<< 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? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power?>>
The above quote is taken from the e-mail of Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer whose training is in early childhood education. Ms. Christakis, speaking in the language of her profession, wrote her e-mail in response to a pre-Halloween message from Yale administrators asking that students be sensitive about the ways in which certain costumes, such as donning blackface or redface, might be offensive to members of the communities being mimicked. Ms. Christakis went on to lament that she could not “give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, many students of color and others within and outside of Yale took offense at Christakis’ e-mail, with some people calling for the ouster of Christakis from her position as house “master” in a Yale residential college, a position she holds along with her faculty spouse. I am in agreement with many of those protesters. Ms. Christakis’ e-mail seems to conflate the wishes of a white pre-schooler to dress mimicking a fictitious, animated, individual and named Asian character with the desire of college-age, mostly white, often male students to costume themselves as nameless, de-individualized black, Asian or other persons of color. Small children of any background need neither excuse, justification nor explanation for wanting to costume themselves as fictional characters aimed at children. Children who do so typically mean no harm and cause no harm. Little kids just want to have fun. However, in the vast majority of cases, college “kids” are legally adults.
Yes, these big “kids” also want to have fun. They want to be irreverent and silly and, as Ms. Christakis writes in her e-mail, “a little bit obnoxious” or “a little bit inappropriate.” Here I agree with Christakis; maybe these college students should be allowed a lot of leeway to behave in these ways. College campuses function, as I have described in some of my work, as Foucauldian “other spaces.” Colleges are places where the young go not just for education but also for respite from the world. We should condone and even encourage a certain amount of mildly riotous carnival fun like Halloween where, as Christakis writes, students may engage in “a certain regressive, or even transgressive” behavior. Just as in other parts of the grown-up world, students should not be required to respect others.
But there are times when students should be asked to respect others. This is because there is a difference between a nineteen-year-old member of a majority, mainstream community on an elite campus who wants to masquerade as a member of another, minority race and a preschooler who wears a character costume depicting someone of another race. There is, yes, a long history of carnival behavior in many societies including our own, where mainstream social, legal or economic norms are subverted. In carnival, privileged figures are sometimes mocked, demoted and subverted by the oppressed who then assume power, even though only in pretense and usually for only a short while. Carnival has been, and continues to be, a permitted blowing off of social steam that, while riotous and even sometimes offensive, is often ambivalent in its goals: in carnival the lowly sometimes secretly admire and yearn for the respectability and privilege of those whom they mock.
I have blogged about this before. Unfortunately, carnival is also frequently accompanied by a perverse ersatz carnival wherein people in power mock the relatively powerless. Tolerating ersatz carnival is condoning insult. And citing freedom of expression norms to protect it is especially pernicious. Colleges have a unique responsibility to educate students well beyond the classroom. In loco parentis may not be as robust a doctrine as in past decades, but neither is it dead letter. Inculcating values of respect, thoughtfulness and decency remain important parts of the mission of modern colleges.
The Atlantic magazine seems to agree with Ms. Christakis, describing her e-mail as “a model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement” and sees the students protesting the e-mail as “intolerant.” Again, I disagree. Ms. Christakis' comparisons are so inapt as to almost seem to be intentional provocations (an intent that she denies.) Cultural appropriation is a real thing and a real harm. The Atlantic article is a woeful reminder that we are living in a world turned upside down, one in which the vocabulary describing the conditions facing marginalized people such as "intolerance" and the words offering them succor such as “safe space” are being used to describe the conditions of the empowered majority. We are in a world in which the majority is framed as a besieged minority when there are requests that they not act in ways that oppress others. Yes, “kids” at college just want (and should be permitted) to have fun. But they should not do so at the expense of demeaning others.