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Professor pens two-page apology for offending students with blackface discussion

English professor at Lewis & Clark College sorry he played ‘devil’s advocate’

An English professor at Lewis & Clark College recently penned a two-page apology letter for offending his students with discussions of use of blackface in film and showing a 1965 clip of Laurence Olivier in blackface as “Othello.”

The two-page apology came on the heels of students demanding Associate Professor of English William Pritchard write “a well written apology, two pages in length or longer,” and that he read it aloud, according to a copy of the students’ letter obtained by The College Fix.

“The discussion he facilitated took about half our class time, so we have reasoned there can be room made for a 3-4 minute apology. This is non-negotiable,” the students had stated.

In his letter, Pritchard explained:

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, a member of the Lewis & Clark English Department since 2003, had shared a clip from the 1965 version of “Othello” with his class on Oct. 6.

“After this was shown to us, our professor asked if Othello being played by a white man took away from the performance. Our answer was yes, because the actor was in blackface, an inherently racist performance from its origins,” student Claire Champommier wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by 11 additional students.

“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,” the letter continued.

“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 students’ letter went on to express concern that Pritchard “then 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’ letter states.

It adds that students were grateful “the only Black student in our class was lucky enough to not be present that morning.”

“…Some students were shaken for the rest of the day, and days to follow. Our professor asked us to compare two hypothetical actors – a Black man and a white man – both 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? He was asking us if a white man could do a better job of playing a Black character than a Black man,” the letter states.

The letter mentions that the discussion delved into other casting choices, such as a neurotypical person portraying someone with autism or a cisgender actor playing a trans-woman, and the students were upset the professor appeared to defend such acting choices.

“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,” the students’ letter stated.

“We were rightfully upset that this was being facilitated in an academic setting by an authority figure. From his response, it became clear that he was making room for the argument that sometimes there are excuses to do blackface, other forms of whitewashing, and applauding dehumanizing caricatures.”

The matter was raised again in class on Oct. 11.

Pritchard shared with his class a relevant article from The College Fix about a University of Michigan professor who had stepped down from teaching a class earlier in the fall semester for showing the same Laurence Olivier “Othello” film. The university ultimately dropped its investigation into Professor Bright Sheng.

But Pritchard’s return to the subject of blackface prompted Champommier to gather signatures from classmates for the letter, she said.

“I have found support from my classmates and from those outside of class as well. However, it was only after I had confronted my professor about what he was saying that my other classmates realized that it was incredibly inappropriate,” Champommier told The College Fix.

Champommier sent the letter on Oct. 13 to Dean of the College of Arts and Science Bruce Suttmeier, Associate Dean and Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies Daena Goldsmith, and Associate Professor of English and Department Chair Karen Gross.

The letter demanded that Pritchard attend racial bias training in addition to writing his two-page apology letter and reading it aloud to his class.

Pritchard responded to the letter by emailing an apology on Oct. 14 and reading it to the class on the following day, Champommier said.

Champommier expressed dissatisfaction 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,” Champommier said to The College Fix.

Describing the situation as “ongoing,” Champommier added students involved are “pushing for accountability” and discussing their next steps.

Lewis & Clark College did not respond to inquiries from The College Fix and Pritchard declined to comment on the matter.

Pritchard, in his apology, argued that the 1965 version of “Othello” was not among the worst instances of blackface in Hollywood, stating that the class has “an obligation to understand the scale and the historical dimensions of the things we condemn” as scholars and citizens.

His apology letter stated in part:

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. 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.

Pritchard also apologized for the way he handled the follow-up conversation.

“In sharing with you the story of the professor at Michigan who ran afoul of his students
by showing them the entirety of Olivier’s Othello, I was trying to acknowledge that I had
made a mistake in the previous class,” the professor wrote.

“I agree that it would have been far better for me to have admitted that directly and openly. I guess I was still hoping at that point that I hadn’t messed up in the way that other professor had, but it’s clear to me now that I messed up in my own way.”

He goes on to say he will attend “racial bias training workshops,” as the students’ letter had demanded.

“Indeed, I see an increasing need for me to do so, as certain courses that I teach engage directly with issues of race,” he wrote. “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.’ Hopefully those workshops, and conversations with you as well, can help me to avoid doing so in the future.”

MORE: ‘No sanctions’ for music professor who showed 1965 movie some found offensive

IMAGE: Main, Shutterstock; Inside, Lewis & Clark College

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About the Author
Margaret Peppiatt - Franciscan University of Steubenville