Yaleâ€™s Nakanishi Prize is awarded every spring to â€œtwo graduating seniors who, while maintaining high academic achievement, have provided exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College.â€ Normally, the bestowal of an undergraduate award, even at an august institution like Yale, is of interest to no one beyond the recipients, their classmates, and their families. This yearâ€™s prize, however, should trouble anyone concerned with the imperiled fate of free inquiry and rational dialogue at our nationâ€™s institutions of higher learning: on May 21, Yale recognizedâ€”out of a graduating class of some 1,300â€”two individuals who did more than most of their peers to worsen race relations on campus.
Our story begins in the fall of 2015, when a mob of students surrounded professor Nicholas Christakis in the courtyard of Silliman, the residential college of which he used to be Master, a term used to describe head faculty members who oversee undergraduate life (more on this later). Christakis, a world-renowned sociologist and scientist, was there to answer complaints about an email sent by his wife, Erika, in response to a campus-wide message distributed by a Yale College dean of â€œstudent engagement,â€ Burgwell Howard, warning students away from wearing Halloween costumes that â€œthreaten our sense of community.â€ For her mere suggestion that Yale undergraduatesâ€”adults who can legally vote and fight and die in the nationâ€™s warsâ€”be entrusted with the responsibility to choose their own Halloween costumes (and, furthermore, be entrusted to share whatever discomfort they may have about potentially â€œoffensiveâ€ costumes with their peers, rather than encouraged to whine to overpaid, utterly superfluous, administrative busybodies), Erika Christakis was denounced by hundreds of Yale students, faculty, alumni, and countless off-campus agitators as an incorrigible bigot and â€œwhite supremacistâ€ whose job should be taken from her. …
Of the 100 or so students who confronted Christakis that day, a young woman who called him â€œdisgustingâ€ and shouted â€œwho the fuck hired you?â€ before storming off in tears became the most infamous, thanks to an 81-second YouTube clip that went viral. (The video alsoâ€”thanks to its promotion by various right-wing websitesâ€”brought this student a torrent of anonymous harassment). The videos that Tablet exclusively posted last year, which showed a further 25 minutes of what was ultimately an hours-long confrontation, depicted a procession of students berating Christakis. In one clip, a male student strides up to Christakis and, standing mere inches from his face, orders the professor to â€œlook at me.â€ Assuming this position of physical intimidation, the student then proceeds to declare that Christakis is incapable of understanding what he and his classmates are feeling because Christakis is white, and, ipso facto, cannot be a victim of racism. In another clip, a female student accuses Christakis of â€œstrip[ping] people of their humanityâ€ and â€œcreat[ing] a space for violence to happen,â€ a line later mocked in an episode of The Simpsons. In the videos, Howard, the dean who wrote the costume provisions, can be seen lurking along the periphery of the mob.
Of Yaleâ€™s graduating class, it was these two students whom the Nakanishi Prize selection committee deemed most deserving of a prize for â€œenhancing race and/or ethnic relationsâ€ on campus. Hectoring bullies quick to throw baseless accusations of racism or worse; cosseted brats unscrupulous in their determination to smear the reputations of good people, these individuals in actuality represent the antithesis of everything this award is intended to honor. Yet, in the citation that was read to all the graduating seniors and their families on Class Day, Yale praised the latter student as â€œa fierce truthteller.â€
Nakanishi Prize page on Facebook:
Congratulations to Lex Barlowe and Abdul-Razak Zachariah, the 2017 Nakanishi Prize winners!
Lex Barlowe – An African American Studies Major and Mellon Mays Research Fellow graduating with distinction, Lex Barlowe has focused her scholarship on issues of land usage, cooperative economies, and reparations in the American South. She is described as a fierce truthteller 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.”
Lex has also worked tirelessly to build bridges among organizations and individuals, pushing relentlessly for a more equitable and just campus â€” and world â€” through her activism. Serving as past President and Social Justice Chair for the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY), a Communication and Consent Educator (CCE), and an organizer for the group Fossil Free Yale, she brings womanist, feminist, anti-racist work to the fore with academic rigor and a deep integrity, and she has, by example, taught her peers, faculty and administrators about inclusive leadership.
Abdul-Razak Zachariah – graduates with distinction, has worked to improve Yaleâ€™s racial and ethnic relations through his academic work, both within his Sociology major and in the Education Studies program. A recipient of a Mellon Mays Research Fellowship, he has explored the topic of “respectability politics” in mentorship organizations for Black male teenagers in New Haven in the first of his two senior essays; in his second, he examines multiculturalism and racial representations in childrenâ€™s literature.
Abdul has devoted himself equally to community engagement, mentoring youth of color as a member of Yaleâ€™s Black Menâ€™s Union, guiding and welcoming peers as a Cultural Connections counselor, and caring for first-year students as a Freshman Counselor for Timothy Dwight College. As a member of the Undergraduate First-Generation Low Income Partnership, Abdul has played vital roles as Recruitment Coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the New Haven Outreach Coordinator for Timothy Dwight College, and undergraduate representative to the Yale Presidentâ€™s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion.