University of Michigan Professor Pushed Out of Teaching Course for Screening Blackface 'Othello'

Students and faculty rejected apology letter as insufficiently 'antiracist'

University of Michigan / YouTube Screenshot
October 12, 2021

Faculty and students at the University of Michigan pushed a music professor out of teaching a course after he screened a production of Othello that featured an actor in blackface.

Bright Sheng, an accomplished musician who has taught music composition at the university since 1995, in September showed students the 1965 movie starring the British actor Laurence Olivier as "the Moor of Venice." After a series of apology letters, in which he said the film "was racially insensitive and outdated" and defended his racial sensitivity, students and faculty wrote an open letter demanding that he be removed. He acquiesced to their demands last week and stepped down from teaching the class.

Sheng is just the latest professor to be pushed out of a role for transgressing "antiracist" norms in higher education. MIT canceled a lecture from Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, after he argued diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus are inherently unequal.

In the open letter, students and faculty took issue with Sheng's decision to defend his racial sensitivity, which he did by noting he has cast racial minorities as lead roles in his own productions.

"Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory 'apology' letter to the department's students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career," the students and faculty wrote. "The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers."

A student who attended the class said Sheng's decision to screen the movie "stunned" her and that she "was shocked that he would show something like this in something that's supposed to be a safe space." The dean of the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, David Gier, denounced Sheng for taking "actions [that] do not align with our school's commitment to antiracist action, diversity, equity, and inclusion."

Sheng, who was born in Shanghai, China, has received a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.