“Strip, everybody!” said Letitia Chai ’18, as she stepped up to give her college scholar senior thesis presentation in a conference room in the Physical Sciences Building. Immediately after, 28 of the 44 people there slowly started to remove their clothes.
Chai led the demonstration Saturday morning after a clash with a professor earlier in the week, where the professor allegedly questioned her choice of clothing for a trial run of her thesis presentation on rehabilitation for displaced people and refugees.
“The first thing that the professor said to me was ‘is that really what you would wear?’” Chai explained as she detailed what happened when she tried to begin her presentation in her Wednesday section of PMA 3815 Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life.
Chai, who had dressed in a blue button down and cutoff jean shorts, said she was stunned.
“I think that I was so taken aback that I didn’t really know how to respond,” she said in an interview with The Sun.
Chai said that the course instructor, Prof. Rebekah Maggor, performing and media arts, went on to say that her shorts were “too short” and that as a speaker she was making a “statement” with the clothes she was wearing.
The class does not have a formalized dress code, but asks students to “dress appropriately for the persona [they] will present,” according to the course syllabus obtained by The Sun.
“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” Maggor said in a brief email to The Sun. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”
Maggor mentioned to the class that another student in a previous section had been asked to remove a cap from his head, also abiding by the dress policy.
Responding to Maggor’s comment, Chai told The Sun that “telling someone to take their cap off is not the same thing as telling a girl her shorts are too short.” She also mentioned that Maggor had told her that she would attract “men’s attention” away from the content of her presentation.
“I am not responsible for anyone’s attention because we are capable of thinking for ourselves and we have agency,” Chai said.
A male international student in the class made a comment during the discussion that the speaker has a “moral obligation” to her audience to dress conservatively during her thesis presentation, at which point Chai left the room with two students following to comfort her.
According to a statement written by 11 of the other 13 students in the class, once Chai had left the room, Maggor, “apologized [to the class] for her choice of words” and acknowledged that “the notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage.”
However, according to Chai, the incident worsened after Maggor came out of the theater. She asked Chai what her mother would think of Chai’s clothing decision, to which Chai responded, “My mom is a feminist, gender and sexuality studies professor. She’s fine with my shorts.”
At this point, Maggor asked Chai what she was going to do.
“I’m going to give the best damn speech of my life,” Chai told her.
Chai stripped down to her bra and underwear and walked back into the theatre room, where she performed the entirety of her thesis presentation in the same state of undress.
That night, she wrote a Facebook post about the incident, which at press time had over 1,050 likes and 165 shares. In the post, she invited the public to her College Scholar thesis presentation, which took place Saturday morning. Chai did not name Maggor or any other student in her original Facebook post.
In light of the attention garnered by Chai’s Facebook post, 11 of the 13 other students that were in class that day wrote a joint statement to The Sun, saying that they supported Chai’s protest but not her public account of the incident.
“The majority of us are students of color, from multi-ethnic backgrounds, who very much relate to Letitia’s frustration with systemic oppression that is part of the fabric of this country,” the statement read. “We do not want to discredit [Letitia’s] narrative.”
The students wrote that while there was an “error of phrasing” on the professor’s part, her intent for the class and her desire to encourage diversity and inclusion had always been “extremely sincere.”
“[Maggor] is a gift to Cornell,” the statement read, stating that the students felt Chai’s post did not “adequately represent [Maggor’s] past and continued advocacy for women and minorities” and that Maggor had “apologized on more than one occasion.”
Chai said that her intention was not to go after her professor but to raise awareness about this “huge societal issue,” which she regards as based on a mindset rather than individual incidents.
Chai also did not mention her professor nor the specific incident during the introduction of her thesis on Saturday, which she walked into wearing the same clothes she had worn in class.
Her presentation was livestreamed on Facebook, in which a teary Chai said she stood in solidarity with people who have been asked to “question themselves” based on others’ perception of their appearances, stripping down to her underwear again in front of the room.
Following Chai’s call for the others in the room to remove their clothes as well, over two dozen people stripped to bras or boxers, with about half the room remaining in states of undress for the entirety of Chai’s thesis.
Chai’s thesis focuses on the integration of refugees and internally based persons into host communities by treating them as contributing members of local society rather than an exterior burden.
The audience consisted of several professors as well as other college scholars and their guests, and according to a Facebook post, Chai cleared the demonstration beforehand with the director of the college scholar program, Prof. Michael Goldstein, psychology, and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Gretchen Ritter ’83.
After her presentation, Chai hosted an informal roundtable with students and Goldstein on methods of diversity and inclusion training for faculty.
“I’ve gotten so many messages from students … [saying] ‘this happens to me in so many different classes on so many different occasions,’” Chai said during the discussion. “That is not okay.”
Chai said that although the Title IX office had contacted her regarding the incident, she is not actively pursuing a case at present.
Although Chai will graduate this year, she told The Sun that she hopes the conversation regarding the incident will continue, and that she has been in contact with Ritter regarding possible programming or outreach possibilities.
Prof. Denise Green ’07, fiber science and apparel design, plans to use Chai’s experience in her classes this fall, Chai said.
In keeping with her thesis, Chai said that the only way to make progress is to continue to view each other as equals despite appearance, clothing or difference.
“This topic transcends all of our social identities,” Chai told her audience, “and taps right into the heart of who we are.”