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Professor Accused of Racism for Showing Laurence Oliver’s Othello in Class

The students criticized the fact that in the film, the performer acts with his face painted brown, a practice known as blackface

[Leer en español]

Bright Sheng is a teacher who suffered the repression of the Cultural Revolution in China and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for music. However, this week he was cancelled by several of his students after showing in class the film version of the play Othello, starring British actor Laurence Olivier in 1965.

The students’ criticism was due to the fact that in the film the performer acts with his face painted brown, a practice known as blackface, which some consider racist.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País, Sheng has been a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance for a quarter of a century. He was teaching a seminar to “analyze Othello, from Shakespeare to Verdi.”

“Of course, time (sic) has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me,” said the professor, who explained that he used this version because he felt it was the closest to Shakespeare’s play.

He added, “I thought that both the play and the opera portrayed Othello as a hero who is a victim of whites.”

The university on Laurence Olivier’s version

On the other hand, Kim Broekhuizen, spokesperson for the faculty, clarified that the composer was not fired, but that he himself decided to retire. In statements to El País, Broekhuizen assured that the film goes against the ideals of the university.

“Professor Sheng’s actions are not aligned with our university’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The situation comes amid a debate in the country over teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT), which teaches that America is inherently, historically and systematically racist, in public institutions. Republican voices claim that implementing this in schools will only drive division and racism in America.

For example, in July, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed a law prohibiting the public school system from incorporating Critical Race Theory into classroom curricula.

In April, the Idaho House of Representatives and Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the state’s educational institutions.

The legislation (HB 377) passed the Idaho House of Representatives by a 57-12 vote on Thursday, April 22; and the Senate by a 28-8 vote on Monday, April 27, after a historic debate considered one of the longest in the state’s history.

For his part, Senator Ted Cruz also introduced a bill to block federal funding for the promotion of Critical Race Theory in public institutions. The senator’s intention is to ensure that American taxpayers do not finance this “radical ideology.”

In that sense, Cruz insisted that this theory is part of an ideological agenda on the part of the Democratic government.

“The federal government has no right to force a political agenda onto Americans, especially one that aims to tear down our institutions and divide us based on races. Critical Race Theory originated out of the critical race studies movement. It is a Marxist ideology that sees the world as a battle, not between the classes – as classical Marxism does – but between the races. This is inherently bigoted,” Cruz said in a statement.

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