An Open Letter to Prep
To all students, faculty, staff, and administrators at the College Preparatory School and beyond,
What does it mean to be young? The inevitable streaks of grey in my hair have yet to appear, the facet joints of my vertebrae are stacked comfortably, and my voice yearns to be heard. I am always unconsciously directing every conversation back to the central concern: myself. Mine is the “right” opinion. Mine are the only values “worthy” of recognition. This is because we come into high school a place chock-full of individuals from diverse environments, as individuals who are the cohesion of unreplicatable personal experiences. So it’s a world of “I, I, I,” revolving around “me, me, me” and everything within sight and conversation is “mine, mine, mine.”
At the College Preparatory School, we pride ourselves on mens conscia recti (latin: “a mind aware of what’s right”). Cases of academic dishonesty are subject to consequences that are just as severe as punishments issued for acts of insensitivity within our community. I am certain that on campus, we all do our best to eradicate offensive or ignorant behavior. However, when mens conscia recti becomes a forced, even regulated set of ideals, is the mind aware of what’s right, or is the mind just aware of the consequences? Here are some examples of common messages that our community has “approved” (unofficially):
Intersectional feminism, which works to further the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes, is a noble cause. I personally didn’t embrace the concept of feminism until I was thirteen.
The LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) community should be given our full support. No one is born with homophobic thoughts. People learn to be hateful, and that hate often stems from misguidance, which means people can unlearn their prejudices with the right guidance and support. In seventh grade, I only knew approximately twelve people total in my middle school including myself who didn’t use the word “gay” as an insult. Sadly, this is a very common atmosphere, even in the Bay Area.
Issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement such as racial profiling, police brutality, and the racial inequality of the United States criminal justice system are important topics of conversation. Being aware of the racism in our daily lives and checking our privilege is crucial in supporting lives of POC (people of color) around us. There are many Instagram accounts for hair braiding that exclusively feature white teenage girls decked out in cornrows. Cultural appropriation is the act in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a different culture who have suffered systematic oppression by the dominant culture. A common example is the wearing of Native American headdresses (war bonnets) as a fashion accessory by the very white people who committed genocide against Native Americans. In this case, instead of Native American headdresses, it is cornrows.
Through my experiences and observations at College Prep, failure to agree to any of the issues above, or even failure to just understand the complex arguments behind these topics could result in my peers (1) ostracizing me, (2) publicly humiliating me over social media, and (3) labelling me as a person full of hatred (i.e. racist, ableist, misogynistic, etc.). Instead of supporting a safe space to educate one another, we tend to opt for conversion by way of aggression. We forget that sometimes, there really are people who just don’t know any better. No one bothered to explain to them why their opinion or lack of opinion was offensive and ignorant. We just yelled at them until they shut up. We have turned to verbal jousting, and we sharpen our arguments to stab at anyone who dares to disagree with our political opinions. Verified by previous Campus News flame wars, teachers aren’t exempt either. Especially within a tight-knit community of strong, intelligent opinions and stronger willpower, voices seem to speak in unopposed solidarity.
As a young incoming freshman, I was poorly educated on matters concerning social justice. I was corrected, violently, by upperclassmen who deemed me to be ignorant and insensitive. One particular upperclassman even actively sought me out to scold at me during my free period. But it wasn’t that I was racist or homophobic at my core, it was just that my mostly white, conservative, republican, heterosexual, cis-gendered, upper-middle class middle school had not prepared me for these discussions. As for my parents, social justice wasn’t a prioritized part of my education and upbringing. So when it came to opinions and especially the “right” opinions, I simply had none to contribute. Slowly but surely, through years of reading, internet-surfing, and conversations with College Prep debaters, I began to learn all of the nuances of thinking the “right” way (but who am I to say what’s right?). Nightly dinners in my household now consist of me preaching to my parents the importance of decolonization as they chew on their peas.
Over time, I had unknowingly become the aggressive upperclassman who chastised white freshmen girls for flaunting cornrows. I had become the person who applauded the public exposure and humiliation of people with what I considered to be wrong opinions. I had become a person who scolds random white strangers for using the n-word. I had taken my privileged, dare I say, condescendingly superior opinions and slapped it around like a unwarranted Band-Aid to heal these wrong opinions. This is a culture that we have developed at our school, perhaps unintentionally, a culture that values the strict implementation of ideal political correctness over a safe space for guidance and discussion. I genuinely believed that my opinions were worthy of mass conversion until I discovered “free speech surveillance,” the concept of policing or restricting speech, often to promote a safe space.
In an attempt to inspire sensitivity on campus regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and ability, academic institutions across the nation such as UCLA, Wesleyan University, University of Oklahoma, and North Carolina State University have taken more initiative to implement punishments for ignorant behavior. In the past few years in preparation for Halloween, even College Prep has reminded students to be particularly conscious of cultural appropriation.
On October 30th, 2015, the day before Halloween, Erika Christakis sent an email to the Yale community regarding Halloween costumes and something she and her husband Nicholas call a free-speech surveillance state. The Christakises were highly respected educators at Yale, she a lecturer in early childhood education, he a professor and TIME 100 recipient who teaches the social and natural sciences. Her email, clearly composed with care, seemed to be well-intentioned. Before she even launched into her beliefs of the existence of “free-speech surveillance,” she addressed common sentiments of those who fiercely oppose cultural appropriative acts. In her email, Erika Christakis asked the students of Yale to consider their right to the freedom of speech, and their right to partake in culturally appropriative acts during Halloween.
“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? American universities…have become places of censure and prohibition…Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity …to exercise self-censure?”
Her exclamatory statement evokes an eerie sense of déjá vu, as this remark, featured in TIME magazine, was the Christakises’ response to the scandal at Harvard University regarding the distribution of racist satirical flyers in 2012. They argued that efforts to shelter students from making insensitive decisions and remarks ultimately “infantilizes” the students. And the hyper-vigilance of campus speech, they claimed, tells students “that any time they hear something that makes them uncomfortable, no matter how distasteful it may be, they have reason not only to be offended, but also to restrict the speech of others so that they can avoid their unpleasant feelings.”
Unsurprisingly, the email created an uproar. Students gathered in organized campus protests to not only to speak of their experiences with racism, but also to call for the Christakises’ resignation. An open letter was signed by over a thousand members of the Yale community.
It became clear that the issue of racism on campus would no longer go unnoticed, when on the same Halloween, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at Yale threw a house party. The brother who was admitting people into the SAE party reportedly denied entry to women of color waiting at the door. According to sources, he said repeatedly, “We are looking for white girls only, white girls only” and proceeded to usher only blonde women in.
Following the events of Halloween, students gathered in various places on campus to protest and raise awareness for the racism on campus that the Yale administration has failed to address or ameliorate. They organized numerous discussions, including an open forum about “cultural appropriation and the power of language,” a nod to Erika Christakis’s email. Throughout the beginning of November, students yearned to hear the president address their dire concerns and meet their demands. On November 5th, hundreds of students gathered in a courtyard at the center of campus to share their experiences with racism. Dean Holloway, upon hearing the countless personal narratives, was moved to tears.
December came around, and Erika Christakis resigned from her position at Yale, indefinitely leaving the conversation that she had provoked. Yes, her email was offensive, from the defensive role she played for the right to wear marginalized Halloween costumes to the suggestion of an approved form of cultural degradation. To quote her, perhaps you should even “look away” from the actions you find offensive. This is especially distressing because of her role as Associate Master of Silliman College. While each college at Yale has a dean to guide students in their academic endeavors, each master at Yale is entrusted with the responsibility of creating a community for their students, as well as (according to the Yale College website) “fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” Even though her intentions may have been gentle, she ultimately failed to realize the effects of her words on students who have experienced first-hand racism at Yale. She failed to make her students feel safe.
There was another side to these protests, a side that involved spitting on the opposition, a side that involved publicly “shrieking” at Nicholas Christakis for him to be quiet and to step down. This is a side that I hope does not reflect the movement as a whole, a side that we can all learn from. The integrity of the students’ message and their opinion lies in the freedom for all messages and opinions to exist. Censoring an opinion, even an unpopular one, is a direct violation of the basic human contract of individual freedoms. Demands for Erika Christakis’s resignation was an act of silencing. Spitting on an attendee of a free-speech conference is an act of censorship. Personally, I strongly believe that she shouldn’t have decided to leave the conversation, because ultimately, it was a loss for students at Yale when Erika Christakis decided to discontinue her courses.
Even though I believe that nothing can justify the insensitivity of practices such as blackface and yellowface, I believe that in a twisted way, the Christakises were onto something. Or rather, the public outrage they faced revealed a nasty truth to the surveillance of free speech.
I agree with the students who condemned Erika Christakis’s poorly conceived email. But the very act of forcing our opinions on people without the humility and compassion to make it a teaching moment is dishonorable. After all, her point was that we are all entitled to our own opinions, even wrong ones, and that we should open conversations about the behavior that makes us feel uncomfortable. Erika Christakis thought she was right too! Why else would she have so boldly clicked the “send” button that ended her teaching career at Yale?
Anger is a valid emotion when you feel dehumanized and humiliated by someone else’s ignorance. And to justify your anger, you might ask: what is one bruised (often white) ego compared to centuries of oppression and racial prejudice? I too am guilty of my opinions overpowering my boundaries, but to silence those who do not agree with you is not the way to inspire mindful conversion.
This brings me to think about the way we deal with ignorance at Prep. How many of us attend Feminist Union meetings, Black Student Union discussions, Gender & Sexuality Awareness meetings without the incentive of chocolate chip cookies? How many of us participate in the teacher-organized discussions at lunchtime on reproductive rights, gun control, or the Black Lives Matter movement? Think about the way your opinion shapes who you are at school. Protect your right to an opinion. At Prep, we value liberal ideals, but do we value human rights enough to educate one another and include those who disagree with our values? These are all questions worth thinking about the next time you rant aimlessly on the Oakland Tech Meninist Club’s instagram account (an old hobby of mine), the next time you think about racism and ignorance at your prospective college, or maybe even the next time you are being policed on political correctness.
I too, live and write in fear. The thought of opposition irritates me, but the possibility of your resentment terrifies me. Despite my fear, I write. I write because the image of my upperclassman tormentor haunts me to this day. I write because I no longer wish to terrorize others into agreement. I write to urge you, my peers, to see the new year as not only the time to achieve academic success, but also an opportunity to welcome others to your perspective with kindness, respect, and patience. I write to remind you that you are under no obligation to change people, but more importantly, you are under no authority to silence them. Let this new year be the year we break the cycle of vicious attacks on one another. Let us conduct our discussions and debates respectfully, with regard to human emotions and human rights. Let it be the year for upperclassmen tormentors to become upperclassmen mentors.
January 26th, 2015