Tisch Students Encounter Racial Insensitivity in Drama Program

Miranda Levingston
Tisch School of the Arts building on Broadway.

The names of most students have been changed for their safety and the protection of their privacy.

Tamara was walking down a hallway after class last spring when one of her professors plunged their hands unexpectedly into her hair. Tamara is a black drama student at Tisch School of the Arts, and she said the same encounter happened earlier that year at the hands of a different Drama teacher. Both professors were white.

After the second incident, Tamara said she almost started crying.

“That is a violation of personal space, and for what reason?” Tamara said. “It was even more hurtful because it was a professor. They should know better than just to walk up to me and mess my hair up.”

Stories of microaggressions were told to WSN by nine black Tisch students, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss issues surrounding race at Tisch because they did not want to affect relationships with their professors who control both their grades and oftentimes future job prospects in the close-knit theater community. Drama students said their instructors are typically active in the theater industry and become their employers and references. An amiable relationship with their teachers is crucial for their financial wellbeing and success in the field.

The students described an atmosphere of racial insensitivity, where some professors stereotype, exclude and silence students and treat race as merely an academic topic. At a school that prides itself on sensitivity and respect for identity, students said the university’s flip attitude toward race is alarming.

Ruben Polendo, the recently appointed chair of Tisch Drama, said he is working to address the concerns of marginalized students. He said that when students have issues in his department, they are are brought to his attention by student leadership, student affinity groups, classroom feedback surveys and monthly community-wide open meetings, in addition to campus-wide initiatives like the Bias Response Line and the Title IX office. Polendo said he recognizes some members of his faculty can be insensitive toward students of color and said he feels a sense of urgency in responding to these issues.

“For me, as an artist of color, these conversations aren’t merely important, but they’re actually very personal,” Polendo said.

Polendo said that his team has been working with Center for Multicultural Education and Programs to conduct a year-long investigation into each of the 10 Tisch Drama studios and produce mandatory workshops for faculty, staff and students which complement the program.

Last September, a Tisch Drama teacher told Drama sophomore Paige she “can’t be all alone on her big mama island,” while critiquing her independence in work. Paige said that she feels constantly and unnecessarily chastised by a few of her teachers.

“It is really obvious that black women are targeted in my classes,” Paige said. “We are told to stop being so loud, always targeted as the ones talking even though I have peers who are white and male who would be the ones talking. We were plagued as ‘aggressive,’ just when speaking.”

Paige said that this continued insensitivity factors into why she plans to transfer to a different university.

“I’m trying to transfer next year,” Paige said. “It is because the environment that was advertised isn’t necessarily here, and I think that there needs to be a big increase of faculty of color. We, the student body, look around and we don’t see that many of us but we do see more of us and the teachers who are teaching us don’t look like us and the material that we’re learning isn’t for us. How can we even enter this professional realm without a sense of who our people are, artistically?”

Although former Dramatic Writing student Romaissaa Benzizoune does not intend to leave the university, the racial microaggressions she experienced played a role in why she chose to transfer out of Tisch after one semester. She is currently a sophomore in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and was the only Dramatic Writing student who spoke with WSN.

Late last fall, a Dramatic Writing professor asked Benzizoune and the two other black students in her class to speak up during a 60-person lecture if they felt uncomfortable about the controversial skit parodying slavery they were watching.

After this incident, Benzizoune said she had to temporarily leave the room.

“I didn’t want to entertain a question that was so inappropriately leveled and also that was so obvious in its intent to make racial struggles and racism simply intellectual things to grapple with,” Benzizoune said. “It was very clear she was asking that question to have a conversation about political correctness rather than her caring about us and whether or not we were offended.”

Benzizoune said her teacher apologized to her after class and asked her to explain what went wrong.

“I didn’t mind educating her on that issue but in the future I feel like NYU should hire people to do that because it is not my job to tell white teachers not to tokenize black students on my own time after class,” Benzizoune said.

In a later class, the same teacher also chose to read the n-word out loud in class as part of a script but censored “c-nt” in a different script.

During her orientation week in Dramatic Writing, a teacher told Benzizoune that once classes started, Benizizoune should not sit next to another student with a non-Anglican name. She dropped that class shortly after the start of the semester.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced more microaggressions at NYU than during my one semester at Tisch,” Benzizoune said. “It was sad to see people who had presumably interacted with many people in the business still not know how to interact with black people and to see how they had such a limited understanding of the racial realities in this country despite being in a field that is about telling people’s stories.”

While each student’s story was unique, all of them said they felt mistreated because of their race. Students also said that the responsibility of addressing microaggression is often put on their shoulders. Many said more faculty of color, a non-Eurocentric curriculum and more mandatory trainings for the community would begin to recalibrate the character of the program.

A Predominantly White Faculty and Curriculum

Last semester, a teacher initially ignored Paige when she expressed discomfort about the use of n-word in a scene. After the interaction, Paige said she had to temporarily leave class because she was so upset.

“I said that he, as a straight white male, won’t listen to me as a minority when I tell him that I’m feeling uncomfortable in the room, and I don’t feel heard and I feel silenced as a minority within this department,” Paige said. “It is really hard to feel like we can’t speak up against our faculty without having to explain race issues, privilege and why we feel uncomfortable — those aren’t things we would have to explain necessarily to faculty of color.”

Within the larger university, the black or African-American faculty and staff make up just 10.4 percent of the total faculty and staff, according to data from the 2013-2014 academic year. That figure represented 1,322 people in the university and is currently the most recent available data.

According to an anonymous Drama professor, only a few of their colleagues are professors of color.

“Perhaps the number-one obstacle I face daily, as one of the handful of professors of color, is having to constantly remind my colleagues that there are different perspectives, a different point of view, a different way of viewing art and teaching,” they said.

Benzizoune said that sensitivity, awareness and respect are crucial when discussing race in classrooms.

“Not everything is an educational experience and not everything should be treated as such,” Benzizoune said. “It is totally awesome to have conversations about race but subjects like that should be handled with sensitivity, rather than, for instance, ‘all the white people should debate political correctness together’ because the stakes are not all the same for every student in the classroom.”

While there are no available statistics on the diversity make up of the Drama program, Senior Public Affairs Officer Cheryl Feliciano told WSN in an email that in the last year and a half of Polendo’s tenure, there have been three new professional hires, two of whom are artists of color.

“It’s understandable that someone would feel anxious about filing a complaint against someone of authority,” Feliciano said. “The #MeToo movement has illustrated that visibly. However, we’ve taken many steps to make it easier to overcome their hesitation. The most important thing to know is that we don’t allow retaliation against someone for reporting a matter of concern.”

The anonymous professor critiqued some of their colleagues’ curriculums for their mostly white teaching material.

“It has been surprising that some professors might have their students read 10 plays and they’re all written by white men,” the Drama professor said. “There is not any thought to having a black actor in the class get up and perform material that was written by a white person. So, it’s simply the fact that it is not even being considered. I think now it is being considered more than ever but there are still plenty of professors who truly don’t consider it because honestly, they don’t have to.”

Tisch Drama junior Grace is one of those students. She said she felt excluded from conversations in the classroom because the curriculum focused solely on Eurocentric films and scenes. This year, Grace said her teacher approached her and the other two black students in the class to ask if they had recommendations for shows that didn’t center on a white narrative. Grace and her two peers compiled a list of 50 different works, and he brought a selection of those into the curriculum.

Tisch Drama sophomore Brooke said she’s had to explain to her teachers why it is not useful for her to study certain dialects based on the realities of type-casting in the industry. Brooke said it would be unproductive to learn techniques she knows she will not need as an African-American actor.

“I just feel like a lot of restructuring needs to happen, so that minorities feel like they’re actually getting training that’s going to be beneficial for them when we go out into the world and start working,” Brooke said.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Community Training

Brooke said a Tisch Drama professor instructed her to add stereotypical mannerisms to her monologue portrayal of a black man during her first year. Brooke refused because she said that the historical figure the monologue was based on did not behave in such a way. As Brooke was leaving for the day, her teacher called after her to say that Brooke should “bring a do-rag next time.”

“He should have said, ‘I don’t know about this piece so why don’t I do a little bit of research and get back to you so that I can better educate you,’” Brooke said.  “Instead, he directed me based off of his own prejudices of how a black gang leader should act and look like.”

According to two anonymous professors, there was one mandatory Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training for Tisch Drama faculty which lasted about an hour and a half. The Center for Multicultural Education and Programs referred questions about the trainings to NYU Public Affairs which declined to comment.

“There is still plenty of white, cisgendered professors who are still not well-versed in issues of equity and inclusion who need more training and unfortunately don’t even know that they are committing microaggressions and macroaggressions,” the anonymous Drama professor said.  “[Polendo] has taken this topic on wholeheartedly, and he is very much committed to changing the culture at Tisch so that it is an inclusive, diverse and equitable environment.”

Tamara said that the training thus far does not seem evident in some of her interactions with her Drama teachers.

“I just find myself often — and the students around me — having conversations with professors on how to conduct themselves around us,” Tamara said. “It just seems like they haven’t been trained in that they don’t know how to interact with LGBTQ+ students, they don’t know how to interact around black students or anyone not white — they kind of just don’t know how to approach us.” 

Student interactions can be microaggressive as well, according to Tisch Drama senior Anna.

“When I got here, what surprised me was the things I encountered in regards to race, class and misogyny,” Anna said. “From students coming up to you and feeling your hair without asking or students saying ‘oh, you’re not like other black people,’ to even being called n-word by an international NYU student.”

Polendo said the CMEP trainings will play a larger role in the community in the next year and that he also plans to establish an entry course for new teachers and new students.

“Our students, and our faculty, are coming from so many different frameworks and points of view,” Polendo said. “If we can establish a baseline, then the conversation can keep moving forward.”

The Burden of the Student

Drama student Lucy once had a teacher tell her she couldn’t play a role because it was meant for a “pale young woman.” She said she believed it would negatively impact her training if she confronted her teacher or reported this incident.

“My fear is always having to work twice as hard but now having to work three times as hard because you overstepped your bounds with your teacher, in their eyes,” Lucy said. “As black students — as students of color, we have to fight to be viewed as equal or on the same plane as our white counterparts.”

Tamara said the effort involved is just one reason why students choose not to report injustices they experience.

“Your freshman year, you come in enthusiastically and you’re like ‘oh yeah, I’ll just report everything that happens’ and as it happens so much, you’re kind of like ‘I am tired of reporting all of these things,’” Tamara said. “Even if you do report it, you don’t know who’s going to handle it. You don’t know where they stand, if you are going to remain anonymous and if it is going to negatively backfire.”

Furthermore, when Tamara did report incidents to her trusted teachers, she said she was not offered much help.  

“I hated reporting these incidents because I could walk in that room bawling my eyes out and they would say the same thing every time — ‘you’re so resilient, you can handle this, just talk to the professor’ — so I would talk to somebody higher up and they would say the same thing,” Tamara said. “That really doesn’t help because I am in such a vulnerable position. If I upset this person, they could give me a bad grade and that’s going to affect my scholarship and future job opportunities. So yeah, I could speak, but it might be better for me to just cry at night instead of risking my grade and risking how I get treated in class.”

Polendo said his goal is to create multiple avenues for students to have their voices heard. He created a regular meeting called the “Community Call-In” and has supervised the creation of student leadership teams and affinity groups.

“One of the most problematic things that can happen, and I speak from my own experience as a queer artist of color, is that my voice is taken away,” Polendo said. “The space of injury, aggression, misconduct and etc. is a very personal one. Therefore, it is also not for me to decide exactly how it happens but rather to create a range of avenues that creates a multitude of ways to engage in that conversation.”

Tisch Drama junior Leah said they appreciate that the “Community Call-In” and other similar programs may educate some people in the community, but from their experiences, said that the conversations are dominated by privileged students.

“I personally get frustrated — I was sitting in that room thinking why am I receiving this lesson?” Leah said. “Some people are taking up space because they don’t realize how much space they take up. Those talks end up becoming people just voicing how privileged they are and how bad they feel about being privileged.”

Leah said that though they have experienced racially insensitive teacher and peer interactions, they particularly appreciate the alliance and affinity groups as safe spaces.

“Being on the receiving end of problematic habits is rough,” Leah said. “It happens on all levels — faculty have their issues and so do students. If something ever happens, I’m grateful for alliance and affinity groups in Tisch that give space for actors of color to talk about these problems. If I were in a different school that didn’t have these resources, I think my personal well-being would have been way worse.”

Tamara spoke to the environment in the Drama department overall.  

“The climate is tense right now in Tisch Drama and in the [Experimental Theater Wing],” Tamara said. “The black and African-American students are fed up with the feeling of having to explain ourselves and being united by pain.”

Polendo said that he thinks the role of the student in the resolution is a very individualized position.

“There are different modes of engaging in the conversation,” Polendo said. “My argument is that as chair, we have to create a space for all of them.”

Tisch Drama senior Mary said that while she has experienced microaggressive incidents, she thinks Polendo’s recent appointment as the Drama chair will be productive for the community.

“I’ve run into people who I think ‘yup, I’m going to detach myself from you,’” Mary said. “Having [Polendo] come in as the drama chair, I feel that will be a good change. I think he’s making some good moves now — but I’m going to graduate, so it won’t affect me as much.”

For the students who still have a ways to go before graduation, Polendo said brighter days are ahead.

“Is there room to grow?” Polendo said. “Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 9 print edition. Email Miranda Levingston at [email protected]

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Reading this was kinda of a wake up call/reality check of sorts. As a black student in Tisch, I had kinda just accepted all the times that I’ve felt voiceless or oppressed or unnoticed as just par for the course, and something that can’t be helped. Rationalizing all those times as such made it much easier and less discouraging to be part of the community as I didn’t worry about any alternative. After reading this, I thought back to all the times that I brushed off, or all the times I didn’t speak from my point of view, because; being the only black person in the room, it would be a presentation rather than a conversation. At the very least, I’m glad people are speaking out. It’s a step in the right direction.

  2. I believe the article brings a light to the continued discussion and awareness that is needed. But I do scratch my head on some parts of the article. One student of color tells their professor that they do not feel the need to study dialects since they will never be casted for certain roles based on their color. While another student of color is hurt they are not going to be considered for a white role? How can one have both sides of the argument and expect others to be aware, when it does not seem consistent. An international student uses the N word… maybe they did not know or they got that from listening to rap music or a movie. How are they expected to know when we here the word being used by rap artists white and black? Instead of jumping on the international student maybe helping them understand would be the better approach.

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