Chinese UMich professor causes student uproar after showing movie featuring blackface actor

Bright Sheng University of Michigan blackface student backlash

World-renowned University of Michigan (UM) music professor Bright Sheng faced backlash from students after he showed his fall seminar class a movie with blackface in it.

Controversy: Sheng showed the 1965 movie “Othello” to his undergraduate music composition seminar class on Sept. 10, where actor Laurence Olivier plays the character of the titular Moorish King while in blackface.

  • Students claimed that Sheng gave no cultural context or content warnings prior to showing the movie.
  • Sheng sent an email later the same day apologizing for showing the movie, which he said “was racially insensitive and outdated.” He said he understands he lost his students’ trust due to the incident.
  • UM’s School of Music, Theater and Dance Dean David Gier sent an email to the department on Sept. 15 that the incident was being investigated for discrimination by Effort Certification Reporting Technology (ECRT).
  • “From the bottom of my heart, I would like to say that I am very sorry for what happened,” he wrote in an email to MLive/The Ann Arbor News earlier this month.
  • Sheng is currently a private music tutor, said UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. But he is still not teaching his fall seminar class.
  • In his first email, Sheng mentioned working with people of color in the past to show he does not discriminate “against any race,” which worsened his position with students and faculty.
  • “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,” an open letter read.
  • However, nearly 700 faculty and staff signed an separate open letter addressed to Gier which called for Sheng’s reinstatement, according to UM’s student newspaper The Michigan Daily.

Title IX investigation: Sheng, a Chinese-born American musician, eventually stepped down from teaching his class.

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  • UM’s Title IX office for discrimination also reviewed Sheng.
  • However, Sheng was notified that the university was dropping the ECRT investigation on Oct. 19. The university did not explain why they dropped the review.
  • “The ECRT office evaluates any reported concern which alleges any form of discrimination or discriminatory harassment in order to adequately and appropriately determine whether follow up is necessary,” UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said.
  • However, it will “not be taking any action on the reported manner,” she added.

Sheng was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and 1991. In 1999, he was specially commissioned by the White House to perform for former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji at a state dinner. He has also worked with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra.

Featured Image via Khan Academy Partners

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