A Cornell University student presented her honors thesis while wearing only her undergarments last week in an effort to stand against “oppressive beliefs and discrimination,” according to a report from Campus Reform.
Letitia Chai’s presentation was a response to her Acting in Public professor Rebekah Maggor questioning the appropriateness of her attire in class, which consisted of a “long-sleeve blue button-down shirt and denim cut-offs,” according to Chai’s Facebook post on May 2.
She requested that people wear their favorite underwear to her presentation and continued to explain what happened in Maggor’s class. At the presentation she asked attendees to strip and 28 of the 44 people there started to do so, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.
In this same Facebook post, Chai writes:“When I got up to start, my professor said: ‘Is that really what you would wear? She, a white woman, continued: ‘Your shorts are too short. The professor proceeded to tell me, in front of my whole class, that I was inviting the male gaze away from the content of my presentation and onto my body,” the student recounted. “She said I was making a statement by wearing my outfit. I told her that I sure as hell wouldn’t change my statement to make her or anyone else feel more comfortable.”Her post continues to criticize a male, international student for telling her that she should have dressed more conservatively out of respect for her audience.
According to Chai, Maggor, her professor, explained that she was worried like a mother for her, which Chai didn’t accept because her mother “is a Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor,” and wouldn’t care about her outfit as a result.
In an interview with The Cornell Daily Sun, Maggor defends her stance by stating that she asked another student to follow dress code by removing his hat. According to the syllabus, students were expected to dress appropriately for the persona they would represent. According to Campus Reform, “eleven of the 14 students in the class felt that Chai’s post did not represent the entire situation fairly. In a joint letter, the students recounted that the professor’s comment “was a means of noting the importance of professionalism in certain public speaking situations.” Many students were afraid to say something about Chai’s post because of social media’s black and white perception on issues, According to the document, the three students who did not sign the letter included Chai, the international student, and a student who was absent on the day of the incident.
After her presentation, Chai hosted a roundtable discussion on diversity and inclusion training with students and faculty. Chai said that the only way to make progress is to continue to view each other as equals despite appearance, clothing or difference. This is similar to her thesis which argues that refugees shouldn’t be treated as a burden. “This topic transcends all of our social identities,” Chai told her audience, “and taps right into the heart of who we are.”
Chair of the Performing Media Arts, Nick Salvato, promised that diversity, equity, and inclusion training for faculty will “continue this semester, as well as next semester and beyond.” Maggor didn’t immediately respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment. While Title IX office contacted Chai, she will not be pursuing a case, rather she hopes that conservation about the incident and related issues will continue.
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