A second-year Yale Law School student who was accused of racism after writing a party invitation has explained why he refused to apologize simply to make the matter go away.
The Daily Wire reported earlier this month that the student, who has since come forward as Trent Colbert, invited fellow members of the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA) to a “Trap House,” a term that once referred to a crack house but that has since been appropriated by young people to mean party house.
Immediately after sending the letter, students screenshotted it and sent it to an online forum for second-year law students. Some students claimed the reference to “trap house” was a term to describe a blackface party. Less than 12 hours after the email was sent, two discrimination and harassment resource coordinators from Yale Law School’s Office of Student Affairs – Ellen Cosgrove and Yaseen Eldik – scheduled a meeting with Colbert.
He recorded it and later revealed the contents of the conversations to the media. The two coordinators insisted he apologize for the email to make the situation “go away” and repeatedly implied his law school career would be in jeopardy if he didn’t. They also suggested his membership with the conservative Federalist Society (a decades old legal group with members on the Supreme Court) was particularly “triggering” for students. The two even drafted an apology for him to sign and send out, which he posted to Persuasion:
Dear [Black Law Students Association] leaders,
I write to sincerely apologize to you for any harm, trauma, or upset my email caused. I had a conversation with Yaseen and Dean Cosgrove earlier and they helped to educate me on why my email was racially insensitive and classist. I had no idea that I was writing an email that was perpetuating harmful stereotypes or could even be interpreted as anti-Black. I don’t want to cause any additional stress by writing this email, but I do want you to know that I am here if you would like to speak with me. I know I must learn more and grow. And I will actively educate myself so I can do better.
Colbert refused to sign the letter, so the coordinators sent an email to the second-year law school class condemning his invite “in the strongest possible terms,” claiming his invite contained “pejorative and racist language.”
Colbert wrote on Persuasion that he is not opposed to apologizing when one is necessary, but insisted that “not every instance where an apology is demanded is one where it is actually warranted.” He provided the example that a student on the online forum said his refusal to apologize was “corny,” which, as a Native American, he could find offense by connecting that to a crop “with immense cultural significance in indigenous communities.” But, he said, would the student have to apologize simply because Colbert demanded one? He argued “no.”
“Instead, an apology should be a sincere expression of remorse and admission of fault. The Yale administrators did not believe I had been racist by using the phrase ‘trap house.’ But it did not matter. They urged me to placate students via public submission,” Colbert wrote. “I don’t believe that the now-common ritual of compelled apology, complete with promises to ‘grow’ and ‘do better’ (their words, but ones I’m sure you’ve seen many times before) helps anyone, or is even intended to. If we continue to indulge this culture of performative denunciation, the very idea of an apology will lose its meaning.”
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