Columbia College Student Questions A Professor’s Potentially Offensive Language, Columbia Professors Villify Student in the Press

There are two types of education for the undergraduate theatre professional of color in America.

Option 1: An invigorating education where teachers can help you place your lived experiences in an academic canon and define your place in the world. This empowering approach allows you to fully step into yourself as an artist.

Option 2: An oppressive education that requires you to become an EDI expert before the age of 22, sharpen your ability to articulate yourself, and learn to facilitate your own safety and growth. This creates a very fierce, visionary, albeit traumatized artist. 

A student at Columbia College recently got a steaming portion of number two when her white professor Paul Amandes decided to use the phrase “magical negro” to explain a character death in his student’s work. Look left, look right. You guessed it, not a Black person in sight. The only person who could even challenge the professor was the student of color whose work he was also critiquing: Estefania Unzueta. When she brought up that the language was inappropriate in class on May 4th, Unzeuta describes his response:.

“He was very defensive,” Unzueta said. “He’s like, ‘Well, that’s not the N-word I know,’ ‘You’re not correct,’ things like that. He tried to fight me on that, and I didn’t feel like arguing with him. So, I told him, ‘I’m not arguing with you. It’s just wrong.’” – Columbia Chronicle, May 18th.

 This is echoed in the follow-up e-mail he sent to her class: 

As an educator myself, I cannot endorse this message. This man has a salary and is asking his students to – at the very least – witness and at the very worst process his embarrassment at being called out. He’s not even asking for a conversation, in fact he outright says he will not have one unless it’s on his terms. In this power dynamic, what are the students supposed to do besides coddle their professor’s feelings, or suffer a bad grade? Unzueta did not attend class that day because she felt that this was an attempt to silence or blame the students for his behavior.

If you think that attendance grade doesn’t matter, I still think about that C- in a theatre elective that cost me summa cum laude. As a person of color every letter behind my name counts. I do still think about how standing up to a man who made public death threats against me, and one teacher’s subsequent bad judgement, resulted in sacrificing those cords. This student shouldn’t have to miss class because a teacher is failing at creating a safe environment for all of his students.

This Latina student is in the echo chamber of white supremacy that is this pandemic, trapped in a smaller echo chamber of a predominantly white institution. Now she is being called out of her name by white adults she doesn’t know on Facebook for questioning her teacher’s charged language. Any topic that has white folks wondering if they can say “negro” and telling a young person of color to stop “running their mouth” – both things I saw on my feed before 7am – I get upset. 

Let me be very clear:  I cannot judge the conversation Paul had with his students in response to using “magical negro.” It is certainly a trope worth teaching but like any subject matter it deserved the context and care such a difficult topic would need. It was offered apparently in response to the death of a character in Unzueta’s play, and frankly I just don’t know if that’s his note to give. A white dramaturg telling a playwright of color that the death of a character of color in their play reminds them of the magical negro trope would make me uncomfortable, as it does in this educational context. Does this stifle the students’ education? Of course. But fixing this problem would require a hiring professor of color. 

Paul Amandes declined to give a statement to the Columbia Chronicle, so let’s zoom out to the university response. 

Taking a moment to call in the Black faculty who responded to this article. I think you should consider why it was important to  stick up for a faculty member who clearly offended the only student of color he has. Monroe: Unzueta clearly said ‘n-word’ in her tweet because she didn’t want to be yet another non-Black person who said ‘Negro out loud.’ I also would fight any white person who said negro to my face right now, for the record, so stop setting your white colleagues up to fail. 

What support is being offered to Unzueta? From reading this article it seems there is a lot of faculty support for this teacher and a lot of faculty opposition to this student. Carin Silkaitis, Chair of the Theatre Department, does not seem to be an ally to Unzueta, either.

“He was teaching a pedagogically sound lesson that bothered this particular student,” she said. “So, what if his next lesson bothered another student, and then that student does the same thing to him? … At some point, we’re not going to be able to teach, except for the most banal, safe lesson plans. At that moment, I am no longer interested in doing this for a living.”Carin Silkaitis, the Allen and Lynn Turner Chair of the Theatre Department 

“This particular student” hits the ear differently when you consider that what makes her “particular” in this context is being the only Latina, and the only person questioning language. Continue that metaphor and consider if his next lesson bothered his next Latina student the following year and we have to go through this scandal all over again? If you have to cater your lesson plans to how your students would like to learn which is apparently “banal”, Silkaitis argues, teaching becomes uninteresting as a career. 

Uh, what? Of course we as professors have a wealth of knowledge to offer our students, but we should be teaching it for their benefit, not our own. There is a power dynamic here that is being wholly ignored, it should be unacceptable that no less than four faculty members would speak out against a student in an article. In the same article where this student is publicly shamed, Assistant professor Khalid Y. Long recommended she comes to office hours if she has an issue. 

“Unzueta also approached Silkaitis about the incident, but Unzueta said it went ‘pretty awful.’”

Okay… and office hours are the answer?

“She would compare a lot of [Amandes’] microaggressions to things that happened to her as a queer woman,” Unzueta said. “But [Silkaitis] is a white woman. So, she kept comparing that, as if it’s a bonding experience to have oppression. … That’s not what’s going on here; this is someone with a position of power over me.

Silkaitis said her experience as a queer woman came into the conversation when she asked Unzueta if she, as a queer woman who is a sociopolitical activist, said something wrong or offensive, should she be canceled and Unzueta said yes, which Silkaitis said she disagreed with.”

You all are punking me now. This is just the plot of The Niceties!! A white professor who thinks her student of color is brilliant except when she demands accountability and recognition of her work from her institution. Conversation is not action. She deserves more than an older white woman trying to relate to her experiences of oppression, therefore minimalizing them in the hopes this won’t well.. end up on Twitter. 

Y’all should really read that play. This student talked to her teacher, her department head, and they both dismissed her out of hand. Who else was she supposed to speak to besides her friends and family on the internet? It’s quarantine, remember, so there is actually no other way to communicate. This student does have the right to be upset. She tweeted her dissatisfaction with a professor, and her department faculty are publicly dragging her in the press for being “unprofessional.” That’s a huge escalation and it’s hypocritical. 

Sis, I really hope that degree opens doors for you. I can’t guarantee those doors will be any less complicated than the one you’ve chosen to enter. To the students out there feeling like their education doesn’t reflect you: find your creative family as soon as you can. You deserve better notes, better collaborators, and better inspiration. 

… y’all should really read that play.

Featured image credited to Columbia Chronicle’s graphic designer Shane Tolentino.

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