Yale Honors Students Who Berated, Threatened Professor

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/06/02/yale-honors-students-who-accused-professor-of-racism/

Yale University recently announced the student winners of the Nakanishi Prize, an honor awarded to two graduating seniors “nominated by the Yale community to recognize high academic achievement and exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College.”

Enter recent graduates Alexandra Zina Barlowe and Abdul-Razak Mohammed Zachariah.

The names might not stir memories but their actions in the fall of 2015 made national headlines, when both students participated in a public shout-down of a residential dean who patiently attempted to reason with them in the name of free speech.

The students’ struggle began days before Halloween of that year, after then-Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis sent students an email in an attempt to reason with those pushing for administrative rules over which costumes would be suitable, and thus inoffensive.

Christakis’s email, which proceeded to go viral online, questioned students who wanted to control how other students dressed. Her post came in response to an Intercultural Affairs Committee directive dictating Halloween costumes.

“As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day,” Christakis, who specializes in child development and early education, wrote at the time. “Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.”

Christakis also claimed in her email that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

A central theme of her email included a call to students not to rely on administrators to dictate the terms of how students can and can’t dress for Halloween. An open letter signed by hundreds of students and faculty members later ripped Christakis’s email, accusing it of being racist.

The email sparked protests, prompting her and husband Nicholas Christakis to resign from their posts, but not before Nicholas Christakis tried to reason with a crowd of angry students. A video documenting the students’ jeering and at times screaming, led in part by Barlowe and Zachariah, according to a recent report in Tablet Magazine, proceeded to go viral as well.

Yale notes that Zachariah’s undergraduate work involved exploring the topic of “respectability politics.”

At one point in the video, Nicholas Christakis can be seen pleading with students to help him “understand your predicament,” prompting an unidentified student to shout, “but we’re dying!” and Zachariah to assume an aggressive face-to-face posture with the educator.


“Look at me, do you understand, you and I are not the same person,” Zachariah told Christakis. “We’re both humans, great, glad we understand that, but your experiences will never connect to mine.

“Empathy is not necessary for you to understand that you’re wrong — even if you don’t feel what I feel ever, even if nobody has ever been racist to you — because they can’t be racist to you — that doesn’t mean that you can just act like you’re not being racist.”

Christakis hails from a biracial family, according to a recently released documentary that explored the Halloween 2015 episode.

Another student can be seen telling Christakis that he “doesn’t need to maintain the power in this situation,” prompting the professor to briefly toss his hands in the air in an apparent display of exasperation.

At a later point in the video, Christakis and Zachariah appear to make peace, with the professor offering Zachariah a hand and a hug — at which point the student backs away, telling him, “I need you to understand, the situation right now doesn’t require you to smile.”

According to the school, Yale bestowed Zachariah with the Nakanishi Prize “to recognize all he has accomplished in the service of race and ethnic relations.”

Barlowe, meanwhile, can be seen accusing Christakis of “creating a space to allow for violence to happen on this campus,” over his apparent defense of his wife’s email.


“That I disagree with,” Christakis said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not,” Barlowe said in response.

According to the school’s website, Barlowe “is described as a fierce truth-teller who illuminates the challenges affecting her communities, rooting them in history and context in order to promote a deeper understanding of them.”

“Her peers say of her, ‘Lex never fights for just one issue — her moral imagination operates with the knowledge that issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. are all interconnected’.”

In the video, Zachariah can be seen flexing her moral imagination by shouting down Christakis.

“It’s not a debate,” the “fierce truth-teller” told him, prompting Christakis to say he disagrees, which in turn prompted several students to begin crying.

Another student offers to Christakis, “let us tell you if you’re being a racist.”

“That is actually how it works,” Barlowe added.

“I’m sick looking at you, I am disgusted with letting Lex [Barlowe] argue with you — you are not listening, you are disgusting” another student told Christakis.

After another student accuses Christakis of “gaslighting,” Barlowe can be seen telling the professor, “you stripping people of their humanity is not the same as playing an instrument,” after Christakis tried to make an analogy.

Erika Christakis, whose background includes being an expert on early childhood education, later stopped teaching at Yale altogether.

Her husband, a sociologist and physician who was once named by TIME magazine as one the top 100 most influential persons in the world, resigned from his post as house master of Silliman College. 

Here is a compilation of the testy discussion: