Discourse / Letters / November 14, 2017

Letter to the Editor: “To Emily Anderson and Roy Anderson”

I, as a white person, have more power than my friends of color to call out the racism which was shown in the letters of Emily Anderson and Roy Anderson. Everything I say here is because I love this college and I want it to be the best it can be; this requires hardcore and extensively deep examination of the problematic issues which are much too prevalent on campus. Please actively listen to what I am saying and do not get defensive, which will only hinder your learning, but instead allow yourself to be uncomfortable and actively question yourselves.


To Emily Anderson:

The people you are writing about, the people who should “become thoughtful citizens,” the people who should “confront sexist, racist, classist and colonialist texts,” are the people subjected to these ideologies every second of their existence. They do not need to confront any of these texts, as they confront the reality of these ideas constantly in their daily lives. You are specifically catering to white people. And the LAST thing white people need to do is to read sexist, racist, classist, and colonialist texts written by OTHER white people. If you want people to learn about these issues, teach texts written by people of color. Listen to their experiences with oppression. Stop teaching the oppression itself. Say, “look, here are the literal and very real experiences of people who have dealt with the context of these ideologies in the past and look how they were affected.” Of course your teaching should touch on these problematic ideologies, but learning about them should never be the focus. I ask you to “take a bold step back” and question your own history of teaching. The reasons you have given ignore all accountability of perpetuating racist power structures. I say all of this with respect to you, because I want you to be the best professor you can be, although you have done nothing to deserve my respect as a perpetuator of racism and an individual who is not actively working to question their own position in a world that is based on unequal power structures which cater specifically to white people. Talk about Good Person of Szechwan all you like. Talk about it until your students of color can’t breathe; talk about it until they choke on the oppression that your classroom proliferates. If you think I am being too extreme, there is plenty of room for expansion in your learning of racism.

Instead of learning something from the production of Good Person of Szechwan, you should learn something from its cancellation. We, the students, gathered in a peaceful discussion. Around 80 students came to this forum, and another 80+ alumni and others in the community submitted statements of solidarity and protest. If there is anything to learn from this, it is that your ideas are outdated and you need to question your own perceptions of racism. It is not about the fact that this play is being taught; it is a required text that all theatre majors read in class (although that should be questioned as well). The larger issue here is that, by casting white actors in a play set in Asia, we would be white-washing these characters and thus not properly respecting their identities. There’s enough white people and actors in the universe; they don’t need to take over the roles of people of color. Literally google “white-washing Asian roles” and do some research, because honestly it is no one’s responsibility but your own to educate yourself on these problems. China is NOT a prop for white men such as Brecht and Blackadder to use as a platform for their white ideas of “parables.” It is a real place, with real people, with real identity, and with real culture. It is highly inappropriate to degrade it to something which it is not. And theatre is a completely different platform from reading; a director is creating a literal world. Hopefully no white man would dare to give a speech from the perspective of a black man during the Civil Rights movement because it is HIGHLY inappropriate to do so with the symbolistic existence of the racist perpetrators; likewise, theatre follows the same directives. 

Finally, you can criticize Brecht without having seen it. I have not seen this play; I never wish to see this play because it goes against everything I believe in and it makes me, a white person, extremely uncomfortable because of its underlying racist themes. There is plenty to talk about here, and I dare again say that you should reflect on your own role in a racist power structure, make yourself uncomfortable by admitting that, and work to actually confront the problematic viewpoints you have shown in your letter.


To Roy Anderson:

“For example, how could an old white guy like me teach development economics for 40 years without offending somebody?”

Your sarcasm is inappropriate and painfully ignorant. If you believe this, you should look introspectively and be held accountable for any mistakes you may have made. Be more aware of what you are saying. Be critical of the power structure you exist in. Actively question the beliefs you hold and ask yourself why/how you might be offending somebody. Don’t blame the students for being offended; you are the offender and must hold yourself responsible.

You are blatantly expressing Neo-Nazi ideology in your letter, and for that I am horrified. I honestly think you should be removed as a professor at this college. Especially here at Knox, where we strive to be a diverse campus that constantly works hard to provide equality and lessen the crushing weight of the power structures that minority groups face every day, there is absolutely no room for someone who refuses to question their own contribution to these issues. If you have been here for over 40 years, clearly your ideology has become outdated, and without daily questioning of these ideologies that you persistently enable, you do not have the right to teach groups that are troubled by these issues and which will be oppressed in your classroom. 
I agree that we do need free speech. This protest against Good Person of Szechwan was the EPITOME of free speech. Students gathered in solidarity and protest against a powerful, all-white faculty. We showed that we do have a say at this college and in our theatre department. Students used free speech to call out the theatre department for its racism, and I am using free speech to call out yours. No one would allow a Nazi to come talk about anti-Semitism on this campus although technically that would be free speech; in the same way, we cannot allow a racist production to trouble students and especially harm the education of students of color whose existences would be harmed and attacked by watching or partaking in this production.

We did have a discussion. And we came to a conclusion. And yes, I am gleeful that the production was cancelled. It is an incredibly small victory against racism and a small dent in the white hierarchal power structures which govern this campus.


Ren Barkey

They/Them pronouns

Theatre Major 2018

TKS Staff

Tags:  free speech letter to the editor professors racism the good person of szechwan theatre

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