Zooming Out: Hypothesizing our Hyphen
Column by Mx D Dangaran, Guest Columnist | Photo credit to YNC Singer’s Guild
When people of color at Yale University suffer, we all suffer. When activists at Trump rallies in cities across the US suffer, we all suffer. When Malays and Indians applying for jobs in Singapore suffer, we all suffer. When the Rohingya people of the Rakhine State suffer, we all suffer. McKinney. New Delhi. Chicago. And most recently in the forefront of my mind, in part because of my imminent attendance: Harvard Law School. We are all racism’s students, unwittingly overloading in back-to-back semesters of suffering.
It is difficult to see how one more person pushing will help to move the boulder of institutional racism that has caused so much suffering. But isn’t that precisely the reason for collective action? As a Yale alumni, I felt like part of this movement when I wrote “Zooming Out” in the Yale Daily News. As a Yale-NUS College staff member, I believe our campus community has much to reflect upon in terms of how we associate with this half of our name, especially as conflicts continue to arise that garner international attention. Do we turn a blind eye and remind ourselves the hyphen separates us, or do we engage and strive to become better for it?
Teach-ins at Yale educated many about racism and misogyny, but we’re all on different schedules of enlightenment. I was racially awakened in high school when “friends” hurled “blackie” and “nig nog,” and would click their tongues to imitate isiZulu sounds, condemning my blackness as the reason for my acceptance to the universities that rejected them. At Yale I became proficient in the (subtle? blatant?) racism and femmephobia some gay men espouse in their “preferences.” Once I embraced and expressed my trans identity, I absorbed transphobic comments from hookup partners. A leader of the Black Student Alliance at Yale encapsulated my point best: “Yale is as much as it ever was.”
Singapore has opened my mind as a teach-in of an experience-driven, ethnographic variety. Similar to Baldwin and Coates, living in a place where chattel slavery is not imprinted on societal memory—and where the population is majority Chinese—has provided a critical distance from which I have been forced to examine de facto discourses and internalized racial hierarchy in the U.S.
I’m not sure how to be connected to this movement from Singapore. While our distance from the U.S. can make comparative efforts seem contrived, I cannot change the fact that I straddle the bridge Yale built into Asia, pulled in two directions by competing demands: current Yalies need support, but discussions at Yale-NUS require my full attention. The desire to bring the uproar at Yale into the Yale-NUS psyche is tangled in an unshakeable sense of futility: is it relevant to this Singaporean-majority campus, or am I devoting a navel-gazing focus to this issue?
On 11 Nov 2015, Yale alumni working as Dean’s Fellows led a three-hour discussion about events at Yale, in which 28 students, staff and faculty reflected on implications for Yale-NUS. Someone asked if Yale’s residential colleges (RCs) were “homes” or “intellectual spaces.” Another student replied: “RCs break down that false dichotomy, like we do here.” The conversation instantly shifted. Did we feel like our RCs were intellectual homes? Does institutional racism exist in Singapore or at Yale-NUS?
Though 1,200 strong, Yale’s “March of Resilience”—larger than Yale-NUS’s student body at foreseen capacity—did not earn recognition from Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis or The Octant. The demonstration was an act of solidarity in response to all too common experiences of racism Yale students face on a daily basis. Perhaps contentious activism is where the hyphen connecting Yale-NUS to its parent institution—and future alumni association—tapers off. In New Haven, Yale President Peter Salovey responded to the march by detailing “four key areas” of focus for the administration to build “a better Yale.” All Yale affiliates, Yale-NUS students included, must share that responsibility, or the crux of the work will not be achieved. This is far from the end, and we cannot lose steam.
Yale-NUS students travel to Yale for student life exchange trips over spring break, spend semesters and summers there during study abroad, and bear its name within our own. We have a unique opportunity to optimize our campus culture as we build it. I urge everyone to critique Yale during visits, to push me and other Dean’s Fellows or faculty who have studied or worked there whenever we laud it, to keep a keen eye facing inward to ensure we do not allow similar forms of racial (or any other form of) discrimination to take root on our campus and to name instances of discrimination when you see them.
The burden of change cannot lie with marginalized people alone. We need the harmony of voices that feel removed from suffering. For instance, my former a capella group and our campus’s recent guests from New Haven, the Yale Alley Cats, is predominantly white, and I am the only black member in the past 12 years. Should they ask a black friend – or a black alumni like myself – to educate them? I think not. No one should be asked to perform emotional labor. Minority-group membership should not be a prerequisite to thinking critically about racialized humor and problematic discussion threads. As in a cappella arrangements, each voice adds power, and maybe even some shimmer. The onus should be on all of us.
Yale professor Crystal Feimster teaches that we all have “linked fates.” The Yale-NUS community continues to build a school where everyone is respected even when they disagree. I hope everyone at Yale-NUS can zoom out from instances that catalyze conversations about race and think about how they involve all of us. Think about who is included in your “we.” Start there. The task of combating institutional racism at Yale, Yale-NUS and around the world begins with small conversations. Now is the time to put this issue on whichever table we frequent. Now: Speak.
A different version of this article appeared in the Yale Daily News on Jan. 27.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org