Friday, September 29, 2023

Seniors, including two Black actors, left out of student-run Department of Theatre account's graduating seniors collage

The student-led DOT account experienced backlash following the exclusion of multiple seniors

September 3, 2020
<p>(From left to right) Fine Arts students Tino Gilmore and Jay Gooden perform in The Bacchae production in April of 2019 (Photo courtesy of Jay Gooden).</p>

(From left to right) Fine Arts students Tino Gilmore and Jay Gooden perform in The Bacchae production in April of 2019 (Photo courtesy of Jay Gooden).

A student-run Department of Theatre account is facing backlash after a collage was posted of this year’s graduating seniors, which excluded multiple seniors, two of whom are the only two Black actors in the class.

The Michigan State University Department of Theatre students account is run by the stART board, a board comprised of students from the DOT. This board was responsible for creating the collages that were posted on their Instagram page.

Jay Gooden is a senior in the DOT who is about to graduate with a BFA in Acting. He is also one of only two Black actors in his class. Gooden first found out about the collages from a friend who noticed Gooden missing from the photo. When Gooden looked at the post himself he noticed that there were multiple of his classmates missing, including the only other Black student in his class.

According to Gooden, he then reached out to the student-run account asking if they had forgotten to include him in the post. He was informed that all students who had submitted a headshot on time were included in the collage. This was also included in the statement released by the MSU DOT student-run Instagram. 

“We want to clarify that we did not intentionally aim to exclude students of color from the collages. We did not hear from many students and as we can not use photos from people’s accounts or post student’s names without their consent, we did not include students from whom we did not receive headshots or consent,” the statement said.

Gooden was told he could still submit a headshot, but when he checked back on the page, it looked as though it was taken down

“I submitted my headshot right after the conversation, and the picture for me looked like it was taken down because I was going to show somebody the picture but it wasn’t there,” Gooden said, as he assumed they were going to make a new collage.

The picture was back up on the Instagram account the next day, with all the same people missing. Confused, Gooden took to Instagram to share his experience.

“I decided to go public with my story because I felt kind of like dismissed within the chat that I was having so I wanted to publicly say like I’m still a part of this class," Gooden said, "I’m still graduating… it’s important that we are represented equally."

Gooden acknowledged that he may have missed the deadline, but he felt that putting the picture back up after the conversation he had with the stART board was a slap in the face.

Bothered by the outcome, Gooden addressed his main concern in another conversation with the stArt board: The decision to take the photo down and then put it back up onto their Instagram. The stART board informed Gooden that they had archived the photo and then unarchived it, but did not know how to address the situation from there.

“I was willing to have a conversation with them because if they don’t know then that’s my job as a student activist to inform them of what the proper way is so that way they don’t make people feel a certain type of way regardless of their intention,” Gooden said.

Gooden then released a statement on his Instagram highlighting the intent versus the impact of what had happened. Gooden thought the conversation with stART went well and that they had listened to his concerns. Following the conversation, the stArt board released a statement, including an apology for the impact of the collages

“We would like to sincerely apologize to the Black community and to all members of our Spartan community who were hurt by our recent posts," the statement read.

"We did not intend to make anyone feel forgotten or excluded. While our intention was never to harm anyone with our posts, we have reflected on how the impact of our posts is more important than our initial intention,” part of the statement said.

The second half of the statement caused the student-run account to receive even more backlash.

“The second paragraph, they kept trying to explain the intent," Gooden said.

"So, people were upset, myself included because it’s not about the intent. When you try to explain the intent of what you were doing that invalidates the impact. It invalidated everything that they had just said before,” Gooden said.

In Gooden’s opinion, much of the backlash was unwarranted. As someone who had spoken to the stART board personally, he didn’t appreciate the attacks from those who had not been as personally involved in the situation.

“I was not okay with people, you know, telling lies," Gooden said.

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"My problem was if you’re not contributing to the solutions, if you’re not sitting down taking action, then there really is nothing to be said because at that point you’re just stirring chaos… and it’s overshadowing the whole issue."

After Gooden made a video stating how he felt about performative posts and the backlash overshadowing the real issue he was trying to bring attention to, he received text messages from a phone number he did not have saved in his contacts.

These text messages accused him of going back on his word and not standing by what he said. These messages also included a racial slur. An OIE report has been filed and an investigation is pending, according to Gooden.

While the Instagram that posted these collages was completely student-run, the DOT released an official statement titled, “An Open Letter Regarding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

“This weekend, we received word of a student-run Instagram account and a post from that account about the senior class of 2021. This post is not an accurate portrayal of the Department of Theatre and does not reflect our values. This post brought up many feelings and questions around equitable treatment and the opinions of people of color within and outside our department. While this social media post was not issued by the department, we would like to take this moment to reflect on the inclusive practices of the Department of Theatre (DOT),” the statement began. The statement continues on, talking about the DOT’s intent to start addressing systemic issues within the community. The letter also contains four actions the DOT will be taking to create a welcoming environment for everyone. 

“Put into action our current DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Season Plan; Formation of a faculty committee focused on implementing DEI work starting in September 2020; Commit to curriculum that is representative of the diversity of the U.S., our student body and theatre; and Commit to producing plays by Black playwrights, playwrights of color, LGBTQ+ playwrights, and particularly women-identifying authors,” the statement said.

While this Instagram post was made on a student-run account, the culture within the DOT has a lot of improving to do, according to Gooden.

“I’m going to work with the department this year to figure out what we can do to make this an inclusive environment because currently, it’s not," Gooden said.

"People are also under the impression that this isn’t that type of department but it is… there are unintentional patterns that happen within the department that make people feel excluded and those are things that we need to address."

Gooden wants faculty and staff in the DOT to listen to the voices of students of color. Gooden doesn’t think that any progress will be made without listening to the voices of those most greatly affected. He wants everyone to speak up if they are ever facing a situation like he was, or if anyone sees a situation like this one taking place.

“If you see something racist and you don’t say anything that’s just as bad as the racist act itself," Gooden said.

"I feel like it’s important to speak up, hold yourself accountable, hold each other accountable, and then allow people the opportunity to learn from the situation, and if they don’t learn from the situation, then keep on holding them accountable. Don’t let up.”


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