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I was surprised when I read the June 19 Associated Press article in the Casper Star-Tribune, where a group of Native American folk from the Native American Summer Institute walked out of the University of Wyoming performance of “The Fantasticks.”

I thought, “What could possibly be offensive about this classic off-Broadway musical?” After all, it’s a simple story of love. In my mind, this has always been the epitome of a “safe show.”

Not anymore. And it took these Native American folk to open my eyes yet again to the whitewashed perspective that I have unknowingly grown up with.

The use of an Indian headdress is an important and highly respectful part of their history and ceremony. To juxtapose this item with an abduction, regardless of the comedic effect, would naturally be disrespectful to the people who hold this tradition near and dear. Why didn’t I ever see that before?

I am not criticizing the faculty and students at UW. Where the disappointment occurs is how we, educators of the arts, deal with offensive subject matter, or worse, unintended racial slandering.

In the UW case, they immediately changed the offensive use of the Indian costuming to a later-used pirate costume. They also included a program note on the origins and history of “The Fantasticks,” and how it can be viewed differently now, through 20th-century eyes. Finally, UWW had a talkback after the Sunday matinee to discuss these issues. Kudos to them.

What does disturb me, however, is the fact that UW felt it necessary to cancel the four-city state tour of the production due to this conflict. They felt it would create even more agitation and that it would be better for them to just let the dust settle quietly. I understand this stance, but I’m not quite sure that’s the route that we educators should be taking. After all, we are educators.

Just like in “The Fantasticks,” we as a society like to hide behind walls. We tend to avoid confrontation. A big wall that we all tend to hide behind is talking about the issues of racism. We Caucasians claim ourselves not to be racist, yet those underlying tentacles tend to reach out in unexpected ways.

According to a July 1996 Association for Psychological Science article by researchers John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner, today’s racism continues to exist, but in a much more subtle form: bias-aversive racism.

Their findings were, “Aversive racism is characteristic of many White Americans who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are not prejudiced. But many also possess negative feelings and beliefs of which they are either unaware or try to dissociate from their images of themselves as being non-prejudiced.”

It is precisely this unawareness factor in us that pokes his/her ugly head out every once in a while in our lives. It then, as an end result, unintentionally offends a different culture or race. No matter how hard we strive to be unprejudicial, unbiased, equality-driven people, we sometimes blow it. We miss something that ends up being racist or offensive to a given culture.

We as educators must find the courage to break down the walls of aversive racism. We must admit to our frailties and weaknesses. When we goof, we shouldn’t try to let the dust settle. We have an obligation as educators to show that we all have these weaknesses and talk about it. In the case of UW, I would love to have seen them continue the tour and have talkbacks after every performance discussing how the department never had even seen the possibility of offensiveness in “The Fantasticks,” and that it took the Native American students to open their eyes.

The only way to break down these walls of aversive racism is to admit that we all have it, to address it, discuss it and learn from it. And what better vehicle to learn these lessons than from theater? Isn’t that what theater is all about – through observing others, we learn a little about ourselves?

The last two lines in “The Fantasticks” is a warning from El Gallo: “Keep the wall. Remember, you must always keep the wall.” How ironic that book writer Tom Jones was quoted as saying in a 2012 Playbill, “I realized that the old line sounds profound, but ... The show is not about that at all.”

I guess the wall needs to go.

James Olm is a professional composer/playwright, musical theater director and lifelong educator at public schools and colleges.

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