Playing a blackface video isn’t fireable. It shouldn’t be okay.
By Sammy Sussman
Almost three weeks ago, my classmates and I were shown a blackface video in class without warning or discussion. Our semester was supposed to be spent “analyzing Othello, from Shakespeare to Verdi, to give [us] an overall sense of how to form an opera libretto.” To begin, our professor decided to play the 1965 National Theater Company production in which Laurence Olivier covers his face in black makeup and adopts a deeper, lower voice reminiscent of American minstrelsy. “He plays Othello in blackface!... The consequence is that he hits one — the sensitive American, anyhow — with the by-now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotyped,” the New York Times wrote of the movie in 1966. I couldn’t believe that Professor Bright Sheng decided to show my class this video 2021.
In the weeks since this incident, our class meetings for this course have been cancelled. We’ve received numerous emails from administrators and department faculty reaffirming our school’s commitment to anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusion. We’ve been told that this incident is being “investigated” and we’ve received an anonymous survey meant to study our experiences in the department.
Nevertheless, I’m saddened by the numbness I feel when I consider professor Sheng’s decision and my school’s response. I know I should be more outraged that we were shown this video. I should be angry that Prof. Sheng’s “apology” for this incident involved a list of the Black students and faculty he’s worked with over the years. And I should be horrified at my university’s failure to quickly and effectively address this incident.
But after four years studying classical music, I’ve learned that this overwhelmingly homogenous industry operates by its own set of rules. Acts of racism and sexism are easily dismissed. Allegations of sexual abuse are silenced unless they bleed into the public sphere. Tenure prevents institutions from taking meaningful corrective actions that stop short of terminating a professor’s employment. And when it comes to incidents like this blackface video that don’t warrant termination, tenure prevents administrators from issuing meaningful consequences that will deter similar behavior in the future.
When it comes to an email exchange with my department Chair, for example, I wish I was more shocked by his casual dismissal of the hurt many of my classmates and I felt while watching this video. “Respectfully, I think this may be something you ought to first discuss with Prof. Sheng,” he wrote. “I have to believe that, explanation or not, a professor with his experience in the world had educational reason to share this famous rendition of Othello with the seminar.”
I wonder if the Chair understood the deafening silence that permeated the classroom for the 90 minutes that we were subjected to this video. I wonder if he realized that we were all afraid to stop this video while it was on screen in front of us. Though the Chair suggested that my classmates and I discuss this matter directly with my professor, I knew that this was a conversation that could never take place. Prof. Sheng is one of the university’s distinguished professors. He’s had tenure since before my classmates and I learned to read. There was no way we could voice our feelings about this incident without fearing for the professional repercussions.
“[The professor] should be allowed to address your questions before indicting him,” the Chair wrote at the end of his email. “If there is debate to be had, that is what Composition Seminar is for — to discuss, and find understandings, and build bridges where there is lack of connection. This can be an opportunity for discussion. I hope you hear where I’m coming from, and are interested to consider the possibility of multiple viewpoints.”
This is how it starts, I remember thinking while I read this email at the end of that class. This is how the system of silence starts — a (relatively) powerless student is forced to choose between inflicting reputational damage on the department or remaining silent about an unacceptable decision made by a powerful faculty member.
Iknew about Prof. Sheng’s music before I ever met him in person. He’s one of the foremost composers of his generation. He has been a tenured professor at our university since before we were born. He has been the university’s “Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition” since 2003, two years after he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. He’s a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
After five years in the department, however, I’m also now aware of Prof. Sheng’s pedagogical reputation. I’ve seen him engage in actions unbecoming of a distinguished tenured professor, actions that should have led to some sort of professional reprimand were he not a composer of great repute.
In an outdoor department meeting a few years ago, for example, Prof. Sheng sat among the students and watched videos on his cellphone. He did this while his colleagues sat in chairs facing the group and spoke about their plans for the upcoming school year. I remember being shocked that Prof. Sheng blatantly ignored his colleagues and students. The meaning seemed clear. While his colleagues had to sit in the front, Prof. Sheng was different. None of the rules seemed to apply to him.
I’ll never forget his actions during my interview for the composition program. I was 17 at the time, a high school senior excited to have the opportunity to share his music with the university’s distinguished faculty. I was in the middle of answering a detailed question about the harmonic language of my woodwind quintet when Prof. Sheng abruptly exited the room. He gave no explanation for this sudden exit.
I remember worrying in that moment that Prof. Sheng thought my music was unworthy of his time and attention. I had spent weeks preparing my interview responses. Had I done something wrong? I was shocked — to be honest, I still am shocked — that none of the other professors in that admissions interview took any steps to address Prof. Sheng’s sudden exit. (In conversations with my classmates, however, I’ve learned that Prof. Sheng frequently exits admissions interviews. I’m not the only person who was hurt by this behavior.)
Three years later, after I’d studied with other faculty members and built up my composition portfolio, I was shocked when Prof. Sheng reached out through a classmate to tell me that he’d be interested in teaching me during my senior year. I guess my music is now worthy of his attention, I remember thinking. My classmate and I spent a long evening crafting a respectful response to this unexpected offer.
Though I’ll never know why Prof. Sheng engages in this behavior—it seems separate from his decision to show my class the blackface video—the overall meaning of these collective actions seems clear. Prof. Sheng has tenure. He’s a distinguished professor. The normal rules that govern faculty behavior don’t apply to him.
I’m lucky to be in a program with many brave classmates. In the days after we were shown the blackface video, a few classmates bypassed the Chair to reach out directly to the music school’s Dean. They asked him to respond to this deeply harmful incident.
By the end of that week, we’d received multiple emails from the Dean and members of the department faculty addressing what had happened. “This [incident] was hurtful and upsetting to the students in the class, and deeply disappointing to all of us who learned about it,” the Dean wrote. “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The Dean told us that the University’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office (formerly the Office for Institutional Equity) had been engaged to help respond to this incident. The office had launched an investigation. Though I was later told that the efficacy of this investigation would hinge on the office finding a student that was willing to be named as a complainant, I was happy to see that administrators were considering academic sanctions that would deter future actions of this nature.
But then I received Prof. Sheng’s apology email. It was sent almost a week after we were shown this video—a few hours, I would later realize, after Prof. Sheng was informed that the department had decided to cancel our class the following afternoon. Prof. Sheng began with two paragraphs of formal apology.
“I would like to sincerely apologize for my wrong action of playing the 1965 theater version of Othello video. I am fully responsible for this action. This has no bearing on [music school] or the Composition Department,” he wrote. “Since Friday’s incident, I did more research and learning on the issue and realized that the depth of racism was, and still is, a dangerous part of American culture. It goes back over centuries, from Minstrel performances to color and racial blindness of casting in all entertainment business, a tradition discriminated and degraded African American people and culture.”
Prof. Sheng mentioned his cultural background and his experiences with racism before continuing with his apology. “My mistake did not have any discriminative intention. I have never considered myself being discriminative in any way,” he wrote. “Throughout my teaching career, I have had many African American students and have kept contact with them.” He identified one student in particular. (In the interest of that student’s privacy, I’ve redacted his name from the copy of Prof. Sheng’s email I’ve attached to this article.) “Last year, I wrote him a recommendation letter for a grant. As a teacher, I would help any student the same way… This July my daughter was invited by Kanye West to perform in Las Vegas and Atlanta.”
He ended with a statement about our department. “There is a great diverse environment at our department and our school. I am honored to be teaching here. I hope you can accept my apology and see that I do not discriminate,” he wrote.
No matter how many times I’ve read this email, I’m still flabbergasted at the naïveté that Prof. Sheng claims to have held towards blackface and the systemic nature of racism in America. He’s a former MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, I keep telling myself. Surely he knows that a white man smearing black paint on his face and speaking in a slow, deep voice is bound to strike many students as deeply offensive.
It has now been almost three weeks since Prof. Sheng showed this production of Othello in our class. It’s been almost two weeks since Prof. Sheng sent the department his apology email. And after a series of emails about the university’s commitment to “anti-racism” and an anonymous department-wide climate survey meant to study students’ experiences in the department, I get the sense that the university has begun to move past this incident.
I fear that the university’s response is based more on Prof. Sheng’s reputation than it is on the incident in question. Prof. Sheng is among the highest paid faculty in our department. He sits on the board of numerous professional organizations. I worry that university administrators are afraid to take substantive administrative action that would upset our industry’s privileged status quo. Now that emails have insulated the institution from legal liability and individual administrators from moral responsibility, the university wants to move past this incident.
But I’ve seen these processes play out before. As an investigative reporter, I helped expose 40 years of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault allegations against a department chair, youth program director and former associate dean. My reporting found that university officials were made aware of this behavior in 1989 and 2017. It also found no evidence that the institution took any steps to investigate the allegations at either of those times. (In the three years since my reporting was published, investigations by the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and my university’s police department culminated in two indictments against this professor. He’ll stand trial for his alleged sex crimes against a minor later next month.)
I know that I can’t approach this story as I approached that story. In this instance, I’m not an investigative reporter. I’m a concerned party, a disappointed witness. I could never approach this incident with the objectivity and scrutiny that a multi-month investigation requires. And I’ve also heard that Prof. Sheng has hired a lawyer— I’ve heard rumors that this is the same lawyer that represented the subject of my reporting in 2018 — and that this lawyer’s involvement will reduce the probability of a reporter pursuing this story. (For any reporters reading this piece: I would be happy to go on the record for an article about this incident. Please contact me!)
So though I can’t share this story as an investigative reporter, I feel compelled to write a first-person narrative that brings it into the public sphere. Prof. Sheng’s actions deserve questioning and his longstanding behavior deserves discussion. The department and the administration’s indifference to these patterns deserve sustained public scrutiny.
My classmates attempted to provoke this discussion last week when they signed an open letter to the Dean urging him to further investigate this situation. To the best of my knowledge, he’s yet to honor this request. Unlike the many colleagues who have reason to fear speaking out about this incident—students who study with Prof. Sheng, graduate students that help teach his classes, doctoral students that seek his approval in their dissertation committees and staff/faculty that lack tenure — I know that I have nothing to lose. I’ve already lost the support of the “boys’ club” contingent of the music school faculty. I broke the story on decades of sexual abuse allegedly committed by one of their colleagues—I’ve upset the status quo in a way that they can never accept.
I’m sure that many of this (mostly) older male professors will band together in support of Prof. Sheng. They will try to retaliate against those who question the power that they’ve cultivated within our institution. But this conversation is too important for it to remain behind the closed doors of the school’s practice rooms. It is too important not to be brought into the public sphere.
Before our university puts out another statement about its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism, I urge its administrators to examine this incident. Think about the power that our institution gives tenured professors. Consider the outsize pressure that the institution puts on students to maintain the system of silence. Above all, consider the experience I’ve had in this department as one professor’s history of flaunting the rules evolved to an unfortunately racist act.
We all know that Prof. Sheng is not the first professor to make a racially offensive decision. He’s not the first faculty member to repeatedly act with disregard for his students. He will not be the last tenured employee to engage in either of these behaviors.
I can only hope that my generation’s activism forces our university’s administrators to take on the many intersecting factors — racism, sexism, classism, tenure, gatekeeping, a boys’ club, the absurd power dynamic between students/staff and faculty, etc. — that allow this behavior to continue. And I hope that the next time this happens, the institution is willing to address this situation without the outside pressure of public reporting and open letters.
Though this experience has raised many questions for me about the morality of my university’s upper faculty, it has also reinforced the bravery of my fellow students and the power of our collective activism. We are going to be the brave generation that challenges these practices. We’re going to be the brave generation that changes the power dynamics of the larger industry.
And the next time something like this happens, I hope it doesn’t take the continued activism of a student body and the brave advocacy of a few of our department’s tenured faculty to force the university to address the obvious moral failing of one distinguished faculty member. ◆
Sammy Sussman is an investigative reporter and a senior composition student at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.