No excerpt can do justice to this story, which is repulsive for a hundred different reasons but most of all because of how familiar it feels. It has every element you’d expect of a modern campus crime against wokery:
— a glaring lack of malicious intent by the offender
— students less interested in learning than policing for offenses to woke sensibility
— treating the offense as a failure to provide a “safe environment”
— no fewer than four separate apologies, none of which appears to have satisfied the offended
— gratuitously piling on the offender, with other students rushing in to express solidarity with the offended subjects
— an official report to the university’s “Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX”
The professor, Bright Sheng, grew up in Maoist China and survived the Cultural Revolution. He came to America to study and teach music, no doubt believing he’d left stultifying leftist ideological conformity behind.
His offense was showing students in his music composition class scenes from Laurence Olivier’s 1965 film version of “Othello,” in which Olivier played the title character. Othello is a “moor,” of African descent; for centuries, white actors like Olivier played the character by darkening their skin. That’s unthinkable in 2021, particularly in the United States where blackface is associated with minstrelsy, and was questionable even in 1965. But whatever one thinks of Olivier “honoring tradition” by playing the role himself, his intent in doing so obviously wasn’t to demean the character or Africans generally. Othello is the play’s tragic hero, not a minstrel or comic relief.
Didn’t matter to Sheng’s students. “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,” said one freshman, describing herself as “stunned.” Having been born and raised in China, Sheng may have sincerely misunderstood the sensitivity in America to whites portraying blacks by darkening their skin. Once he was made aware of it, he apologized to the class in an email. Then the dean of the department apologized in another email. Then Sheng apologized in a second email, emphasizing that he’d now researched the subject while noting that he’d cast black actors in productions that he’d staged in the past.
Which was itself deemed problematic by the students. All Sheng meant to say by pointing out his casting choices was that he bears no ill will against people of African descent and doesn’t discriminate against them. But the students, clearly relishing their newfound power over him, apparently treated it as the equivalent of him saying “some of my best friends are black,” as if Sheng meant to imply that his professional relationships with African-Americans might give him license to be offensive.
At that point grad students in the music department sent their own letter to the dean, accusing Sheng of believing that “it is thanks to him that many of [the black performer he’s worked with] have achieved success in their careers.” They also demanded that he be removed from teaching his music composition class, of course. The cardinal rule of these passion plays is that an apology is never enough; there must be professional consequences, pour encourager les autres.
Sheng ultimately stepped aside and let another professor replace him in the seminar. He apologized for a third time in a letter to Michigan’s campus newspaper, not that it’ll do any good:
In regards to the “Othello” incident, Sheng told The Daily he made a mistake and was “very sorry.” He wrote that the original intent was to show how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. Since cross-casting was frequent in opera, he did not think Laurence Olivier’s performance was “intended to be the same as the minstrel performances which did degrade African Americans.”
“I thought (that) in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” Sheng wrote. “Of course, time (sic) has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”
Upon hearing that Sheng had quit the class, a grad student who spoke to the paper lamented that he had gotten off easy and clearly hadn’t suffered enough. I wouldn’t worry if I were the student, though. Given the way these things tend to go, Sheng will now have difficulty finding venues willing to perform his works and other schools willing to hire him, just in case he understandably decides that Michigan is no longer for him. He’ll suffer plenty.
“Flipping out about showing Olivier’s Othello to college students is the kind of thing that can only happen in an affluent and unserious country,” Tom Nichols wrote after drinking it all in. That’s not the only news about “racial justice” on the wires today that fits that description, unfortunately.
In lieu of an exit question, read this righteous defense of Sheng by fellow composer Kevin Scott, who provides the historical context that Sheng’s 18-year-old inquisitors either don’t know or don’t care about. A notable quote from the introduction to Scott’s piece: “Many academics have privately signaled their solidarity [with Sheng] but do not dare to speak up in the present climate.” That’s familiar too.