therapy and a small audience of concerned white people writing in notebooks. The protagonist of ZZ Packer’s short story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is a nerdy, self-aware young black woman who is struggling to navigate the newly classist and racist space into which she’s been thrust, far from her hometown of Baltimore, with its Gothic colonnades and Georgian redbrick. “I imagined how the college must have looked when it was founded, when most of the students owned slaves,” Dina tells us. “I pictured men wearing tights and knickers, smoking pipes.” Packer’s protagonist is emphatically unhappy at Yale, a place that sees her not as a promising student but as a problem, one to be pondered over and solved.
I remember being giddy to the point of nausea during my own arrival at Yale five years ago, filled with a heady mix of excitement and trepidation. Rising through the silvered tunnels of Union Station and hailing a cab, watching the spires of campus puncture the bright blue sky during the drive to those astonishing towers that were to be my residence for the next four years. There, suddenly, was the incontrovertible proof that I was somewhere, somewhere exceedingly far from my hometown on the West Coast. Surrounded by an institution that had chosen me and that I had in turn chosen. This place, I recall thinking, was to be my home.
For the past two weeks, there has been a great deal of organizing and protests at Yale, notably led by women of color undergraduates on campus, stemming from two racially charged, inciting events occurring around Halloween. An email sent out by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council urged students to be sensitive in their choice of costume; following grumblings from some students, an email from Erika Christakis—wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of one of the residential colleges—suggested that students should be free to dress up in whatever costumes they wanted, offensive or no. Later that weekend, a black female student reported being turned away from a fraternity party on the basis that it was for “white girls only.” Tensions running high, conversations about race turned both inward and outward on campus, from closed-door meetings with college administrators to a thousand-strong March of Resilience from students on Cross Campus.
Yet the resulting media coverage has garbled what remains at the root of these protests, diluting their message entirely for those who have not witnessed the problem firsthand.