“He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicated this is an okay conversation to be having.”
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen, 2014
On the second floor of 81 Wall Street, students sat in a crowded room in the presence of a great writer and person of color. “Tell me the story of race in America,” she asked them. And one by one, obliging bodies began to distinguish themselves in the crowded room, telling their stories to Claudia Rankine.
Last year, Yale seemed to ask its students, “Tell me the story of race on our campus.” But the university did not ask the question in Rankine’s same languid tone. Instead it asked aggressively. It asked in incidents and injustices: a fraternity barring entrance to a party, an Associate Master sending an email blast before the weekend of Halloween.
And so stories were told. Op-eds were written. Grievances were aired. Protests were held. The question posed by Rankine in Citizen, “Is this an okay conversation to be having?” was asked again and again. Students, faculty, and those outside of the Yale sphere were engaged with one another, talking about conversation itself—a type of meta-discussion.
But then stories seemed inadequate—students turned to direct action. Students of color rallied together in a group known as Next Yale. In a letter to Yale University President Peter Salovey, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, and senior members of the administration, Next Yale listed demands for more substantial conditions and better recognition.
The letter was posted on the website for Yale’s DOWN Magazine on November 13th, 2015. On the same day, Dean Holloway forwarded an email to the student body of Yale College. The subject line: “An Excellent Faculty is a Diverse Faculty.” Dean Holloway urged students to read the forwarded email, in which President Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak outlined the beginnings for a new initiative promoting greater faculty diversity. Fifty million dollars in resources would be directed toward this goal.
The initiative was not news—it had been announced over a week before. But as the Yale administration felt struck with urgency—“I urge you to read it,” wrote Dean Holloway—it became clear that these issues needed to be addressed. Yale’s students were asking back to the college: “we need YOU to tell us the story of race on our campus and what it will look like in the future.”
Yale answered this question immediately with its announcement of the fifty million dollar initiative, officially named the Provost’s Faculty Development Fund. Although faculty diversity was not explicitly stated in Next Yale’s list of demands, students raised the issue in many of the conversations and protests that occurred on campus. President Salovey and Provost Polak seemed dedicated to working towards this goal.
“This commitment has been and continues to be one of the university’s most important,” President Salovey and Provost Polak wrote. “Over the past three decades several Yale initiatives helped to foster a more diverse and more inclusive faculty, and all of our schools have worked diligently in recent years to contribute toward this goal…But we can and should do more.”
New faculty members were hired as a result of the initiative, one of them Claudia Rankine. Renowned for her book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine has made important contributions to the discussion of race in the United States. Citizen was the first book of poetry to rank as a bestseller in The New York Times nonfiction category, winning several other awards and gaining national recognition. Most recently, when she received the MacArthur Fellowship, Rankine insisted the prize was not awarded to her but rather to the subject of her works—race in America.
Rankine’s new course, Constructions of Whiteness, deals with many of the same topics present in her book. In her first class, she projected a TV commercial on the whiteboard behind her. In it, actors Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard emblemize a white upper-class lifestyle while “Dancing to the Beat,” by Clarence Murray, plays in the background. The commercial, Rankine explained, is a perfect example of Anglo-Saxon sterility foregrounded over something belonging to and appropriated from black culture—in this case, soul music.
“I’m excited to learn about the topic of whiteness,” said Nitya Rayaparti ’19, a student in the class. “It’s kind of vague and nebulous and no one really knows how to define it.”
Another of Rankine’s students, Ivan Kirwan-Taylor ’18, said that the protests last year “woke [him] up to how you can’t really afford to be in America and neglect racism as a problem, maybe America’s premier problem.”
Rankine expressed that it seemed like the right moment to teach this class. “I think the country’s present political climate influenced my desire to teach a class on the construction of whiteness,” she said. “To me, this country’s commitment to white dominance is controlling and limiting all of our possibilities and it’s certainly controlling the dynamics of our upcoming election.” She was happy to see students so receptive to the topic, and so engaged.
The excitement about the class and its topic was evident even in the sheer number of students that showed up. Undergrads sat crowded on air vents, many hugged the walls or even the floor, and graduate students arriving late tried their hardest to crane their heads in through the doorway, squinting even in glasses.
The crowdedness of students in Claudia Rankine’s classroom almost resembled the crowdedness of Cross Campus nearly a year earlier in November. Everyone seemed to have the same thing on their minds.
What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen, 2014
When Rankine agreed to teach at Yale, she became a black woman entering a historically white space. From the looks of her class—the interest people had and the feedback it has gotten so far—she seems victorious. But Claudia Rankine represents only one hire as a consequence of the 50 million dollar initiative.
“I think it’s great that there have been some hires this year, obviously Claudia Rankine has been hired,” said Isis Davis-Marks ’19, who helped organize for Next Yale and who participated in some of the demonstrations on campus. “But I don’t know if it necessarily is balanced out with the amount of faculty we lost last year.”
A glaringly high number of faculty of color left Yale last year. The list includes:
Elizabeth Alexander ‘84,
Vanessa Agard-Jones ‘00,
Karen Nakamura GRD ‘01,
GerShun Avilez, and
Before her departure, Nakamura commented to the Yale Daily News that she considered the 50 million dollar initiative to be “smoke and mirrors” on the administration’s part. But now that we’ve entered a new school year, one in which 26 new professors of color joined Yale’s faculty as a result of the initiative, where do we stand? Does Rankine’s obvious fame play into the smoke and mirrors effect?
“Claudia Rankine was Yale’s very successful and perspicaciously elected replacement, as it were, for Elizabeth Alexander,” responded Kirwan-Taylor.
“With regards to Prof. Rankine,” Kirwan-Taylor added, “the thing I would say most immediately is that after three classes with her, it’s very clear she’s a true artist. I don’t know if we have any other cultural presence like her on campus.”
“I consider myself an artist above all other things,” said Rankine on her first day. And in her class, Rankine encourages her students to engage in artistry as well. By the end of the semester, each student will have made a “maker’s journal” that in essence reflects what he or she gained from the course. Her students will fill the pages with quotes from their readings, with images and clippings, with personal stories and drawings. Throughout this process they will not only learn more about the class’ topic of whiteness, but also learn more about themselves and how receptive they are to this whiteness, how it pervades their day-to-day lives.
“I find the students’ engagement incredibly exciting,” said Rankine. “There seems to be a commitment amongst them to unpacking and understanding why we think and do what we think and do. To be joined by my students in my own intellectual inquiry is a fantastic dynamic to be a part of.”
As students are encouraged to let other aspects of their lives to permeate the journal, it’s possible that Yale’s own whiteness will find itself on the pages of some of these “maker’s journals.” In class, Rankine brought one of the journals to hold up as an example for everyone to see. The notebook stretched out like an accordion, revealing blank, white pages.
How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen, 2014
While students thank Yale for bringing Rankine to them, they are still hesitant to thank the school for facilitating inclusion on a larger scale. This is because some of the grievances and demands that were expressed in Yale’s protests remain unanswered.
However, the administration does seem to acknowledge that it is still in the process of becoming better. To repeat the words of President Salovey and Provost Polak, “we can and should do more.” The real issue now is determining whether at the surface, the administration realizes the power that a diverse faculty serves in improving a college campus—making sure that this initiative is sincere, existing beyond a realm of smoke and mirrors.
“I think diversity is incredibly important and inclusion is important, but I also think what you want [at a university] are committed faculty,” said Rankine.
Rankine reflected on her experience as an undergraduate at Williams College. “I did not have a widely diverse faculty, but I did have a wildly committed faculty, ” she said.
Nevertheless, Rankine continued, “I think a more diverse faculty might have spoken to a more well rounded investigation of my interests and that’s why diversity in faculty is incredibly important.”
At Yale, where many students are trying to find what it is that they are interested in, visibility can play into this process of self-discovery. Davis-Marks explained that particularly for students of color, “seeing people who look like them in positions of power can often be inspiring, helping them to further their academic careers.”
“[Faculty diversity] enables a scholarly community to pursue intellectual exploration, which has the potential to enhance social and economic development in the United States and throughout the world,” confirmed Lamont A. Flowers, who serves as Executive Director of the Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of Black Experience in Education.
The lack of faculty diversity on college campuses persists as a nationwide problem, even though several reports and studies have been conducted in order to address the issue. According to a report published by the American Association of University Professors titled “Does Diversity Make a Difference?”, the diversification of faculty on college campuses has no negative effect on the quality of academics or campus life. This fact seems obvious, yet still, only 12 percent of college professors in America are people of color.
A 2013 Stanford report on underrepresented minority faculty stated that, “If an institution is doing an evaluation of its diversity efforts…campus climate has a lot to do as to whether people stick around.”
Does Yale’s campus climate make faculty of color want to stick around? This is where the story starts to unravel. While many professors have left, some like Claudia Rankine still find ways to feel energized by the students here.
“I think that I probably wanted to come to Yale for the same reason that you wanted to come to Yale,” Rankine said. “Because it is a thriving environment of intellectual thought.”
Yale, if it really is an environment of intellectual thought, should demonstrate its informedness. It should use its reputation to reflect better recognition for students and faculty of color.
“Given Yale’s position of prominence in the world and in academic spaces, it has the capacity in order to say that they are going to take a strong stance on these issues,” said Davis-Marks.
Rankine’s poetry seems to echo the students’ wishes. They hope that this initiative is not just smoke and mirrors. They hope that Yale doesn’t feel compelled to hire people of color “when there are so many great writers out there.” They hope that Yale, the “historically white space” that it is, lets its faculty of color thrive, compelling them to stay here well into the future. They hope that Yale takes note of the “the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures” of the past, and addresses them in constructive ways. As The Provost’s Faculty Development Fund and Rankine’s course on Constructions of Whiteness play into the story of race on our campus, they also play into the democratization of Yale and the world beyond it. In effect, they contribute to the greater American lyric.