Halloween Costume Emails Stoke Debate At Yale Yale University is in turmoil after a series of emails about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. Some students there are protesting what they say is a hostile environment for students of color.
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Halloween Costume Emails Stoke Debate At Yale

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Halloween Costume Emails Stoke Debate At Yale

Halloween Costume Emails Stoke Debate At Yale

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to another college campus and another debate about race. This one started with emails. First, a campus-wide message discouraged students at Yale University from wearing culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. Think blackface makeup or feathered headdresses - then another email from a faculty member expressing frustration with the costume advice. Then an open letter accused that faculty member of erasing the voices of minority students. And today, there were demonstrations.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We are loud. We are out there. We have been here. We ain't leaving. We are loud.

CORNISH: Students say Yale administrators aren't listening. Their concerns include incidents of discrimination and low numbers of non-white faculty. Aaron Z. Lewis is a senior at Yale University, and he weighed in on the website medium. He says it's more than just emails.

AARON Z. LEWIS: I've seen people try to bring this up, try to make this a campus-wide conversation since I first got here during my freshman year. And I think people are frustrated that it's taken this long for their voices to be heard in any meaningful way. And it's unfortunate that the email about Halloween costumes has become the center of this conversation when it's been going on amongst students here for - far before Erika Christakis even arrived on this campus.

CORNISH: You mentioned this email, that, in part, stoked this controversy from Erika Christakis. She's a faculty member at Yale. And in response to this debate about Halloween costumes, she wrote that free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society. Is it the university's responsibility to protect students from offensive or even hateful speech?

LEWIS: We all agree that free speech is important. And I think we all agree, also, that racism is bad. These two groups of people do not have to be on different sides. This has become about the tone students are taking as they protest. And everyone will have a different opinion on that. We could go back and forth on that all day long, or we can all acknowledge the issue that's at the heart of this matter, which is the very real racism that students of color, especially women, have experienced here and try to work together to make it better for them.

CORNISH: Can you describe some of the specific demands of some of these students? I mean, if you look over in Missouri, you saw students at the University of Missouri demand the resignation of the head of the school, something they successfully won. What are students asking for at Yale?

LEWIS: We believe that students here - students of all backgrounds - deserve a more diverse faculty. Another thing is that the Yale president sent out an email to the entire student body last week saying that he was launching an initiative to make Yale a tobacco-free campus. And I think there's no reason that something similar can't happen here with a very serious and legitimate issue of racism.

CORNISH: Is there not an initiative that has been announced, though, that is going to look at diversity of faculty and more?

LEWIS: Yeah. The Dean's office actually announced the initiative to increase diversity in faculty, which is great, and we commend that.

CORNISH: You're a senior at Yale. Can you talk about your experience at all? Have you felt discrimination? Have you felt unwelcome?

LEWIS: Well, my dad is black, and my mom is white. So I don't actually look black. And fortunately, I haven't had to deal with the same kind of discrimination that people of color, especially women, have. But to me, it doesn't really matter if I've experienced these issues personally. It's my responsibility, and it's everyone's responsibility to have empathy and take seriously the legitimate concerns that are at the heart of this issue.

CORNISH: Aaron Lewis is a senior at Yale. He wrote the article "What's Really Going On At Yale" for Medium. Thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

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