A class skit intended to parody White ignorance of the civil rights movement has generated more concern than laughs at Cornish College of the Arts, and students are asking administrators to do more to curb racial insensitivity at the school.
Students said the in-class performance by three White students in clown makeup and costumes resorted to stereotypes and mocked civil rights icons like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. A Black faculty member walked out of the March 31 performance and students said they were shocked and upset by the skit.
Cornish is a four-year private, nonprofit performing and visual arts college in Seattle with about 650 students; 80 percent of the student body is White.
In their performance called "Civil Rights Movement — In Its Entirety," three graduating seniors — two men and a woman — satirized King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter.
Melissa Henry, a White sophomore theater student from Denver, told a local paper that during the Woolworth's scene, audience members were "looking to the African American students — one for permission to see if it was OK to laugh, and two, to see if it was offending to them. That's the point where artistic license goes too far."
"I felt ugly, gross ..." said another student, Cassandra Pittman, a freshman theater major who is Black. "And to turn and see my section mates laughing while I wasn't was really painful."
Cornish Provost Lois Harris said the students thought they could explore and satirize racist perceptions.
"By all accounts the piece failed to do this. It simply exposed the audience to stereotypes of African American culture and appeared to mock Black civil rights leaders," Harris told The Associated Press last week, adding that the students and their teacher have since apologized to the community for their lack of sensitivity.
She said the incident was painful for all involved, but it has given the school's efforts to improve diversity and cultural sensitivity some new energy.
"It gives us the energy to attack the issues," Harris told the AP, adding that school officials have had a series of productive meetings with students to discuss this incident and talk about the school's recently completed strategic plan, which includes recommendations for encouraging diversity on campus.
Harris said one of the lessons she has learned from the experience is how important campus communication is. For example, students were unaware of the diversity task force's work.
"When I met with students and told them we were sincere about this, they said, "How could we know that if you didn't tell us?"' Harris said.
About eight out of 10 of Cornish students are White. Five percent of Cornish students identified themselves as Hispanic, 3.4 percent Asian, 3 percent Black and 1 percent American Indian.
The administration also learned that the school's not particularly diverse student body had other problems of which administrators were unaware.
"It's really important to look below the surface of things," especially at a predominantly White institution, Harris said.
Minority students told her after this incident that they had been hearing insensitive remarks their whole time at Cornish, but they didn't want to bring them up because they seemed like little comments, not big issues.
Richard E.T. White, chair of the Cornish College Theater Department, said in a letter to students and faculty of his department that the skit was a failure on artistic, social and educational levels.
"When one pursues an ideological goal without the leavening and humanizing power of empathy, history shows us the result is invariably tragic," White said.
— The Associated Press