This is the intersectional equivalent of a car wreck. It all took place in a Cornell class titled “Acting in Public” which seems to be a relatively normal speech class based on the syllabus. Last week, a student named Letitia Chai was set to do a practice run of her senior thesis but, for reasons explained below, wound up giving it in her underwear. The crisis began when her professor pointed out that Chai’s cut-off jean shorts might not be ideal for a major presentation. From the Cornell Daily Sun:
“The first thing that the professor said to me was ‘is that really what you would wear?’” Chai explained as she detailed what happened when she tried to begin her presentation in her Wednesday section of PMA 3815 Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life.
Chai, who had dressed in a blue button down and cutoff jean shorts, said she was stunned.
“I think that I was so taken aback that I didn’t really know how to respond,” she said in an interview with The Sun.
Chai said that the course instructor, Prof. Rebekah Maggor, performing and media arts, went on to say that her shorts were “too short” and that as a speaker she was making a “statement” with the clothes she was wearing…
A male international student in the class made a comment during the discussion that the speaker has a “moral obligation” to her audience to dress conservatively during her thesis presentation, at which point Chai left the room with two students following to comfort her.
According to a letter written by the other students in the classroom, Chai left the room fairly quickly after the remark about her outfit and so missed the discussion that followed:
Our professor acknowledged the discomfort of speaking overtly about attire and perception, especially for women, and encouraged us to share our thoughts and opinions. Students began discussing their beliefs on the matter. Letitia became visibly upset by our professor’s earlier comments, and after one male international student’s comment (mentioned in her post), she left the room. From the initial comments to Letitia’s exit, only a few minutes had passed, and many people were speaking at once. Tensions were high, and neither our professor nor Letitia was able to adequately defend her position.
The professor asked Chai how she wanted to proceed, at which point the senior decided to strip off her clothes and give her speech in her underwear:
At this point, Maggor asked Chai what she was going to do.
“I’m going to give the best damn speech of my life,” Chai told her.
Chai stripped down to her bra and underwear and walked back into the theatre room, where she performed the entirety of her thesis presentation in the same state of undress.
Naturally, this being a college campus, Chai presented her decision to get naked in class not as an overreaction to a small bit of criticism but as a protest against the patriarchy, or something. From Reason:
Chai stripped again during her actual senior thesis presentation, in front of students and professors. She said she “stood in solidarity with people who have been asked to ‘question themselves’ based on others’ perception of their appearances,” according to The Sun. She asked the audience to join her—and some removed articles of clothing. Afterward, she led a roundtable discussion about diversity and inclusion.
Of course, if she was reacting to her professor’s comments as a microaggression, that suggests her professor must be some kind of conservative oppressor, right? Well, no, not at all. In fact, the other students were very concerned that the protest might reflect poorly on their professor and wrote a defense pointing out what a virtuous progressive she is:
Our professor is a white, female ally who puts actions behind her allyship – which, in all honesty, is very rare. Her directorial work focuses on the translation of plays from the Middle East that deal with issues of social justice. She uses her privilege to bring original playwrights (often refugees) from overseas so that they may get an audience for their immensely important pieces of work. There is no one else at Cornell doing work like this for an area of the world largely ignored by the West, and yes – by Cornell. She takes careful efforts with casting POC actors and actresses and has engaged in long discussions with POC students outside of class about supporting us to make our voices heard in an industry that often
We feel that these aspects of her character are fundamental to who she is. We acknowledge the undeniable history of white peers mistreating POC students and the pain of microaggressions in the professional space. While we do believe there was an error of phrasing on our professor’s part, her intent, to us, has always been extremely sincere. For us, because she has mentioned the social role of attire on multiple occasions to other students (male, female, of various backgrounds) as a natural consequence of performing publicly, we do not believe this instance occurred with malicious intent.
So who is the bad guy here? It’s not clear. Most of the students in the class are minorities. The professor is a progressive, female “ally” and yet, somehow a naked protest became necessary. “I ask you to take this leap of faith, to take this next step, or rather this next strip, in our movement,” Chai said when live-streaming her final presentation. It’s enough to make you think progressive campus culture has lost all sense of reason. Here’s the video: