My daughter, Prachi Ruina, wrote one of the pair of letters a few weeks ago, that called out the racial bias and lack of inclusion and casting in performing arts in the Ithaca city school district. Since those letters were published a group of students of color, including Prachi, and their white allies at Ithaca high school have been working to promote change in the performing arts by telling their own stories, talking with other students and the community, and presenting a list of demands to the school administrators. The students bring to light the of biased casting related to color and race, and inaccessibility to students who may have interest and talent, but are inexperienced or may not have parents able to help them with logistics. I have seen that ICSD has provided a great theater experience for only a limited number of kids, many of them privileged. The goals of any public-school program should broader than that.
In the short term the goal of the students was to stop production of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and start over with a new musical with more lead characters, inclusive casting and racially conscious direction. Now, the Hunchback has been cancelled and production of a different and more diverse musical is in negotiation. The longer term goal of the students is to have all shows in the ICSD be inclusive, and consciously cast for the benefit of the whole student body. I am impressed by the student activists as they grapple with complex and adult issues of privilege and race. They are doing this at the same time as they face the challenge of communicating with adults who have authority over them, about issues that the adults feel deeply about, and who respond with complex emotion, sometimes defensively. At the same time the activist students have tried to engage consistently and empathetically with the students in the Hunchback cast. Those cast students have also behaved admirably as they processed their loss, and the reasons for it. The open honest communication between the cast and the activist students is something we adults should emulate.
I have been overwhelmed by the amount of support that the students have received from the community, and even nationally, for both their long and short term goals. I have also been overwhelmed by how many people, including myself, are being educated by this process. For example, almost every day over the last couple of weeks when I am at work at Cornell University, or doing errands around town, friends, acquaintances, or university students, most of them white, tell me about the meaningful conversations they have had with their friends, or around the dinner table with their kids. This is a priceless and timely educational moment that we are all receiving courtesy of our brave kids. If we don’t take this moment to have important conversations about race with our children, our loss will go far beyond missing a musical.
Unfortunately, over the last couple of weeks I have heard from people, and read letters presenting the positive experiences that individual students have had in the performing arts as evidence that the changes the students demand are unwarranted. These positive experiences are wonderful for these children. However, these positive experiences do not negate the negative experiences, or the simple absence of experiences that so many others have had. I would hope that many more kids of color, and others who have been systematically excluded, could also have those great experiences in theater.
Additionally, I am disappointed and angry that a small group of people are personally attacking the student activists and their families on social media. I don’t want to reward their often racially charged comments in this letter, but the anger behind their comments, and the personal nature of their attacks, has shocked me. Many of the comments have expressed great concern for the hardship presumed to have been experienced by the young woman who was cast to play Esmeralda, and the hardship of the predominantly white cast. The cast students are experiencing a loss of not being able to perform in the musical they had begun to rehearse. As a parent I have empathy for them, and I can imagine this loss is a difficult one. If school administrators don’t move quickly they will suffer a greater loss because they will not be able to participate in any musical in school this year.
However, the loss experienced by the Hunchback cast must be considered in a broader context. While these students may be experiencing a loss this year, students of color experience loss throughout their whole education. The consequences of that loss will persist throughout their lives. I have two daughters, one brown and one white. Over the years I have observed the subtle, and sometimes not subtle, difference in how they experience everyday life. This is often due to how other people treat them because of race. While I generally feel lucky that Prachi is growing up in Ithaca, I still see the weight that she bears daily because she is brown. I would like that load to be lighter, as any parent would want for their child. I would hope the caring adults of our community would have empathy for the loss that our young people of color experience, which goes beyond missing a chance to perform in one musical. Finally, I hope people will understand that this is the greater good that the student activists are fighting for. They are not fighting for the short-term reward of a small group. May we all remember this, and support all children by talking openly about race and privilege, and moving forward as a unified community. I hope all of us, including the ICSD administration, will take full advantage of this moment, which has become an opportunity, for the sake of all of our children.
With hopes of unity and understanding,
Saskya van Nouhuys
Adjunct Professor of Entomology Cornell University, and Adjunct Professor of Ecology, University of Helsinki, Finland.