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Professor steps down after blackface controversy

Professor Bright Sheng of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance will no longer teach an undergraduate seminar after he showed a film in class featuring an actor in blackface.

Newsweek reports that Sheng showed the film version of the classic play Othello. The 1965 film featured actor Lawrence Olivier, a White British actor playing a Black character.

“I was stunned,” first year student Olivia Cook said to the Michigan Daily. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

University of Michigan photo https://smtd.umich.edu/about/faculty-profiles/bright-sheng/

Sheng said he intended to show how composer Giuseppe Verdi adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. He acknowledged his mistake, but his apology only caused further controversy.

“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng said, according to Newsweek.

However he went on to list several instances where he had helped people of color

Some 40 people, including nine faculty members, responded with a letter demanding that Sheng be removed from the course.

“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,” the letter said. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen told the Michigan Daily the university is committed to having an environment which is “safe, equitable and inclusive for all students, faculty and staff.”

Sheng has stepped down from teaching the course, but some feel mores should have been done.

“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed (was) a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just (him) trying to defend himself,” a graduate student said to The Michigan Daily. “I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.”

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