Don't be too quick to judge Yale protesters

A rally on November 9, 2015, to demand that Yale University become more inclusive to all students in New Haven, Conn.

Story highlights

  • Video clip circulates showing a Yale female student of color yelling at a university administrator
  • Sally Kohn: It's too easy for a white person to pass judgment on this student; she deserves benefit of doubt

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)By now, a lot of people have seen the video of Yale University students of color confronting a university administrator on campus. Mostly, what's been circulated is a short clip of one student in particular yelling at the administrator. If you watch the clip out of context, you might miss the point.

Here's the full story. In the wake of Yale students of color increasingly speaking out about their sense of marginalization on campus, the university sent an email to everyone in the school community encouraging all to "take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have," including costumes such as "feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing 'war paint' or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface."
    This shouldn't be terribly controversial, right?
    But in the wake of several ridiculously offensive campus parties nationwide, including one in which white UCLA students who wore blackface and another with a "thug" theme thrown by white fraternities at Southern Methodist University, it seems considerate and smart for Yale to try to discourage such offenses.
    Sally Kohn
    One might even see this as the proper role for a university in the 21st century: to teach all its students how to coexist respectfully in an increasingly multicultural world.
    Yet Erika Christakis, a faculty member at Yale and associate "master" of its Silliman College, wrote a public letter attacking the university's email. In the letter she referenced her husband, Silliman College "master" Nicholas Christakis, saying, "Nicholas says, if you don't like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society."
    Videos show that students of color confronted Nicholas Christakis (and by extension, his wife) for seeking to protect the feelings of some students (white students) over the feelings of other students (students of color) and not creating an equally "safe space" for all. Ultimately, in the most circulated and talked-about video clip, a young woman of color is intensely yelling at Christakis.
    It would be easy to watch that clip and think the female student of color is being "unreasonable" or "aggressive." If anything, I think it's too easy for a white person to pass such a judgment and feel entitled to make conclusions about this young woman of color.
    If you look at the entire video and not just that clip, you'll see that Christakis, who was challenged about his responsibility to confront institutional racism, thinks he was being personally called a racist and gets very defensive. That would be frustrating for anyone, but especially students of color who have continually experienced white administrators passing the buck on issues of institutional racism.
    Moreover, to presume this young woman was out of line is to be dismissive of the experiences that she's gone through as a woman of color. Why not give her the benefit of the doubt and assume her anger is justified?
    There are plenty of studies documenting that black students and students of color in general experience alienation at colleges and face higher dropout rates. But we shouldn't need research to believe her.
    The tendency to scrutinize and judge this young woman of color while giving Christakis the benefit of the doubt is a reflection of the sort of implicit bias and white privilege against which the student was railing.
    Some people are outraged that Yale students called for Nicholas Christakis and his wife to be fired. I'm not going to comment one way or the other; the students are entitled to their ideas and the college has to figure out how to respond.
    But consider this: Nicholas and Erika Christakis were implicitly endorsing the idea that students should be able to wear blackface or whatever other offensive costumes they want and that students of color should just suck it up. They're suggesting the idea that the burden should shift away from white students to be considerate and not offensive, and expecting them to do otherwise would be offensive to the white students.
    To put it differently, the university didn't impinge on free speech or the ability of students to disagree with one another but simply discouraged students from offending each other. Erika Christakis' response was to encourage being offensive as a form of free speech. It's not hard to see why students of color at Yale found this problematic.
    At the end of the day, liberty and freedom are about balancing interests. White students are obviously free to wear whatever costumes they want. Should students of color also enjoy the freedom of feeling safe and respected on their campuses?
    Those people who are outraged by the Yale students of color and how their frustrations were directed at Christakis send a clear message — that even the feelings of white faculty members seem to matter more than feelings of students of color.
    Think about that for a second. There are those in the media, and presumably at Yale, who are more outraged about the female student of color yelling at a white faculty member than they are about the idea of racially offensive Halloween costumes. It just goes to show this isn't about free speech — this is about taking sides. It's the latest example that the feelings of white people are more important than the feelings of people of color.
    Bear in mind we're talking about a school that has a college named for the infamous segregationist John C. Calhoun and calls its live-in faculty "masters."
    The message of the Black Lives Matter movement has never been that black lives should matter more than anyone else's, but that they should matter equally in our society.
    Take a moment to consider that the feelings and concerns of Yale's students of color are as valid as those of its white professors — and that if these students are yelling, it's because they have something important to say. Instead of judging, let's try listening.