A lecturer and administrator at Yale ignored the concerns of students of color on Halloween, a Lakota student says.

Van Alst: Coddling White Privilege, Silencing People of Color

Emily Van Alst

Halloween 2015 is done. But we’re still in the middle of Ptaŋyétu (autumn), a favorite season for many, including myself. However, the fall can be a difficult time for Native American people. For us, beginning with Columbus Day, moving through Halloween and its Pocahottie costumes and chicken feather headdresses, right on up through Thanksgiving with its hand turkeys, paper feathered headbands, and romanticized stories about the Pilgrims coming to our lands, this season is less about pumpkin spice and more about appropriation and the history and consequences of colonization.

As a Sihasapa Lakota woman, I am aware of the challenges faced by many here this time of the year. Tensions flare in person [and online] around redface, blackface, stereotypes, and privilege. I face every Halloween anticipating the sight of offensive costumes, and dread the varying degrees of hostility that I’ll meet when I try to tell those wearers how hurtful their decisions are to me. In the past three years here at Yale University, we’ve seen fewer tacky and offensive Halloween costumes, and New Haven, Connecticut, now celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day.

I thought we were moving toward a safer culture on our campus, but after Thursday night, I had to rethink everything.

Last week, the Yale University Intercultural Affairs Council sent out an email to Yale students asking them to be sensitive when choosing Halloween costumes. It reminded Yalies to think about the possibility that some people might be offended by certain costumes that dehumanize and diminish certain races, ethnicities, and religions. I was happy to see the email and felt the administration was working toward a safe space for people of color during Halloween.

But on Thursday night at 12:38 a.m., Erika Christakis, Associate Master of Silliman College, the head of my residential hall, sent the entire Silliman community an email. It was her reaction to the Intercultural Affairs Council email. In it she writes that a small group of students complained to her that they felt attacked by the email, and were upset they would not be able to properly express themselves due to the guidelines set by the Intercultural Affairs Council. Her argument stems from a belief that the institution is exerting too much power over students.

Her email gave people the greenlight to disregard cultural appropriation.

Aside from chafing at the the seemingly heavy regulations coming from the Intercultural Affairs Council, her assertion that a major appeal of dressing in costume was to challenge social norms implies that people are allowed to dress offensively on purpose.

As I sit here writing about this particular moment, I contemplate how I’ve fought similar incidences of erasure as a Lakota woman at Yale. I look around my dorm room; I am surrounded by Lakota language dictionaries and textbooks, my beading box, and prayer flags from this past summer’s wiwang wacipi (sundance). This is the safe space that I now question as I look out my window. I am reminded of where I come from by the abalone shell I was given by my father before I left home for my senior year here at Yale. It is filled with new sage from our homelands, thousands of miles away from this place.

The smell of sage still permeates my room from smudging myself last night after reading Erika’s upsetting email.

As I look past my windowsill, I gaze upon the Master of Silliman’s colonial house. A college Master, Nicholas Christakis is “responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college,” a charge Nicholas says he takes “seriously.” He resides in that house with his wife Erika, who, in her words, is there to “support the Silliman community in any way” she can.

Finding that support for Silliman and other college students of color lacking, it would seem as if the Master’s House is in disarray.

Erika’s email told us that Nicholas, professor at Yale, and Master of Silliman college says “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”

As a Lakota woman, when I just “look away” so that students of privilege, ignorance, and entitlement feel comfortable wearing bastardized, diminutive, and frankly offensive versions of what they think my culture is about, I am denying the very real issues of colonial violence committed against my community and ancestors that they have faced since contact with the Europeans.

I do not feel comfortable confronting a drunken man or woman about his/her racist costume here at Yale. This is where I hope the administration would support students, faculty, and staff of color in combating issues of cultural appropriation and hurtful costumes. We look to administrators to inform the broader community about the consequences of racist and offensive costumes, not to help promote them.

It is my hope that  administrators and faculty will listen to my voice and the voices of people of color on our campus and actually work toward creating a safer space.

When I ventured out for my final Halloween at Yale last Saturday, I did so with hope as always, but this time with a bit more trepidation than usual, as it seems those who are charged with providing an exemplary “ethical, moral, and intellectual tone” are just fine with self-expression for some, trumping the lived experience of others.

Emily Van Alst, Sihasapa Lakota, is a senior at Yale University and a double major in Anthropology and Archaeology. She is the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History NAGPRA Grant Assistant.

Editor's Note: Erika Christakis denied an interview request made by ICTMN Culture Editor Simon Moya-Smith.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
(from the article): " . . . her assertion that a major appeal of dressing in costume was to challenge social norms implies that people are allowed to dress offensively on purpose." This is preposterous! The original intent of Halloween was frights and scares NOT racism and assholes! If the intent is to be offensive WHY must they choose a minority culture on which to vent their offensiveness? Wouldn't a political or public figure suffice? My guess is that they're too scared to make fun of the real crazies. Go dressed as a pedophile priest, a trigger-happy cop, or a Subway spokesman. Face it, the only reason you'll openly make fun of Natives is because you won't suffer much backlash because we're more civilized than you are. _________________________________________________________ "Erika’s email told us that Nicholas, professor at Yale, and Master of Silliman college says “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.” Why should the members of any racial or cultural group turn away from your insensitivity? Too many privileged White people don't comprehend that nearly every minority in America has faced serious discrimination and obstacles to their survival so it's easy for them to say, "get over it." This idiot (Eriak Christakis) has nothing to complain about. The university tried to banish racism by REQUESTING that university students be sensitive towards other students, but arrogance and ignorance cancelled any right these insensitive morons have to call themselves educated!

Jaelin Rask
Jaelin Rask
Submitted by Jaelin Rask on
Native populations in America are not "ethnic" populations; they are not "minority" populations, neither immigrant nor tourist, nor "people of color." They are the indigenous peoples of this continent.