An English professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, issued a two-page apology to his students for having a discussion about blackface in class.
What are the details?
Associate professor of English William Pritchard is apparently eating crow after he dared discuss the use of blackface in film while showing a 1964 clip of Laurence Olivier in blackface in "Othello."
Following the controversy, at least 11 students demanded that Pritchard make amends for the grave error by writing a "well written apology, two pages in length or longer." The demand accompanied a request that the professor attend a racial bias training workshop and was ultimately presented to College of Arts and Science Dean Bruce Suttmeier, associate dean and professor of rhetoric and media studies Daena Goldsmith, and associate professor of English and department chair Karen Gross.
The class also insisted that Pritchard read his apology letter aloud to the class.
A copy of Pritchard's letter, obtained by the College Fix, issued apologies for the discussion, as well as for sharing the "Othello" clip during class in October.
In a letter demanding Pritchard's apology, student Claire Champommier wrote, "After this was shown to us, our professor asked if Othello being played by a white man took away from the performance. Our answer is yes, because the actor was in blackface, an inherently racist performance from its origins."
The students' letter continued, "Blackface — and any other practice that alters one's appearance, poise, and vernacular to the stereotype of a group of people, especially of race — dehumanizes the identity of marginalized people into a stereotype one can wear as a costume. Whitewashing (which includes blackface and yellowface) profits off a group's oppression, but never has to experience the consequences of living that identity. Makeup can be washed off, but POC have to live with the violence that comes with being part of a marginalized group."
The 11 students who signed the letter added that Pritchard's discussion "facilitated an argument as to whether or not whitewashing was acceptable, and this made the students — especially students of color — very uncomfortable."
"When we said that Lawrence Olivier in blackface was not acceptable, our professor played devil's advocate, and this made the students of color incredibly uncomfortable because it was shocking and felt aggressive that our professor was making room to excuse blackface," the students continued and pointed out that they were wholly grateful that the one black student in the class was not present that day to witness the offending incident.
Students added that Pritchard shook some students to their cores with the discussion after he dared to compare a black male actor and a white male actor in the role of Othello.
"He asked, if the black man had a poorer performance than the white man in this role, wouldn't it be acceptable for the white man to play Othello?" the letter continued. "He was asking us if a white man could do a better job of playing a black character than a black man. When our professor commented, 'That's the whole point of acting. You're supposed to transform,' he minimized the stories of those communities and gaslit us into questioning if we were overreacting."
What did the professor say in his response?
Pritchard complied with the demands of his students and in his letter wrote, "I was, I suppose, trying to consider and understand the reasons that led Olivier to make these artistic choices. I now see why many of you took that as my 'making room to excuse blackface.' I was mostly interested in the broader question of authenticity in casting. Under what circumstances does an actor need to actually 'be' some aspect of the character they play? (This is, as you know, a central issue in Othello itself – recall Iago's declaration, 'I am not what I am' – and in Shakespeare more broadly, as when Viola says 'I am not that I play,' or when Hamlet distinguishes between 'the actions that a man might play' and 'that within which passeth show.') Does the actor playing Shylock need to be Jewish? How elderly does the actor playing Lear need to be (the text stipulates '[f]ourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less')?"
"The point I was trying to convey is that there are problems with the authenticity model of casting as well," the professor explained. "Still, as I noted in class, there are huge asymmetries and structural inequalities in our systems of race and gender, and there are important reasons why opening up traditionally 'white' roles to actors of color should not therefore lead to white actors gobbling up the relatively few lead roles that have traditionally been available to people of color."
He added, "My purpose in providing a glimpse of it was not to endorse the artistic or ethical choices that the film made, but I see now that giving it any screen time at all was a first step towards imparting the message that many of you took away from that day's class, namely, 'a message from our professor that, to him, it was sometimes okay to do blackface and other forms of whitewashing.' I think, however, that that message – which is not a message I was trying to convey – came as much from our discussion afterwards as from the clip itself. And here I apologize again for misguidedly 'play[ing] devil's advocate,' as your letter puts it."
Pritchard included in his letter that he fully planned to attend the requested racial bias training and would work harder to avoid making similar missteps in the future.
He continued, "Indeed, I see an increasing need for me to do so, as certain courses that I teach engage directly with issues of race. I am aware that there is a gulf between how I am inclined to think and talk about race and how my students do, and I am eager to find ways to bridge that gulf."
"I certainly never want to do what your letter informs me I have done, which is to make 'students of color feel unwelcome and dehumanized,'" he added. "Hopefully those workshops, and conversations with you as well, can help me to avoid doing so in the future."
The College Fix reached out to Lewis & Clark administrators for remarks on the incident, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Champommier, however, told the outlet that she was not satisfied with Pritchard's apology "because half of it was dedicated to defending himself, trying to reason his side once again that this wasn't even the worst thing that could've been done in a classroom."
She said that she and other students will continue "pushing for accountability" and are in the process of discussing their next steps as they pertain to Pritchard.