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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 26, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Students and alumni form group to call out racism in theater department

A group of Ithaca College students and alumni are calling on the college to address a history of racist incidents perpetuated by faculty, students and staff in the Department of Theatre Arts.

Ithaca College Department of Theatre Arts Black, Indigenous and People of Color (ICTA BIPOC) is a group of BIPOC alumni and current students in the Department of Theatre Arts that formed in response to racist and discriminatory incidents within the department.  

Kathryn Allison ’14, Hannah Guillory ’12, Donovan Lockett ’15 and Maggie Thompson ’15 began organizing ICTA BIPOC in June, and the group grew by word of mouth. Allison, Guillory, Lockett and Thompson wrote a public letter after several meetings with the other ICTA BIPOC members, and the letter was made public July 31. The letter contains student accounts of racism and discrimination and a list of demands aimed at holding perpetrators accountable and educating students, faculty and staff on being anti-racist. It is addressed to President Shirley M. Collado; Melanie Stein, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences; La Jerne Cornish, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; Catherine Weidner, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts; and the rest of the Department of Theatre Arts faculty and staff.

The group has been gaining support through a social media campaign, with approximately 1,500 followers on Instagram.

Thompson said a lack of respect and inclusion limits the educational experience for BIPOC students.

“We are looking for an acknowledgment that the experience of BIPOC students of this school is vastly different from the experience of white students of the school,” Thompson said. “What we’re looking for isn’t the same exact experience for everybody, but we are looking for equity.”

Allison said the group was inspired by theater arts students at other colleges and universities who have written similar letters to address racism at their own institutions. These institutions include Syracuse University, Emerson College, California State University at Sacramento and University of Utah.

Other BIPOC rights movements in the United States, like the Black Lives Matter movement, have been gaining momentum this year in response to several high-profile cases of police brutality against Black people. These cases include the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Student groups like POC at IC have demanded that Ithaca College address issues of racism and discrimination for BIPOC students in the past. In 2015, POC at IC demanded the removal of Tom Rochon, former Ithaca College president, after several racist incidents in the college community.

In Fall 2019, an interim lecturer asked students to write racial slurs on a whiteboard as part of a course. After students complained, the lecturer, Anne Hamilton, did not teach for the remainder of the semester. The college began to discuss ways to combat racism as a result of this incident with workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion; revisions to the college’s diversity statement; and implementing inclusive search training to hire a more diverse faculty. The college faculty is 82.1% white as of Fall 2019, according to the Office of Analytics and Institutional Research, and the Department of Theatre Arts faculty is 90% white, according to ICTA BIPOC. College-wide, the student body is 72.9% white and is 22.2% people of color.

In the letter, current and former students recall racist remarks that faculty and peers said to them like, “You were only cast because you’re Black” and “Obviously you know how to use chopsticks.”

Guillory said that 95 people had signed the letter as of Sept. 2, and more students and alumni have asked to sign the letter since its release. Senior Christian Henry said that he signed because he does not want future BIPOC students to experience the racism he has faced as a student in the department.

Henry said that he experienced racial microaggressions from a white professor during a class while performing a monologue from the perspective of a formerly incarcerated Black man from the play “The Brothers Size” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Henry said his professor began promoting stereotypes of Black incarcerated men while critiquing Henry’s performance, implying that formerly incarcerated Black men are inarticulate and dispassionate.

“My brother is currently in prison,” Henry said. “And he is quite articulate. He is quite intelligent. He is very creative, and he’s incredibly passionate. He is not hardened by prison, at least not in the same way that you think being hardened from prison is based on your experience with ‘Orange Is the New Black.’”

Henry said that the professor understood and apologized to him once he corrected the professor’s mistake, but the experience still took an emotional toll on him. Henry sought out help from Cynthia Henderson, professor in the Department of Theatre Arts, who is the department’s first and only African-American professor.

“I asked her because I didn’t feel safe going to my professor asking ‘How do I act better?’ because my trust and my respect had left the room, and I no longer felt like I could be honest or I could be vulnerable in that space,” Henry said. “I now have my walls up, and I now knew how I needed to exist in that space in order to not be harmed emotionally or mentally.”

Henderson said that she has been a mentor to BIPOC students since she first began teaching at the college in 2000. She said that in her first weeks at the college, a group of BIPOC students came to her asking her to direct a play because the college had never produced a main stage play about an African-American story written by an African-American individual. In 2001, Ithaca College Theatre performed “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe under Henderson’s direction.

Henderson said students’ unique cultural backgrounds are important to their education and careers in theater.

“I talk often to my students about the fact that I don’t want to wipe out who they are as individuals,” Henderson said. “What I want to do is build on what they bring culturally, what they bring as individuals, what they bring based on how they identify. Who you are as an individual, how you were brought up culturally actually enhances what you bring to the art form, so why would we want to get rid of that?”

Lockett said it is important for the department to support BIPOC students, not only for their personal well-being but also for their success in their careers.

“There have been so many BIPOC students that we mentioned in the letter who either left early because they couldn’t handle the culture of the department or who left and just felt kind of at a loss for how to go through the industry or go through the world in their space,” Lockett said. “There was so much unlearning that needed to happen because of the toxic culture of [Dillingham Center]. We want that to end.”

Henderson said the ability of the ICTA BIPOC members to articulate the needs of BIPOC students in this letter shows the value of their education.

“I actually wrote to them, in a personal capacity, to share that I was proud of them because they were able to step back, look at their educational experience in the Department of Theatre Arts, recognize the value of the education they’d received but also share ‘These things were not right, and they really need to be fixed,’” Henderson said. “The alumni that I’ve spoken to said that they truly appreciate the education and the artistry of the work that they did here, but there were racial and humanistic things that need to be addressed.”

Senior Alexander Paredes-Ruíz is another student who signed the letter, but he said that signing was a difficult decision. Paredes-Ruíz said he was concerned about appearing ungrateful to the college and losing his financial aid.

Paredes-Ruíz said he ultimately decided to sign because he believes the potential benefits for future and current BIPOC students are more important than the personal risks of signing the letter.

“My gut instinct was to sign it, so I didn’t let this inner dialogue get to me,” Paredes-Ruíz said. “If there are repercussions, then let it be because this isn’t about me. It’s about the collective.”

He said that he has experienced microaggressions both in and outside class. One of these was in 2017 when Brazilian characters were cast as white people in a play he was working on, “Wonderful Town” by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov. Paredes-Ruíz said that his classmates dismissed his concerns when he told them the casting was offensive.

“There have been moments I’ve caught myself going, ‘Oh, I’m different,’” Paredes-Ruíz said. “I have a different perspective, and I have to be the one to say something because no one else in the room will and it’s exhausting. There’s so much emotional labor that goes into that.”

One of the demands stated in the letter is that the college creates a committee to investigate instances of racial discrimination in the Department of Theatre Arts. The college has a bias impact reporting system and a formal complaint system but no committee that specifically investigates racism in the Department of Theatre Arts.

This committee would be composed of faculty, students and staff in the Department of Theatre Arts and members of the Bias Impact Resource Team. Members would be nominated and selected by the students in the Department of Theatre Arts.

Another demand is that the college implements nondiscrimination policies and trainings on anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion and unconscious bias for all faculty, students and staff in the Department of Theatre Arts.

The letter states if these two demands are not enacted by Oct. 1, ICTA BIPOC will call for the public resignation of faculty and staff who have been involved in past incidents of racism and discrimination. As of now, these individuals have not been publicly named.

The letter also states that members of ICTA BIPOC will advocate against accreditation of the college on their work, including their resumes, websites and biographies. The college would no longer be associated with the work of alumni like Allison, Guillory, Lockett and Thompson, who are professional actors.

Alumni members of ICTA BIPOC who signed the letter stated that they would end their donations if the demands are not met. Collegewide, alumni donations to the college have decreased by approximately half over the last decade.

ICTA BIPOC also demands that the department hire more BIPOC faculty and create more inclusive curricula. In 11 classes over six years, 79.35% of assigned readings were by white authors and playwrights, according to ICTA BIPOC. This data was collected from syllabi of courses that ICTA BIPOC members took in the department.

“No student, no theater practitioner, no person benefits from this narrow an education, and the world is narrower minded for having its most educated population taught in this manner,” the letter stated.

Stein said via email that she is working with the Department of Theatre Arts to create a plan for long-term change in the department. She said she will also be meeting with Allison, Guillory, Lockett and Thompson to further discuss the issues they highlighted in their letter.

“I am grateful to our past and current students for speaking out about their experiences and for their willingness to engage,” Stein said via email. “Since these issues are so important, and because we recognize that our past efforts have not been sufficient and, at times, reactive, we want to be thoughtful as we move forward to ensure meaningful action and progress.”

The Department of Theatre Arts responded to the letter Sept. 10 and announced that two Equity, Diversity and Inclusion facilitators within the department have been appointed to work with faculty and staff to address racism in the department.

Belisa González, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Culture Race and Ethnicity, said she has been working with the Department of Theatre Arts for approximately seven years to help the department practice anti-racism.

González’s work with the department has included diversity, equity and inclusion trainings for faculty in the department and trainings on inclusive hiring practices.

González said she spoke to nearly every faculty member in the department, and a majority said they were thankful to ICTA BIPOC for its letter.

“Many used the word ‘gift’ to describe the letter, and I would agree,” González said via email. “To relive and publicly acknowledge what they went through at IC must have been traumatic, and I think we need to honor that in the way we read and respond to the content.”

Collado said this letter from ICTA BIPOC drives forward the conversation about systemic racism at the college.

“The leadership at this institution — myself, our senior leadership team, our deans and our department chairs — remain committed to this work and lean into our responsibility to walk the walk of our institutional values of academic excellence, respect and accountability, innovation, equity and sustainability,” Collado said via email. “I fully support the honest and unflinching inclusive process emerging right now in our Department of Theatre Arts and our School of H&S.”

Junior Bryan P., a member of ICTA BIPOC, said that he does not believe conversations will do enough to address the racism and discrimination at the college.

“You can say that you’re going to do this, but, if you don’t do it, it doesn’t matter,” Bryan said. “Your words don’t matter.”

Lockett said she hopes future BIPOC students will receive a better education as a result of this letter.

“It feels so important because future generations of Black students, Indigenous students, students of color deserve being in an environment where their education matters just as much as the white students,” Lockett said. “For me, it really is coming out of a place of love, and I want to see [Ithaca College] and [Dillingham Center] be the best version of itself.”

Alyshia Korba can be reached at akorba@ithaca.edu