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Yale Students Speak Out About Racism On Campus

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear a few more voices of Yale University students. One was heard a lot on the Internet. She was caught on video confronting a university official.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: You should step down. If that is what you think about being a headmaster, you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space. Do you understand that?

INSKEEP: The official was supposed to make life comfortable for students. Many were unhappy that the official's wife, also a Yale professor, disagreed with Yale's view of how to respond to offensive Halloween costumes. This is a polarizing debate, so we're going to listen a little more closely to the students. David DesRoches, of member station WNPR, went to Yale over the weekend to listen. So what did you do, exactly?

DAVID DESROCHES, BYLINE: So I spent a good part of Saturday walking around campus, spoke to about 30 or 40 students, trying to get a feel for what actually was happening on campus. And a lot of students didn't want to talk about it. But a couple of them were comfortable expressing their feelings. And one of the students I spoke with was Brian Brooks (ph).

BRIAN BROOKS: I think there's an ongoing narrative to people of color throughout history that things are better than they used to be, so, like, why are you asking for more? But when things still aren't equal, people aren't being whiney. They're just trying to make sure that, in an academic environment, people feel equal.

INSKEEP: There are so many parts of that to dig into. One is the reference to history. What is the history here, which might be missed in a momentary video?

DESROCHES: One of the things is Yale's Calhoun College, which is named after the South Carolina politician who was very pro-slavery. And the other is the fact that faculty members who run the dormitories at Yale are known as masters, which has these obvious connections to the slave era also.

INSKEEP: And were there incidents more recently that get to the other part of his statement about things still not being equal?

DESROCHES: So there was an incident over the summer where some African-American women claimed to have been denied access to a fraternity party. The fraternity has denied that. And then there's this controversy over the Halloween costumes, where a university email was sent to students encouraging them to be sensitive in their costume choices. A professor then responded asking whether it was appropriate for the university to be policing costumes in this way. But the professor's email was then interpreted by some students to be somewhat offensive, in that they believed it to condone cultural appropriation even though the professor's email directly addressed that she was trying not to do that.

INSKEEP: So this is what sparked so much national controversy. And I get a sense from the fact that some students didn't want to talk to you, David, that students at Yale understand there's a white-hot spotlight on them now. What, if anything, have students said to the suggestion that they've been overreacting?

DESROCHES: They think that these two incidents are what have been in the media as the reason for their reaction. But most of them say that these are just two incidents that are more or less boiling points for a broader cultural problem. And they also point to the fact that there are very few professors of color on campus. And so they feel like their culture is not really understood, and they don't feel like they have anybody to turn to when things get difficult. One of the students I spoke with was Rose Bear Don't Walk, a Native American student from Montana.

ROSE BEAR DON'T WALK: The institution doesn't do very much work on educating people about native issues or having native classes. And so I always have to make my papers or, like, my points in class about native-specific issues because otherwise, nobody's ever going to know anything about it.

INSKEEP: One other thing, David DesRoches. There have been so many protests on different campuses in recent weeks. Is there a sense among Yale students that they're part of some national movement?

DESROCHES: I believe they do think that. They noted that the campus conversation has been very much in this broader context of institutional racism that they believe happens everywhere. So they see themselves as really trying to address this head on.

INSKEEP: David DesRoches of member station WNPR, thanks very much.

DESROCHES: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.