Calling Out Tisch Dramatic Writing’s Racist Imagination

Tisch Dramatic Writing junior Kathryn Stafford writes on the racial discrimination she has faced in the department.

Kathryn Stafford in the Tisch Dramatic Writing department. Stafford reflects on her experiences of racism while in the NYU program. (Photo by Katie Peurrung)

My name is Kathryn Stafford, and I am a junior at NYU. I began college in Steinhardt majoring in English Education. This start was a dubious one: my mother encouraged me to study English when I panicked while trying to choose a discipline —I was just happy to be going to NYU. After my first semester, my background — which revolved so heavily around the dramatic arts — pulled me back, and so I applied to the Rita & Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing in Tisch School of the Arts and was accepted my sophomore year. I learned that it is a small department with a racist imagination.

I have been frustrated with the department for as long as I have been here. It should be mentioned Tisch has already been exposed for some racial discrimination in the past, specifically in its drama department, but I am speaking to my own experiences.

My department consistently and intentionally forgets their gravest responsibility: that the underpinning of everything it studies and produces is steeped in imagination. A kind of collective imagination may be necessary to teach a group a way to craft stories through television, film and theater within a certain space and time period. 

However, to pretend this collective imagination is somehow universal, or preeminent, is to warrant rage from those who dare to imagine outside of it. Do not mistake me: I am calling out the Department of Dramatic Writing’s racist imagination.

A departmental town hall meeting was held recently to give undergraduate and graduate students an informal chance to speak to DDW administration and staff. I surprised myself by attending, and I debated internally with myself over what to say or whether to speak at all, but I did. I have been quiet for a long time, perhaps because I knew that once I spoke out, I could no longer hide or suppress the issue from my daily life.

I left the town hall feeling calm only because it was disappointing, as expected. I was told we students need to be more vocal about our frustrations with the professors. This is laughable. An otherwise giggly, messy, ridiculous and silly person, I am clearly dissatisfied while in the department, my face steely and vacant. And people react to it. There are audible and visual cues that make the discontents on the seventh floor utterly obvious. For example, my friend Sejahari Saulter-Villegas and I loudly, and intentionally, spoke of a racist incident that occurred in the classroom in front of a professor. I won’t relay the specifics of what happened — or other incidents — for many reasons. I do not see the point in replaying this type of violence here, nor can I see who it would truly serve. I don’t have to give gruesome details, and I’m not going to. Sejahari left the department and joined Playwright Horizons.

I, along with other black students of the department, feel disillusioned. The professors look me in the eyes and express to me they can only imagine how awful it is. They gesture out into the street and assure me they are well aware of “the craziness” going on. I can only imagine they are referring to the black bodies slain by the police, which are now the fodder for headlines as police brutality has become sensationalized enough by U.S. news media that white people are encouraged to know about it. But all I can think is, “What are my professors talking about?” I’m afraid they don’t know, and more afraid that they do know, that in addition to a question of structural violence on the matter of black struggle are fundamental questions on the imagination.

To quote Claudia Rankine, “because white men can’t police their imagination, Black men [sic] are dying.” Why would they think my frustration in their classroom has more to do with anonymous police officers somewhere than the problems that exist inside of the classroom? Do they know that imagination connects these two in every possible way? Do they know that structural violence, and how we cope with it,  is through the imagination?

But I’m being generous. Most professors do not stop me. Most, after the first altercation, decide to ignore me from that day on. I’ve had a couple of professors whose eyes cannot meet mine and instead plummet to the ground when they walk by me. It’s a shame.

I recently saw Sejahari when Angela Davis spoke at Skirball, on Nov. 5, and he looked the happiest I’d seen him in a long time. The beautiful smile on his black face reminded me of his true essence, one I had almost forgotten about. He seemed to be doing better, which brings me to my biggest problem.

When I attempted to bring up my grievances at the town hall meeting, I was told that this is an issue the department has been dealing with for many years. Whatever “this” was referenced to in the meeting is not what we can call a problem. To call it a problem would be to incorrectly individualize. “This” is our imagined reality that reproduces problems. For the sake of this letter, we can name one of those problems: D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie credited with the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. It didn’t expose problems, but embodies what it means to be a problem itself. This is our imagined reality which was constructed by people deeply disfigured by severe prejudices. 

I can think of two professors who have reached out to me, concerned for my wellbeing and safety. I am grateful for them, and I enjoy seeing this community work together in any meaningful way when it does. It is true that black and brown students deserve much better, but all I can think to emphasize now is a need for visibility. 

I want the department to see its students. And I cannot ask anything more of it at this time, sheerly because much of what I know of it now has been garnered from observation rather than interaction. If I am not seen, I am certainly not interacted with. That’s a problem. 

Observation which takes place in both imagination and reality informs much of what you read here. But I observe diligently, and for survival. I’m not convinced that imagination is separate from knowledge. I think imagination is the most important type of knowledge we have. And I am willing to cooperate with those who will in turn ask questions about this knowledge. But it must be said that not I, nor any other black, queer, nonwhite, disabled or otherwise isolated student, can possibly offer anything to those who choose to play lost inside of their imaginations. And we cannot and will not ask to exist on the fringes of those imaginations when we ourselves are treated as imaginary.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 19 print edition. Email Kathryn Stafford at [email protected]

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