There is no excuse for this. It is simply abject cowardice and an abdication of duty.
Professor Pritchard was teaching his class about the use of blackface in theater and film, and showed a clip of Laurence Olivier iportraying the tragic hero in “Othello.” (Pritchard called Olivier’s facial covering “blackface,” apparently. I do not. It is called “make-up.”) Some students who are apparently fully-indoctrinated social justice warriors incapable of examining any issue from multiple perspectives—college is supposed to remedy that deficiency—were offended by the topic, and demanded that their instructor write “a well written apology, two pages in length or longer,” and that he read it aloud.
Seldom has “Bite me!” been more appropriate as a response in an academic setting. You might want to take a Dramamine before reading on.
Mentioning the Olivier film (which was discussed on Ethics Alarms here), the letter, composed by one student and signed by eleven others, states,
…After this was shown to us, our professor asked if Othello being played by a white man took away from the performance. Our answer was yes, because the actor was in blackface, an inherently racist performance from its origins. Blackface – and any other practice that alters one’s appearance, poise, and vernacular to the stereotype of a group of people, especially of race – dehumanizes the identity of marginalized people into a stereotype one can wear as a costume. Whitewashing (which includes blackface and yellowface) profits off a group’s oppression, but never has to experience the consequences of living that identity. Makeup can be washed off, but POC have to live with the violence that comes with being part of a marginalized group….[The professor] then facilitated an argument as to whether or not whitewashing was acceptable, and this made the students – especially students of color – very uncomfortable. When we said that Lawrence Olivier in blackface was not acceptable, our professor played devil’s advocate, and this made the students of color incredibly uncomfortable because it was shocking and felt aggressive that our professor was making room to excuse blackface …Some students were shaken for the rest of the day, and days to follow. Our professor asked us to compare two hypothetical actors – a Black man and a white man – both in the role of Othello. He asked, if the Black man had a poorer performance than the white man in this role, wouldn’t it be acceptable for the white man to play Othello? He was asking us if a white man could do a better job of playing a Black character than a Black man,”
For the record, the position here, as an ethicist, lawyer but mostly as a stage director with some reputation for being innovative, any race and any gender can play any role, and if he or she is the artist with the talents to ensure the best performance, in the sole judgment of the director, should. Going on…
The professor then led these children into a discussion of an average person portraying someone with autism or a typical male actor playing a trans-woman, sparking this reaction as expressed in the letter:
When our professor commented, ‘That’s the whole point of acting. You’re supposed to transform,’ he minimized the stories of those communities and gaslit us into questioning if we were overreacting. We were rightfully upset that this was being facilitated in an academic setting by an authority figure. From his response, it became clear that he was making room for the argument that sometimes there are excuses to do blackface, other forms of whitewashing, and applauding dehumanizing caricatures.
The monstrosity closed by demanding that Pritchard attend a racial bias training workshop in addition to writing an apology letter and reading it aloud to his class. For me, a letter from my law school ethics class making a similar demand would be indistinguishable from a demand that I place my head under a pile driver while being costumed as the Burger King.
There is a wrenching scene in the Sixties film “Up the Down Staircase” set up when a sensitive, withdrawn female high school student pens a love letter to her English teacher. The teacher, played by the superb British actor Brian Bedford, calls her into his office and coldly critiques the letter’s grammar, style, and punctuation, humiliating her. Yet the students’ letter to Pritchard demanded as direct and thorough a dissection, and feelings be damned. A mindset such as theirs precludes education. Making a substantive argument, even as a devil’s advocate, is not “gaslighting.” Expressing an opinion that the listener does not hold and supporting that opinion is called debate. Furthermore, the belief that politically-based positions cannot be debated is antithetical to intellectual growth as well as civil discourse. he letter is primarily an appeal to emotion, arguing that if what the students heard “upset” them, then what they heard was, by definition, inappropriate for a professor to say. This delusion as well must be banished at the college level (and be exterminated earlier)
But Pritchard had neither the skill, integrity, courage or fortitude to explain any of that, or counter the many other fallacies in the letter. Instead, he read an apology to the students as they demanded. Pritchard began by arguing that the Olivier “Othello” was far from the worst instance of blackface in Hollywood, and asserted that the class has “an obligation to understand the scale and the historical dimensions of the things we condemn” as scholars and citizens. He then groveled:
I was, I suppose, trying to consider and understand the reasons that led Olivier to make these artistic choices. I now see why many of you took that as my “making room to excuse blackface.” I was mostly interested in the broader question of authenticity in casting. Under what circumstances does an actor need to actually “be” some aspect of the character they play? (This is, as you know, a central issue in Othello itself – recall Iago’s declaration, “I am not what I am” – and in Shakespeare more broadly, as when Viola says “I am not that I play,” or when Hamlet distinguishes between “the actions that a man might play” and “that within which passeth show.”) Does the actor playing Shylock need to be Jewish? How elderly does the actor playing Lear need to be (the text stipulates “[f]ourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less”)? The point I was trying to convey is that there are problems with the authenticity model of casting as well. Still, as I noted in class, there are huge asymmetries and structural inequalities in our systems of race and gender, and there are important reasons why opening up traditionally “white” roles to actors of color should not therefore lead to white actors gobbling up the relatively few lead roles that have traditionally been available to people of color.
In sharing with you the story of the professor at Michigan who ran afoul of his students by showing them the entirety of Olivier’s “Othello,” I was trying to acknowledge that I had made a mistake in the previous class. I agree that it would have been far better for me to have admitted that directly and openly. I guess I was still hoping at that point that I hadn’t messed up in the way that other professor had, but it’s clear to me now that I messed up in my own way.
Let me take a brief “throwing up in my mouth” break. OK, done; next Pritchard assented to attending the workshops the student demanded—you know, to have his racist brain washed…
Indeed, I see an increasing need for me to do so, as certain courses that I teach engage directly with issues of race,” he wrote. “I am aware that there is a gulf between how I am inclined to think and talk about race and how my students do, and I am eager to find ways to bridge that gulf. I certainly never want to do what your letter informs me I have done, which is to make ‘students of color feel unwelcome and dehumanized. Hopefully those workshops, and conversations with you as well, can help me to avoid doing so in the future.
Pritchard needs to be fired. Now. No professor can be effective if he or she agrees that the students can dictate what the professor can teach and how it can be taught. Indeed, no leader or supervisor in any setting can continue once authority has been ceded like that.
How a professor should best deal with students who write such a letter is another matter, but responding as Pritchard did is clearly wrong, incompetent and irresponsible. As the dead-eyed soldiers of extreme ideology continue to require capitulation without reason based on intimidation and assertions of infallibility, the dwindling number of Americans who possess principles and perspective as well as influence and authority must not emulate Pritchard and his destructive tribe of weenies.
Democracy depends on it.
Oh…I forgot to mention that the students were not satisfied with Pritchard’s grovel. Of course they weren’t.