An article in the Los Angeles Times unwittingly documents the festival of stupidity and false accusations that almost led to the firing of a man who did nothing wrong.
We have covered the story of Coastal Carolina University Professor Steve Earnest extensively, but a new report from the Los Angeles Times has shed new light on the situation.
The good news is that Earnest has been reinstated. The bad news is that he was put through hell for nothing.
It all started when a visiting artist wrote the names of some black students on a whiteboard because they wanted to meet up with some other black students. Later on, a completely different group of students saw the names on the board and jumped to the false conclusion that black students were being singled out for something.
It was quickly cleared up, but not before students made a fuss over it.
Earnest had zero to do with any of this. All he did was remark that the students had overreacted. That’s it. Next thing you know, people were calling for him to be fired.
The Jenny Jarvie article in the Los Angeles Times acknowledges all of this but still acts as if the students had a reason to go after Earnest, which they clearly did not. Just look at the title. The students “decided to fight back.” Fight back against what, exactly?
A drama professor told students they got their feelings hurt too easily. They decided to fight back
It all started with a misunderstanding.
A Black theater student at Coastal Carolina University told a visiting drama teacher she wanted to connect with nonwhite students, so the teacher drew up a list of names on a whiteboard, then forgot to erase it when they left the studio.
When several other students walked in, they saw the list and were left with the suspicion that those on it had been singled out with racist intent.
A committee of professors investigated and promptly sent out a departmentwide email clarifying what had happened that September day. Seeking to calm students, the professors wrote that the explanation “in no way undermines the feelings that any of you feel about the incident” and that the faculty was “deeply sorry.”
The visiting teacher also wrote an apology: “No matter the good intention. … I still want you to know I’m an idiot and I am sorry.”
Things might have ended there. But at a time when college campuses have become center stage for the polarizing issues of race, identity and what constitutes harm, the theater department was primed for conflict.
Enter Steve Earnest.
“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. “Im just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”
Within minutes, his iPad lit up with messages, mostly from Black theater majors.
First of all, Earnest was absolutely correct in his comments about theater, or any form of acting for that matter, and I say that as someone who majored in theater and worked in the industry professionally.
Theater is a brutal business, particularly for actors. It’s rejection after rejection after rejection, often based on personal things like looks, voice, body type, etc. Thousands upon thousands of new people enter the field every year, so competition is fierce. Many people work at it for years and get nowhere.
The article then moves on to a black female student named Kelis Herriott, who wasn’t even in the room with the whiteboard that started all this nonsense. The article falls all over itself to describe Herriott’s life, how she fell in love with acting, and how she decided to start a boycott of Earnest, who made the grave mistake of apologizing to the mob:
Less than 24 hours after sending his first email, Earnest tried to make amends.
“I sincerely apologize for my statements that caused hurt,” he wrote, offering to meet with students. “I do have something of an empathy issue that I could improve on. My own children will attest to the fact that I have ingrained in me the old ‘just suck it up and move on’ mentality.”
The apology fell flat.
That night, Herriott asked herself: “Why am I doing all this homework to go to class and be awkward? And for other people to have to go to Steve’s class — like nothing happened.”
And so she gathered other students to organize a boycott.
“I should have control over my education to remove toxic people, regardless of freedom of speech, or whatever,” she said later. “Hate speech is hate speech.”
What hate speech?! It’s maddening to read this. Things escalated even further:
That Monday morning, dozens of students, dressed in black, skipped classes. Messages were pinned on doors and noticeboards across the humanities and arts building: “Fire the racist,” “TIME TO RESIGN” and “Black Actors Matter.”
Soon, local TV crews descended on the 10,000-student campus, which is about two-thirds white. By the end of the day, a dean had ordered Earnest not to come to classes.
Once again, Earnest. Didn’t. Do. Anything.
But then, about two-thirds down in the article, we come to this fascinating tidbit, which was left out of prior reports:
If there was one thing Earnest tried to instill in his students, it was toughness. He would warn them that acting is a brutal profession full of rejection and requires a sturdy exoskeleton to survive.
He himself is a rare species in the world of theater: a Donald Trump-voting conservative from a small town in Alabama with a deep passion for avant-garde European theater.
Another student, named Jihad Levermore, who particpated in the boycott of Earnest is quoted towards the end of the article. See if you can spot the stunning irony here:
As for the students who led the boycott, they remain uneasy about Earnest coming back to campus.
“I need to know that this is a department where everybody, from whatever walk of life they come from, is just going to be able to be themselves here,” Levermore said. “That sounds so kumbaya, but I really do want a safe space for everyone.”
“Um, no,” he said.
I’m glad that Earnest didn’t lose his job, but if I were him I would start sending out resumes now. Just reading and digesting this article has felt like banging my head against a wall.DONATE
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