Student’s TikTok sparks racial insensitivity concerns

Professor’s minstrel show lecture spurs discomfort among students


Abbie Michalek / The News

The music department faculty plan to add sensitivity training for their professors after a student’s TikTok highlights problematic teachings in class.

Dionte Berry, Editor-in-Chief

A Murray State music class lecture garnered online attention after a student posted a TikTok of their professor discussing the impact of minstrel shows in America and seemingly offering praise to the discriminatory form of entertainment. 

American minstrel shows were prevalent during the 19th and 20th centuries and were supposed to be a form of racial comedy based on the exaggeration and caricaturization of Black stereotypes, often with a white performer in blackface. “Jump Jim Crow” was an early popular minstrel show, according to PBS, which later gave way to Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century.

“The one positive the minstrel show does is it unites American humor,” said Director of Jazz Studies Todd Hill to his History and Analysis of American Popular Music course. “A lot of people see nothing wrong with wearing blackface. Otherwise, you couldn’t tell jokes you wouldn’t tell.”

Hill went on to say the greatest minstrel performers were Black and “it was a better way to make a living, better than chopping cotton, sure as hell better than living in a sharecropper shack somewhere.”

Sophomore music business major Mayson Phoenix recorded Hill’s voice during his lecture and posted it to TikTok, receiving around 91,000 views. 

Phoenix said they felt uncomfortable with the way Hill was discussing minstrel shows, which led to them recording the video. 

“He had started talking about the positives with minstrel shows, and I was like, ‘That is so weird that you said that,’” Phoenix said. “I had decided to pull up my phone and start recording myself on Snapchat because I originally just posted it to my story. Because I was just, you know, wanting to show some of my friends, like, ‘Hey, this is really messed up.’” 

After receiving a lot of attention on Snapchat, Phoenix decided to post the video on TikTok on Feb. 4. When Phoenix made their post at the time, they couldn’t articulate why the lecture made them uneasy, but after posting the video on their TikTok page, witch.frown, Phoenix received around 3,000 comments helping them find the words to explain how the lecture made them feel.

 “It wasn’t until I posted it to TikTok that I got all the comments, saying, ‘This is how he could have addressed it’ and just talking about how this was wrong and borderline racist, and I agree,” Phoenix said. 

The Music Department plans to introduce a new course to replace Professor Todd Hill’s course (Abbie Michalek, The News).

Following his praise for the impact minstrel shows have had in America, Hill said it was something he would never get involved with as an “empath” meaning he  is someone who is understanding of other’s emotions.

While Phoenix received a lot of support from fellow TikTokers, they have received some bullying and threats on YikYak, an anonymous chat app that allows users to interact with those within a 5 mile radius of them. Not only was Phoenix targeted but so was one of their friends who defended them. 

“By the time I was looking through [YikYak], some of the worse ones had been taken down,” Phoenix said. ”There were still a lot of ones calling me stupid…and some people were making fun of the fact I was homeless. I got screenshots of the ones that had been deleted before I saw them [that] were saying stuff, like, how people wanted to murder people like me.”

Phoenix also talked about some speculation regarding the TikTok being taken out of context or Hill possibly reading, but Phoenix said this wasn’t the case. 

“I went to the section of the book that he was supposedly reading from, and it’s nothing like what he was saying, like sure some of the topics that he was talking about are in the book, but they’re handled in more of a polite manner and handled with so much more care,” Phoenix said. 

Phoenix shared the book with The News titled “American Popular Music, from Minstrelsy to MP3.” Chapter Two, “After the Ball,” talks about minstrel shows but does so in a neutral fashion to explain the history, not the “positive” impacts of minstrel shows. 

In regards to what they’d want to see done in the future surrounding this topic, Phoenix believes if content like this needs to be covered, it should be done so by a Black professor. 

“I personally don’t think that a non-person of color should even be teaching that subject because of how sensitive it is,” Phoenix said. “The department definitely needs to be educated on a lot of different topics. They need to be educated more on LGBT topics, more on [Black, Indigenous and people of color] topics because they just kind of pretend they don’t exist.”

The News reached out to both Hill and Lucia Unrau, music department chair, regarding this matter. Unrau said the department would not be making a comment. 

“This matter is being addressed in accordance with University policies and procedures,” Unrau wrote. “Murray State University is a student-centered and inclusive university where all students are valued and respected. As this is a personnel matter, we will have no further comment.”

The News also contacted the Institutional, Diversity, Equity and Access Office in regards to how this matter will be handled, but they deferred us to Executive Director of Branding and Marketing Shawn Touney, who echoed Unrau’s statement. 

On Feb. 15, Phoenix posted an update on the matter. The class will not be taught for the remainder of the spring 2023 semester. Instead, it will be replaced by another course that will begin meeting during the second half of the semester. 

The half semester class will not be taught by Hill. 

In addition to the TikTok update, Phoenix updated The News saying they had a meeting with a member from the IDEA office and the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts David Balthrop. 

Phoenix also said the music department will be going through sensitivity training every year following this incident.

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