We’re only young and naive still
We require certain skills
The mood it changes like the wind
Hard to control when it begins –”Young Blood,” The Naked and Famous
“A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution. As the storyteller and the listener, we go through a story together.”
―Maxine Hong Kingston
It all started with a book and FOOT.
Before incoming freshman move onto campus and get oriented during a week known as Camp Yale, many opt for one of Yale College’s multi-day preorientation programs. The offerings include living on a farm, hiking in the woods, a program for international students, and a “Cultural Connections” option that is more campus oriented. Given that I was a suburban kid of untapped country heritage, I opted for one of the six-day Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips (FOOT) to the Berkshires, located near the northern end of the Appalachian trail in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.
It was great fun. We stowed away watches and phones, set up camp in the woods, hung our food to keep it from bears, climbed waterfalls by day, and lay beneath the stars at night. The group, my first social circle at Yale, was as effortlessly diverse as my group of friends in my majority-minority Virginia high school. One of the two upperclassman leaders was a black guy; the other a white girl. The freshmen included a Sikh, a Muslim, some Asians, Jews, Christians, and a broad range of colors. Our cultural differences were many and great, and it was fun to explore them. I learned the phrase “hella,” which I now use overmuch; about the awkward zoo (including old favorites: awkward turtle and inappropriate llama); and of the existence of curious shibboleths of American affluence like hummus, nutella, veganism, and Whole Foods.
It was only much later I learned that even this early, innocent decision of preorientation trips was fraught with demographic tension. You see, apparently, “students of color” go to Cultural Connections (which used to exclude white students) and affluent white kids do FOOT, so some contingent of people saw in the latter program’s existence another chapter in the endless book of segregation, privilege, and systemic racism in the whole ordeal. And, of course, I was on the wrong page.
I stumbled upon this delightful chapter sometime after a mandatory freshman orientation event in Woolsey Hall, where some 1,400 new Yalies were forced to endure the desultory ravings of the black president of Spelman College (my deepest condolences to those poor, unfortunate souls) who declared all white people racist by definition. Incoming freshmen had been required over the summer to read her book to this effect, and to this day, I distrust any assertion linked to the claim that Yale avoids talking about race. Subsequently, I had the eye-opening experience of explaining that black kids did not uniformly or even largely agree with or relate to that speaker’s opinion to a mostly white group of fellow freshmen and a senior or two who were employed by Yale College as freshman counselors (a position as vaguely and imperfectly analogous to an RA as a residential college is to a dormitory).
In so many instances of the “conversation about race” we always seem to need even as we keep having it, I noticed claims of debilitating systemic racism on campus often came back to “institutional” factors like the demographic split among preorientation programs, the purported cliquishness of FOOT leaders, supposed bigotry in fraternities, or the differing reactions (and range of offense) at that mandatory “white people are eo ipso racist” reading assignment and presentation. The familiar dynamics of recent campus discussions (especially if you swap out the reading assignment/presentation with the Halloween emails), suggests the divide in perspective on this issue yawns as widely as ever.
Which brings us to the controversial allegations against SAE.
Among the oddest and more taxing recurrences in racial discussions are the spectacles of ludicrously improbable tales that do not hold up under scrutiny. The latest such instance, the obstinately bizarre tale of a “white-girls only,” anti-gay party at SAE strikes a particularly personal chord. Relatively responsible media have reported on why the alleged incidents likely never happened. But for my part, it seems prudent to tell why the stories were never believable in the first place, except perhaps to those largely ignorant of Yale fraternities or who desired to thread an insidious mythology of oppression through the malleable fabric of wounded souls.
When I first came to Yale as a prefrosh (our term for prospective student) during Bulldog Days (our midweek welcome period for admitted students), I had never consumed an alcoholic drink, attended a fraternity party, or even stepped foot in New England. Fashioning myself a curious and bold adventurer, I wanted to kill all those birds with a single three-day trip. I do not recall where I got my first beer, but I do remember that I wound up at SAE that night feeling less bold and adventurous and more awkward and stomach-achey.
Several brothers and their friends came bearing copious bread (an excellent resource at parties) and effusive, welcoming conversation about their own experiences and how well I would fit at Yale. I had never felt more like a group of virtual strangers wanted me to belong among them. I attended many dozens of fraternity parties over four years, from massive, crowded ragers to summer rooftop gatherings with brass monkeys and cornhole. I had amazing and raucous times at Sigma Chi (my neighbor for a year), AEPi, Sigma Nu, Sig Ep, and elsewhere. But SAE was a perennial favorite, stemming from that first Bulldog Days encounter.
The Yale chapter of SAE had always been a diverse and friendly group for as along as I’d known of them, and it showed in every one of the innumerable gatherings I attended there. One of my first gay Yale hookups began with stolen kisses on their dance floor. A wonderful bond with an attractive Latino friend of a friend from Princeton blossomed over multiple summer nights in their backyard. I carried home a belligerently drunk friend, who is utterly delightful when sober, from their porch in the wee hours. I’ve conquered and been vanquished at beer pong in their basement in as many episodes as there are hidden gargoyles on a New Haven campus. A Vaseline wrestling party I helped organize as an elected class councilmember (long story) came to life in their living room. I took my own prefrosh to their Bulldog Days parties every year, because I knew I could trust the environment and its keepers without fail.
When a black SAE brother and fellow Southerner noted, after the infamous fiasco at the Oklahoma chapter, that he found such racism unimaginable at his home in the Yale chapter, my outsider experience corroborated the sentiment. I’ve told friends for years that were I to do Yale all over again, I would rush SAE. (I have a closer personal connection to the Virginia chapter of Phi Sigma Kappa, but their Yale chapter shuttered long ago.) That is as true now as it was back in 2009, when I realized, with familiar upperclassman horror, that I never got around to joining all the groups I liked.
The slander against SAE is certainly not the first time college kids have invented incidents of oppression to buttress peculiar narratives about institutions. The black student body president at Mizzou announced confirmed KKK sightings amid racial protests on campus, only to later admit his sources made it all up. There was the libelous Islamophobia hoax at
a the George Washington University. Also the rush to declare leftover decorations a hate crime in Delaware. And the homophobic receipt hoax. And the fake racist vandalism at Claremont McKenna. And fake hate crime and sexual assault reports elsewhere. The list goes on. And on.
I would not necessarily compare the probable non-victims of SAE to the aforementioned bigotry hoaxes—maybe these were vaguely sincere, alcohol-fueled misunderstandings. But if, as racial protesters at Yale and elsewhere say, these claims supposedly contribute to a broader narrative of truth, why would their likely nonoccurrence not do the same? To say nothing of the incidents of racial harassment against nonwhite people who complicate the prevailing narratives (see: SAE brothers inveighed as race traitors, “social justice” protesters spitting on black kids, etc.). What is it about the mythology of systemic oppression that makes it so conducive to fabrication and slander?
I do not know the answer to that question, but such notions haunted me at Yale, where I would encounter frequent double standards and doublespeak about supposed microaggressions and vestiges of racism/sexism/bigotry. They taunted me when other aspects of my cultural heritage were publicly attacked, as in that memorable debate when a certain liberal leader of the Yale Political Union dismissed military officers as cowards and parasites. That this particular gentleman (ahem) obviously lacks the intestinal or moral fortitude to put on any uniform is par for the course. They chided me when (usually white) female students from the Northeast denounced as “sexist” and “chauvinistic” various behaviors I had learned were manners from the women (and men) of my family and community who would regard their omission as barbaric.
Such questions percolated amid instances of the insidious classism, ironic parochialism, and smug tribalism that permeate jokes about the kind of people who shop at Walmart (read:my people) or feel comfortable around guns (also my people) or tell racist jokes as a way to mock racism (my people, again) or join the military or believe race-based affirmative action is deleterious to nonwhite people or talk seriously about virtue instead of rote “solidarity” signaling, no matter how absurd (still my people). These questions arise whenever people, especially administrators, talk of “cultural appropriation” as though reasonable people can actually be expected to agree that such a concept is coherent, has any merit, or is undeserving of contempt. Or when Yale assumed all minority students needed “ethnic counselors” and to be added to email lists to get “ethnic” campus updates because we are apparently that different from other “ethnic” people or whites, who evidently could not be “ethnic.”
Since it need be said, and said again, demographic groups are not monoliths, not at Yale or anywhere. I had—and may still have, if my Yale-enhanced upward mobility hasn’t yet compromised my roots—more in common with peers from middle- and working-class families in the South and Midwest, whatever their color, than with affluent black activists whose obtuse Sith mind tricks around their staggering privilege inspire revulsion or frustration rather than solidarity. I learned in grade school that Puerto Rican food isn’t spicy, many American Latinos don’t speak Spanish, many Amerindians don’t care about the Redskins (or are fans), black African immigrants (who are disproportionately well-educated) are often more culturally like Europeans than black Americans, homemade Korean barbecue and Ethiopian food are much better than commercial variants, and countless other nuggets of my multicultural background that many Yalies from much more segregated upbringings might have found useful in thinking about diversity, culture, and campus.
As such, I shared many bonding moments with white, black, and Latino Yalies about such things as our common Southern childhood anthem, “Go out back and pick a switch” (for the record, I abhor corporal punishment); or getting checked for ticks at dusk after playing in the woods, while our parents chatted over lemonade or iced tea on the porch; or the cake bizarrely masquerading as cornbread in the dining hall; or how to wash and iron clothes. (Believe it or not, there are a disturbingly large number of Yalies who cannot do their own laundry.) And I recall with particular fondness a senior-year Thanksgiving day in Virginia when some black family friends from Arkansas shared a dinner joke at the expense of a black family in New Jersey about the inadequacies of Northeastern cooking.
I’m also reminded of a conversation I had with a white Mississippi belle of the Yale Political Union’s Tory Party—and later with the racially diverse members of Yale’s Southern Society—about how curious it was that Yale Dining served fried chicken and definitely-not-your-mama’s collard greens on the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More saliently, I remember the time I helped a white, middle-class farm boy prefrosh from Wisconsin navigate the insidious intricacies of financial aid policy at elite schools, which allowed him to secure a better aid package from Yale and convince his parents that their remaining contribution was a worthwhile investment. That particular conversation, and the consequent friendship, was only possible in the first place (he was the prefrosh of a friend who introduced him to me) because of how profoundly we shared the disorienting experience of being middle-American pioneers on alien terrain.
One could suppose I was the most out of sync with the zeitgeist of Yale when I was the most insistent that we not define ourselves or make assumptions about others based on race. But I do not believe this is true. The late unpleasantness, notwithstanding, I have always believed—and still do—that the spirit of Yale, if there is such a thing, is committed to free inquiry, the battle of ideas, and honest engagement with different perspectives and ideas, whatever the background of people who hold them. When I think of the crippling failures of Yale, I think foremost of mental health, not systemic bigotry, and I hope with eyes wide open that the University improves mightily on that front. But I cannot do justice to the conversation that topic well deserves in a paragraph, though I would recommend you read this article.
In the end, I choose to believe that, at its core, Yale remains the beacon of the search for truth pulsating through the inspiring visions of Master Christakis, in his thoughtful homage to the principle of charity, and the defenders of the Woodward Report, which holds sacred the academic principles of free speech and vigorous debate. I do not recognize the oppressive, racist, paranoid Yale the protesters represent and describe with eloquently aggrieved incoherence against refreshingly thoughtful critics like Conor Friedersdorf. And I take comfort in my conversations with countless Yalies who believe, as I do, that it does not exist.