A senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. recently caused a stir when she stripped down to her underwear after her professor criticized her choice in clothing.
Letitia Chai was about to present a trial run of her scholar senior thesis when her professor, Rebekah Maggor, made a comment about Chai’s choice in outfit — a button down shirt and denim cut-off shorts.
“The first thing that the professor said to me was ‘is that really what you would wear?’” Chai told campus newspaper the Cornell Daily Sun. “I think that I was so taken aback that I didn’t really know how to respond.”
Chai told the newspaper that Maggor said her that her shorts were “too short” and that when giving a presentation and the clothes worn by the presenter make a “statement.”
With no formal dress code, the course syllabus instructs students to “dress appropriately for the persona [they] will present.”
Chai says that Maggor likened her clothing to one of her previous students who was asked to remove a hat before giving his presentation. She also says Maggor told her that her choice in clothing would attract “men’s attention” and distract people from the content of her presentation on rehabilitation for displaced people and refugees.
“Telling someone to take their cap off is not the same thing as telling a girl her shorts are too short,” said Chai. ““I am not responsible for anyone’s attention because we are capable of thinking for ourselves and we have agency.”
Chai left the classroom after a male international student said that the presenter has a “moral obligation” to the audience to dress conservatively.
According to Chai, Maggor joined her outside and began asking her whether Chai’s mother would approve of her choice in clothing, which angered her. Chai replied, “My mom is a feminist, gender and sexuality studies professor. She’s fine with my shorts.”
When her professor asked what she was going to do, Chai said, “I’m going to give the best damn speech of my life.” Chai then stripped down to her bra and underwear and returned to the classroom where she gave her practice presentation in her underwear.
Appropriately, Chai’s course just so happens to be called Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life.
That night, Chai wrote a Facebook post about what had transpired that vent viral, but did not mention her professor or any student by name. She invited readers to join her for the actual presentation this past Saturday, as part of a larger demonstration.
On the day of her presentation, Chai returned to the classroom in the same button-down shirt and shorts and addressed the audience.
“I am more than Asian. I am more than a woman. I am more than Letitia Chai. I am a human being, and I ask you to take this leap of faith, to take this next step — or rather this next strip — in our movement and to join me in revealing to each other and seeing each other for who we truly are: members of the human race,” she said while taking off her clothes. “We are so triumphant, but most importantly, we are equals.”
Chai then encouraged the rest of the audience to strip. The campus paper reports that 28 of the 44 people present removed their clothes.
“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” Professor Rebekah Maggor said in an email to the campus paper. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”
According to a statement issued to The Sun by eleven of the thirteen students in Chai’s course, when Chai initially left the room upset, Maggor “apologized for her choice of words” to the rest of the class and made mention that “the notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage.”
The student statement paints an admirable portrait of Maggor as an educator, and says that aspects of her comments were “unfairly represented” and “taken out of context” in Chai’s Facebook post.
“We strongly support and identify with Letitia’s fight for equality in the treatment of all people, regardless of race, gender, color, creed, sexuality, or appearance,” the students added. “The majority of us are students of color, from multiethnic backgrounds, who very much relate to Letitia’s frustration with systemic oppression that is part of the fabric of this country. We do not want to discredit her narrative.”
Chai revealed to the newspaper that she has been contacted by the Title IX office. Under the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination based on sex in any educational program that receives Federal financial assistance.
At this time, Chai states that she has no interest in pursuing a case against Cornell University.
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