A drama professor told students they got their feelings hurt too easily. They decided to fight back

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It all started with a misunderstanding.

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A black theater student at Coastal Carolina University told a visiting drama teacher that she wanted to connect with non-white students, so the teacher made a list of names on a whiteboard, then deleted it when they left the studio. forgot.

When several other students went in, they looked at the list and were left with the suspicion that they were chosen with racist motives.

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A committee of professors investigated and immediately sent a departmentwide email explaining what had happened that September day. Trying to placate the students, the professors wrote that the explanation “in no way diminished the feelings that either of you felt about the incident” and that the faculty was “deeply sorry”.

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The guest teacher also wrote an apology: “No matter what good intentions. … I still want you to know that I’m an idiot and I’m sorry.

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Maybe things ended there. But at a time when college campuses have become center stage for polarizing issues of race, identity, and harm, the theater department was the primary focus of the conflict.

Enter Steve Ernest.

“Sorry, but I don’t think it’s a big deal,” the 62-year-old drama professor, who is white, wrote in a “reply all” email. “I’m just sad that people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they’re going to the theater?”

Within minutes, his iPad was lit up with messages, mostly from black theater majors.

“Thinking like that is part of the problem,” wrote 21-year-old senior Kelis Heriot. “This department is a joke.”

Kelis Heriot and other theater students boycotted classes at Coastal Carolina University in September after a professor said the students hurt their feelings too easily.
(Jessica Connell)

“Grow up. Full offence,” wrote 23-year-old Jihad Senior Livermore addressing Ernest, adding that instead of questioning privately and trying to learn, “you decided to chalk it up to sensitivity.”

That night the professor replied. “Thank you for all your hate mail!” He added, “Removing this chain.”

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Raised by her grandparents in the small South Carolina town of Georgetown, Harriet fell in love with acting during the governor’s summer program for high school students.

Immersing myself in Shakespeare felt like a personal awakening. Playing a 70-year-old man in Sam Shepard’s play “Buried Child” was a chance to transmit his grandfather’s quote and life experience.

Upon her enrollment at nearby Coastal Carolina University, which had tempted her with two scholarships, Heriot was appointed a mentor: Ernest.

At first, he described her as laid-back and generous. But as she got to know him more, she saw him as out of touch and strangely inappropriate. Two incidents came to the fore.

The first time he returned to the campus after a fellowship in China. “Oh wow, looks like you’re in shape!” He said that he told her. “You look great now!”

Harriet understood that he was complimenting her on the weight she lost—she weighed over 200 pounds when she joined the department—but it still felt wrong.

Then, just this fall, he advised her to audition for outside Shakespeare theater companies that were looking for diversity and “definitely casting people like you.”

She wondered if he told her just because she was black.

For his part, Ernest said he never remembered to mention her body and that while her race could help the hiring market, her talent — her voice and her stage presence — was her biggest selling point.

Harriet, who had never seen a whiteboard, was not surprised that Ernest thought the students overreacted. But she was surprised that she thought it was acceptable to say so. Or that the other professors didn’t jump into the email thread to ask him to stop.

Less than 24 hours after sending his first email, Ernest tried to make amends.

Offering to meet the students, he wrote, “I sincerely apologize for my statements that hurt me.” “I have some empathy issues that I can improve. My own kids will confirm that I’ve absorbed my old ‘just suck it up and move on’ mentality.”

The apology fell flat.

That night, Harriet asked herself: “Why am I doing all this homework to go to class and be weird? And other people have to go to Steve’s class – like nothing happened.”

And so he gathered other students to organize a boycott.

She later said, “Let me take control of my education to remove toxic people from freedom of speech or whatever.” “Hate speech is hate speech.”

Messages are pinned on the door of a theater at Coastal Carolina University.
In September, messages were pinned on the door of a theater at Coastal Carolina University as students boycotted classes.
(Jessica Connelly)

That Monday morning, dozens of students dressed in black left classes. Messages were pinned on doors and noticeboards in the Humanities and Arts building: “Fire the racist,” “By the time to resign“and” Black Actors Matter.

Soon, local TV personnel descended on the 10,000-student campus, which is about two-thirds white. By the end of the day, a dean had ordered Ernest not to attend classes.

Coastal Carolina University theater professor Steve Ernest
Theater professor Steve Ernest emailed an apology in September about his comments on the sentiments of the students.
(Randall Hill / for The Times)

After working at the university for 16 years, he was no longer allowed to teach. He said that none of the administrators told him which rule or policy he had broken.

“I’m not sure how to defend myself when I don’t even know what I’ve been accused of doing,” he said.

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If there was one thing Ernest tried to instill in his students, it was rigidity. He used to warn them that acting is a cruel profession full of rejection and requires a strong exoskeleton to survive.

He himself is a rare species in the theater world: a Donald Trump-voting conservative from a small town in Alabama with a deep passion for avant-garde European theater.

The video his newcomers watch in class is a postmodern remake of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” that includes a scene in which a father places his penis on a table while his blind daughter swings a hammer at it. Is.

In his home office, he keeps a pen in a mug that reads “Liberal Tears.”

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He did not say much about his political beliefs on campus. New social customs on comfort and security, race and intersectionality bothered him and in his view made teaching more difficult.

And earlier last year the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered a nationwide protest over racism.

That summer, alumni took to Facebook to accuse the department of racism, including a “Eurocentric colonization” course and professors who mispronounced their names and typecasts or appeared in plays because of skin color. He was overlooked for the roles.

Alumni also made a Website – “We See You CCU Theater” – and a petition Calling for the “dissolution” of “racist structures” in the theater department that were “currently a harmful environment for BIPOC students”.

He noted that in 2015 the department staged two versions of William Inge’s “Picnic”—one cast white and the other black. Two years later in “Our Countries’ Good”, a play by Timberlake Werttenbaker, which opens with a prisoner being whipped, white students play Royal Marines running a penal colony in Australia, while students of color play convicts. played the role of.

It didn’t take long for department leaders to be released Feedback: “We fail. We, the CCU Theater Department, were negligent in our responsibility to provide care and compassion. … We acknowledge the pain and the triggering.”

The department made a number of changes, forming a “Diversity, Equality and Inclusion” committee, updating an academic list of plays to include more diverse voices, hosting a virtual town hall and “racism as a daily practice”. Faculty was required to participate in workshops including “Anti. “From Snap Judgment to Micro-aggression.”

In his Dramatic Theory and Criticism class, Ernest observed that whenever the topic of race or gender came up, students were quick to dismiss his opinion.

“You don’t know,” he said as they told him. “You are the wrong class and person to talk to me about this.”

The focus on identity, the whirlwind and harassment diagrams of Zoom workshops made everyone feel earnest — as an older, white, Christian, able-bodied, cisgender male — as he was walking around campus with a target on his back.

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After Ernest was relieved of his teaching duties, he worked on the annual report of the College of Humanities and Arts, published an article in European Stages magazine, and auditioned for acting.

Worried that he would lose his job, he also took a real estate licensing exam.

The biggest problem for Ernest was the crowding of the administrators with the students. He said that Eric M Hall, the chair of the department at Zoom, a faculty, had characterized the words as “white supremacist language” in his email.

“I think people burn crosses and wear white robes,” Ernest said. “And that’s as far from me as I can ever imagine.”

Hall said in an email that “I don’t remember that statement.”

For students, Ernest’s dismissal of their concerns about the whiteboard episode was part of a pattern of racial insensitivity and border crossing, including an incident from last November that saw her widely humiliated in the department.

“Sorry, not flashy,” he wrote in a now-deleted comment on a Instagram post In which a former student, Nikko Austen Smith, was shown raising the middle finger…

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