Professor replaced from class amid charges of racial insensitivity

Professor replaced from class amid charges of racial insensitivity

A celebrated Chinese-American composer and musician, praised globally for his multicultural influences, has been replaced from a class he was teaching at the University of Michigan amid charges of racial insensitivity.

Bright Sheng ignited controversy on Sept. 10 by showing students the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” according to The Michigan Daily, which featured acclaimed actor Laurence Olivier in blackface.

The image reportedly invaded the safe space inhabited by today’s cancel-culture generation of college students.

Othello, poster, British poster art, Laurence Olivier, 1965.
Laurence Olivier starred in the 1965 film.
LMPC via Getty Images

“I was stunned,” freshman Olivia Cook told The Michigan Daily. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.” 

Sheng, 65, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and MacArthur Fellow whose compositions have been performed by orchestras and at high-profile events around the world, including the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to the UofM website.

He failed to properly prepare his students to see the outdated image of an actor in blackface, charged one colleague.

“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Evan Chambers, a professor of composition, wrote in an email to the university paper. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”

Sheng issued an apology to students immediately after the Sept. 10 class and then wrote a more formal apology to his department on Sept. 16, according to the report. But critics took exception to a section of the letter in which the professor listed various times in his career he’s worked with people of color.

A group of 42 students, staff and faculty members called the apology “inflammatory” in a letter sent to David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

“The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers,” the letter stated.

Othello from 1965
Students were stunned to see Laurence Olivier in blackface.
Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evan

“He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class,” Cook, the freshman student, told The Michigan Daily. “Instead, he tried to make excuses. Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.”

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