Anonymous group calls for changes to address institutional racism in performing arts department


Montse Landeros

Pedestrians pass by Emerson’s Paramount Theater.

Amid a national reckoning on systemic racism, multiple groups composed of students and alumni have sent letters to Emerson’s Performing Arts Department calling for wide-ranging changes to policies they say have allowed racism to fester in the department for years.

One letter, sent to the department and administration by a group entitled Emerson PA Anonymous, presented a list of 14 detailed demands ranging from a crackdown on microaggressions and discriminatory practices towards students of color from faculty, to diversifying the department and its productions. The letter was accompanied by a petition that quickly garnered nearly 450 signatures and was signed with support from the activist group Protesting Oppression with Education Reform. 

“Emerson PA Anonymous was created to be a catalyst for uplifting BIPOC voices in the Performing Arts [Department],” the group said in a statement to The Beacon. “Our goal was to draft and send a Call to Action to hold the Department accountable for creating long lasting systematic change.”

The letters are just one piece of a college-wide social media movement against institutional racism, fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement’s push into the democratic political mainstream after the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd in late May. 

At least three Instagram accounts have begun publishing anonymous accounts of student’s experiences with microaggressions and racism—Emerson PA Anonymous, Black at Emerson, and Emerson POC Confessions. The accounts have gathered serious attention from the Emerson community (Black at Emerson has over 1,500 followers, and combined the accounts have posted more than 800 times).

Seven departmental experiences from anonymous students and alumni were attached to Emerson PA Anonymous’ letter. One claimed some professors have patterns of targeting students that are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

“There are professors in the PA department with a long history of traumatizing students of color, to the point where these stories are common knowledge among many students of color and white students alike,” the testimonial reads. “THAT IS A PROBLEM. If it’s an open secret how problematic someone is, but they can’t be punished or reprimanded because ‘they have tenure’ then that’s an issue.”

The letter was sent on July 13, and has since received a detailed response from Performing Arts Department Chair Bob Colby, who agreed that the department has failed to appropriately and wholly address its issues with race and to draft and practice policies that are actively anti-racist. 

“I appreciate your courage in speaking up, for yourselves and others, and I hear your justified anger at changes that are too slow in coming,” Colby’s response reads. “As a department (faculty, staff and students) we need to work both on long-term, deep dialogue as well as short-term goals with actionable steps in order to move from an anti-bias approach to one that is more actively anti-racist.”

Pictured above, Performing Arts Department Chair Bob Colby. (Media: The Berkeley Beacon Archives)

While Colby has said he is open to hearing out the group and others calling for departmental change, his response indicates that action to appease their demands may be slow going. 

Several of the demands call for a more aggressive vetting and punishment process for department faculty members with past or new reports of racism or verbal abuse towards Black students and other people of color. Faculty that consistently have reports filed against them should be fired, and if a department chair receives any credible complaints, they should be removed from their chairship until they receive proper anti-bias training, the letter says. 

“Much like in instances of sexual misconduct, there should be a system in place to swiftly remove both tenured and untenured faculty members for instances of racial aggressions, even if this involves amending tenure policy at the school to ensure that tenure does not stand in the way of removing a faculty member with a history of racial aggressions,” it reads.

They also call for the system for reporting instances of racially-motivated bias to be made more publicly available and accessible to students, listed on course syllabi and presented to incoming students at orientation.

Emerson’s listed process for reporting incidents of bias appears to be buried on its website and difficult to decipher. The website first instructs students to report incidents of bias to its “Bias Response Team,” but that page links to a page that no longer exists. Otherwise, the website directs students to contact the Social Justice Center to report those incidents, where there is an option to remain anonymous.

In his response, Colby appeared to tout the college’s current system for reporting such instances, saying that he looks at each complaint individually, though he did acknowledge that students often don’t use that process.

“The College has a mechanism in our Faculty Handbook and Collective Bargaining Agreement for addressing such concerns, which include mentoring and support for faculty to improve,” his response reads. “There is a disciplinary process in place that can include suspension, regardless of whether a faculty member is tenured or not, if improvement is not seen over subsequent semesters.  We have used this process in the past and will do so in the future when necessary.”

Colby did not commit to any concrete changes to the reporting process. Instead, throughout his response, he continually reiterated a plan to speak with students about the issues presented in the upcoming fall semester.

The group’s letter also calls for more direct efforts to diversify the department and its performances. Hiring more professors of color, it says, is the only way Black students and other people of color will be able to feel truly comfortable at the college. 

EmStage, Emerson’s Performing Arts Department-sponsored performance series, lacks diversity and often tokenizes students that are Black, Indigenous, and people of color by casting them in roles originally performed by those of the same race, the groups said in its demands. 

“A professor decried the fact that a Black man was playing Kristoff in the Broadway production of Frozen because, to his mind, the show is set in Norway and there are no black people in Norway,” one alumnus wrote in a testimonial attached to the demands. “Frozen is set in the fictional realm of Arendelle. There is a talking snowman. I think you can deal with ONE BLACK CAST MEMBER.” 

All sections of EmStage, including casting, directors, and creative teams, should work to meet higher diversity standards, the group’s demands say.

As the department increases the diversity of students, EmStage seasons will be able to increase the diversity of shows they put on,” the demands read. “These two things must work in tandem, each season being more and more diverse directly representing the racial and ethnic breakdown of the student body.”

Teams that choose casts lack diversity as well, and the shows being chosen most often don’t include the narratives of minority communities, another letter to the department, written by rising sophomore McKennen Campbell, said. His letter was also signed by a number of students in the department that identify as non-white.

In the 2019-20 academic year, the college reported 73 percent of performing arts faculty to be white, with just seven percent Black and seven percent “Hispanic of any race.” Every other race or ethnicity amongst department faculty was reported at five percent or lower.

Increasing diversity, both in faculty and EmStage, is a top priority for the college, Colby said, and the department has been working to ensure a more diverse pool of candidates for open faculty positions.

“We can and need to do better,” his response reads. “While BIPOC faculty are distributed across our acting, theatre education/applied theatre, and design programs, all our programs could benefit from more diverse perspectives.”

He said the department has been working to address tokenization in casting and the show selection process.

Another demand calls for the department to reevaluate its current curriculum, working to teach away from Western norms and diversify course offerings and teachings, which Colby said has already been done.

While the department has seen and responded to the demands, it remains unclear if the current movement will actually spur change to college policy, as Emerson PA Anonymous claims administrators have a history of pledging reform without follow through. Colby’s response, which danced around agreeing to most of the demands, may serve as a signal of the college’s hesitation to commit to systemic change.

“This is not the first time the Performing Arts Department is hearing from students who do not feel equally represented at Emerson,” the letter reads. “The Department has demonstrated a history of promising change and then waiting for students to graduate without addressing their concerns in a problem solving, sustainable manner. This is not the first letter of its kind.”