Cultural Engineering

in Uncategorized

In the early hours of September 19, 1999,
five white men chased down and assaulted a Yale student of Asian descent
outside a Howe Street laundromat. The Yale Police Department classified
the attack as a "violent crime with apparent racial undertones"
but released few details of the case to the public. According to rumors,
the assailants shouted the word "chink" before they stomped the
victim’s head into the ground, puncturing his eardrum. Some believed the
attackers to be Yale football players. Within a matter of weeks, the Asian
American Students Association (aasa) scheduled a silent vigil and a Dwight
Hall town meeting on hate crime, and the group’s political action chair,
Lee Wang, wrote an impassioned, but largely unsuccessful, plea in the Yale
Daily News for public discussion of the case.

But as student organizations rallied against the assault, investigators
struggled to put a case together. Several witnesses came forward, but the
victim refused to press charges. Without his cooperation, the police could
do little to determine who was responsible for the attack or even whether
it was racially motivated. "We’ve investigated it as far as we can
go at this time," ypd Chief James Perrotti announced that November.
"Right now we’ve been unable to determine definitively who committed
the assaults." At the end of the year, the case remained unsolved.

The mystery of the attack left the Yale community frustrated and confused.
While minority groups were up in arms, many students and administrators
were not convinced that race played a decisive role in the assault. "As
I remember the incident," Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg
told me, "there was a major alcoholic component to it." For many,
it was hard to imagine that serious racial violence could happen at a place
like Yale, especially in 1999. Just two years earlier, the Minority Recruitment
Program had launched a spate of open houses, phone-a-thons, and fly-outs
to increase minority recruitment for the class of 2002. And in the spring
of 1999, only a few months before the alleged racial attack, Yale had made
two other substantial moves: President Richard Levin and Provost Alison
Richard launched an initiative to increase faculty diversity, and the Pre-Registration
Orientation Program (prop), a week-long orientation program for students
of color in the freshman class, was revamped and renamed "Cultural
Connections."

In the wake of a potentially explosive situation, Yale managed to escape
with remarkably few scrapes and bruises. A visit this year to Cultural Connections
shows how, while the program couldn’t stop the assault from occurring, it
may have played a vital role in making sure it ended without incident, and
without redress.

One morning in August, one hundred members
of the Yale class of 2006 and I caught a bus to a pow-wow. The group-here
early for Cultural Connections-was headed for the Mashentucket Pequot Reservation
in eastern Connecticut. We would be attending the annual Schemitzun celebration,
a gathering of 500 Native American groups, to experience traditional dancing
and singing first-hand.

The ostensible goal of Cultural Connections is two-fold: to help incoming
minorities meet students and administrators of color whom they might otherwise
have difficulty finding and to introduce them to Yale’s academic and extra-curricular
resources. What that means, in concrete terms, is a lot of social events,
such as the trip we were currently taking, and a slew of panels, lectures,
and discussions. As the director of the program, Dean Saveena Dhall, put
it to me, "We’re just trying to do things that are going to bring people
of different communities together, introducing them to various academic
resources, introducing them to the cultural centers."

At the pow-wow I hopped off the bus and walked into a cluster of tents
with a group of cc participants. Dean Dhall had billed the event as something
of a cultural experience-"dancing and singing"-but to my surprise,
I found, at first, only peddling: rows and rows of stalls selling handcrafts,
trinkets, and food. Among the items for sale were "Indian medicine
bags;" fox, coyote, and wolf skins; pottery; wampum jewelry; moccasins;
car decals; expensive herbal shampoos; and cd’s by the rapper Litefoot.
One stall featured an array of gimmicky t-shirts. Emblazoned on them were
messages like "nba: Native by Ancestry," "fbi: Full Blooded
Indian," "Native Honey," and, of course, "United We
Stand: usa, Home of the Brave." Food vendors were selling delicacies:
fry bread; buffalo, elk, and caribou burgers; "gator bites"; and
corn cakes.

Cultural Connections was not always like this. This marked just the second
year that the program went to Schemitzun and just the fourth that it included
a strong multicultural component. Originally, the program served as an intensive
remedial workshop called the Puerto Rican Orientation Program (prop). prop
existed mainly to ensure that the writing and math skills of Yale’s incoming
Puerto Rican students matched those of their more privileged peers. Over
the years, as Yale’s student body diversified, prop opened its doors to
all minorities, and eventually changed its name to the "Pre-Registration
Orientation Program." But by 1999, many felt that the program’s remedial
emphasis was outdated and inappropriate. "Students felt that the acronym
prop had a rather negative connotation, that outside people felt that the
kids who were coming to prop needed to be ‘propped up,’" Betty Trachtenberg
told me. "It became in some people’s eyes a pejorative concept."
So Rick Chavolla, the director of prop at the time, changed the name of
the program to "Cultural Connections" and replaced remedial activities
with events like the pow-wow, a poetry jam, and panels on cultural and racial
issues at Yale.

In the past several years, however, Cultural Connections has taken heat
from critics who claim that the program reinforces racial divisions at Yale
by separating minorities from their white peers before school starts. Dean
Dhall was quick to tell me that such talk has no validity, at one point
even handing me a clipping from the undergraduate race magazine type authored
by two cc participants -Jonathan Farmer, an African-American, and Ameer
Kim El-Mallawany, a half-Korean, half-Egyptian-about how the two of them,
against all odds, became best friends at the program. "[Jon and I],
we might’ve been acquaintances had it not been for that blessed program,"
it read. "We might’ve been. I mean I’m talking fraction-of-a-percent-style
here… Me and Jon are friends because in a perfect world, we would’ve
been. And for a week, we were in a world that was perfect enough."

It is precisely because of the new multi-cultural philosophy, supporters
of Cultural Connections say, that the program does not advocate separatism.
Dhall points to the fact that Cultural Connections has coordinated a number
of events with other preorientation programs in the last few years. This
year, cc participants attended an ice cream social with members of the Freshman
Outdoor Orientation Trip (foot) program, a barbecue on Old Campus with the
football team, the Orientation for International Students (ois) program,
the Freshman Counselors, and foot, and a "Game Night" party with
ois. "You really get a feel for how to interact with people unlike
yourself at cc," former participant and aide Taiwo Stanback told me.
Despite the fact that cc is partly about "stressing your identity,"
she said, "it’s an opportunity to mix and mingle with people unlike
yourself." Dean Dhall made a similar point: "You can’t say that
we’re creating a single kind of student; we’re actually facilitating a lot
of interactions within that group [the minority community]."

In the decades before prop came into existence,
minorities at Yale were few and far between. The number of non-whites per
class never numbered more than a few dozen. When William Ashby, an African
American student at the School of Religion in the early 20th century, helped
organize Yale’s first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, there were only
16 black students at the whole university. By the 1960s, the numbers had
only increased to about 15 per class.

But in 1964, the situation began to change. That year, all 14 black freshmen
joined together to form what would, two years later, be called the Black
Student Alliance at Yale (bsay). Initially, the group focused on social
issues at Yale. "We got together because we felt a need to assert our
sense of positive self-identification," organizer Armstead Robinson
told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 1969. "Mixers were really bad; we
tried to create a normal social situation for ourselves." But in 1967,
the group turned its gaze to an even more pressing issue: the Yale curriculum.
bsay undertook an intensive study of the curriculum and entered into heavy
negotiations with President Kingman Brewster, Provost Charles Taylor, and
Dean George May about the possibility of creating an African American Studies
program. Surprisingly, the administration was open to the students’ demands.
As Caroline Jackson Smith, a Yale student in the early 1970s and director
of the African American Cultural Center in the 1980s, described the situation
to me, "Yale did a very unique thing… [President Brewster] said,
‘Come in and let’s negotiate. If you can prove to me that these demands
are reasonable, then we should work on them in a reasonable way.’"

Eight months after bsay held a national symposium on African American Studies,
the faculty of Yale College unanimously approved the creation of a major
in African American Studies. It was the first black studies program at an
elite university. Soon bsay procured a Cultural Center, a dean of black
students, and a minority recruitment program. After the assassination of
Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, minority admission numbers increased as
well. "In our minds, it was very important that we not just have the
experience that some of our parents had," Jackson Smith told me. "Their
experiences were, ‘You’re a single black person. You don’t bring the black
experience with you, you just try to fit in.’ Our generation was like, ‘We’re
coming in big numbers, and we don’t just want to be here-we want to be here
as ourselves.’" At that point, the floodgates opened for other minority
groups. Within the next ten years, cultural centers and deans for Latinos
and Asian Americans appeared. prop was just one part of that development.

What stood out most about the push for integration in the 1960s and 70s
was the fact that the process was almost entirely non-violent. Unlike Cornell,
where armed students occupied the student union, Yale sat down and negotiated
calmly. The result has been 30 years of relatively steady and peaceful interaction
between the administration and students on issues of race. But it has also
meant that Yale’s administration, through deans, cultural centers, and programs
like Cultural Connections, has had a high degree of influence over race
organizations on campus.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcoming you to their
territory, here they are, the Mashantucket Pequot tribal people and the
Eastern Pequot tribal nation! Let’s give them a big round of applause as
they welcome you to their territory for the annual Schemiiiiiiiiiiitzun
celebration!" The emcee’s voice issued from a large tent. I walked
inside toward a group of cc participants and watched as a line of Native
Americans in traditional dress streamed into the tent to the resounding
drum beats. "Here come the Iroquois smokedancers!" shouted the
emcee. "Wave to the people, smokedancers! give it uuuup! Iroquois style
in the house!" Over the next hour or so, more than a thousand people
representing tribal groups from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico-from
the Onondaga to the Aztecs-filled up the tent. "The true heartbeat
of our people! What a beautiful sight!"

If Cultural Connections exists to make the transition to college easier
for minority students, it also serves a purpose similar to that of the Schemitzun
pow-wow: to create solidarity among disparate minority groups. In that way,
Cultural Connections takes on a distinctly political role. As Alexis Hoage,
an aide, put it, "With Cultural Connections, it’s connecting the different
minority groups, just because there are situations at Yale where stuff happens
and there need to be coalitions for that. It sounds cheesy, but you make
those initial little personal connections with incoming freshmen and they’re
gonna stick around three years later when you’re trying to tackle mlk day."
Taiwo Stanback agreed that Cultural Connections can be an important tool
for effecting change. "Basically, Yale is a microcosm of the United
States," she told me. "And until the United States changes, the
[racial] problems are still going to be there. Cultural Connections is a
way of dealing with those problems."

The kinds of problems that Stanback and Hoage are referring to include
incidents like the one in the Morse College dining hall last January. When
junior David Ahn, a Korean American, suggested to the dining hall management
team that they put on a Korean theme dinner, Manager Brian Frantz jokingly
replied, "What would that be? Dogs and kimchi?" In a much-publicized
letter to the Korean American Students of Yale (kasy), Ahn described his
reaction to the comment as "shocked" and "offended."
He later filed a report to make sure that the incident would go on Frantz’s
record. As trivial as the event seemed, it proved an important catalyst
for the formation of perhaps the first broad coalition of minority groups
at Yale. In the spring, an emerging organization called the Pan-Ethnic Coalition
presented a resolution on cultural sensitivity, drafted by the Asian American
Student Association (aasa) and ratified by all the major cultural groups
on campus, to Dean Trachtenberg. Among the resolution’s requests were cultural
sensitivity training workshops for incoming freshmen. "Tension and
resentment clearly exist when it comes to cultural differences and problems
that arise from it," part of the resolution reads. "Incidents
such as the remark by the Morse dining hall manager serve only to create
a threatening atmosphere. They devalue the distinctive contributions of
the individuals affected and impair their ability to contribute to the community.
By alienating those individuals, they harm the whole Yale community."
Dean Trachtenberg says that she plans to work with the Pan-Ethnic Coalition
in the coming months.

But if the political role of Cultural Connections benefits minority students,
it obviously benefits the administration as well. The program represents
a major opportunity for administrators-specifically, the three cultural
deans, who all make appearances at cc-to form close relationships with participants,
aides, and even ethnic counselors who, down the road, will very likely play
important roles in campus activism. Of the dozen or so aides I met when
I visited Cultural Connections, almost all were involved to some degree
in activist groups, such as bsay and the aasa, or the cultural houses. When
incidents such as the "dogs and kimchi" affair occur, the task
of keeping the situation under control is that much easier for administrators,
who already know many student activists, sometimes very personally.

In the spring of 2001, this became all too clear. In the April Fools’ Day
issue of the Yale Daily News, Michael Horn, managing editor of the paper,
wrote a piece entitled "Confessions of a Jewish Asian Worshipper"
that satirized a number of common stereotypes about Asian Americans. A few
days after the story came out, the aasa sent an email to memebers of the
Asian American community about the incident. Dean Dhall herself tacked on
a personal message urging student protest. "As members of the Yale
Asian American community," she wrote, "I hope that you will feel
the need to respond, either on a personal level or by participating in one
of our community efforts… I thank you for your support and for helping
us constructively respond to folks at the ydn of why writing that promotes
stereotypes is unacceptable, hurtful and offensive to members of the Yale
community." With this memo, Dean Dhall had a unique influence over
how students should respond to a controversial racial issue, an influence
she might not have had without her ties to Cultural Connections.

Three years after the beating of the Asian
American student, the case is still open, according to ypd Chief James Perrotti.
But it seems unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure whether the incident
was a vicious hate crime or just a late-night, drunken brawl.

Did Cultural Connections contribute to the mystery shrouding the case?
On the one hand, the program represents thirty years of progress for minorities
at an institution that was once a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.
Not only do African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans
now constitute a vital part of the Yale community, they also possess an
intricate support system consisting of cultural houses, cultural deans,
ethnic counselors, and an orientation program. On the other hand, all of
that progress has come at something of a cost: Yale’s administration-for
which a hate crime, or a divisive community response to one, would represent
a public relations nightmare-now boasts firm institutional ties with most
undergraduate minority organizations on campus, in part controlling their
responses to attacks like this. Cultural Connections, in particular, is
an integral part of that process.

On the fourth day of Cultural Connections, the program’s participants crowded
into a lecture hall in the Slifka Center for a panel on "Diversity,
Cultural Centers, and Being a Person of Color at Yale." Panelists included
Rosalinda Garcia, director of La Casa Cultural; Pamela George, director
of the African American Cultural Center; and three minority undergraduates.
The goal of the panel was, at least in part, to introduce the various people
and resources that exist at Yale to provide for students of color. But as
panel moderator and assistand dean of Yale College Edgar Letriz reminded
the crowd, "You need to konw that we are not just the directors of
the culutral centers. We’re not hired to be specialists on multiculturalism.
. . . We’re in fact academic deans and student affairs deans of Yale College."
He never acknowledged, however, that the dual role could create conflicts
of interest. As long as Cultural Connections continues fostering early bonds
between students and administrators, the Yale Community risks mistaking
administrative damage control for administrative guidance.

Jacob Blecher, a junior in Davenport College, is associate
editor for TNJ.