#MajorsSoWhite

Diversity in Tisch: Creating Dialogue around Race in Two of NYU’s ‘Whitest Majors’

There are no statistics accessible to the public on the racial composition of New York University’s  Tisch School of the Arts.1 But the opinion of students is unanimous: The school is predominately white. Wander through the halls of the Tisch building at 721 Broadway, take a quick moment to peek into the window of a class, and this fact becomes evident.

Gisela Zuniga, who identifies as Latina and is a junior in the Film and Television program within Tisch, remembered wanting to come “to NYU in the first place, because it is such a global university.” The first few weeks, were overwhelming but fun because everyone around her was suddenly interested in the same thing: film. As the months passed, however, she felt increasingly isolated and frustrated. She was disappointed to discover that her educators at NYU seemed committed to delivering “a very Western-derived and Americanized version of what art is.” 2

She recalled connecting with her friends artistically but not culturally. “I kept thinking, Hey, like it would be cool to learn about something made by people like me.” For Gisela, the two identities (cultural and artistic) cannot be separated. They are interconnected and constantly in dialogue.

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Gisela Zuniga. Photograph by Anna Ferkingstad.

After being transplanted from a predominantly poor Mexican-American community in Southern Texas to lower Manhattan and NYU, Gisela recounted how her feelings of loneliness grew as her freshman year progressed. “Being within one of the whitest majors within existence and then contextually within NYU was very weird for me,” Gisela said. “At first, I genuinely didn’t see a problem with it because I was like everybody likes film. It doesn’t matter what our backgrounds are. But then, I started noticing how whenever I would say comments in class they would be very easily dismissed.”

Now the president and co-founder of a club called Radical Artists Aiming for Diversity (RAAD), Gisela is one among a growing group of students on campus who are speaking out about the lack of diversity in Tisch. Robert Jackson, a senior majoring in Drama, has worked alongside Gisela on several recent initiatives led by students to encourage conversation among the Tisch faculty. Robert noticed immediately as a first-year student that there were only two African American students in his studio. There weren’t many students of color in the drama program in general, he recalled.3

Tisch’s Drama program is composed of ten professional training studios, each with a unique approach to teaching and curriculum. Robert’s studio, the New Studio on Broadway, is described by many Tisch students as being one of the more racially diverse studios within the Drama program. Several of the faculty and staff members happen to be of color in the New Studio and, according to Robert, this was “very helpful in terms of adjusting. But it was still very difficult in terms of the different reality I was living in.”

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Robert Jackson. Photograph by Nate Palmer.

Through The Collective, a Tisch club that seeks to expose students of color to works and ideas relevant to their backgrounds, Robert found a community and support system that made him “feel comfortable” within Tisch. Similar to Gisela’s comments, although less explicit, Robert alluded to feelings of isolation during his first two years of NYU. Now president of the club and in his senior year, Robert said, “[In The Collective] I saw my passion for wanting to create art for artists of colors and providing a platform for students wanting to create their own work.”

Gisela first developed the idea for RAAD while on a retreat for student leaders of color hosted by the Center for Multicultural Education Programs at NYU (CMEP). “RAAD was born, in a sense, out of me stating really loudly and clearly both for my community and myself that my voice as an artist is valuable,” Gisela explained. “I am not afraid of my truth anymore, and I will not omit pieces of me to make you feel comfortable.” She hopes that RAAD can be a safe space to students who feel like she did in her first months at NYU. The club was founded less than a year ago, and its momentum only continues to expand. Students from the New School and Columbia have even reached out to Gisela asking if they could start chapters at their respective universities.

According to data released by the Office of Institutional Research and Program Evaluation at NYU, about 39% of non-international students enrolled at New York University for the year of 2013-2014 classified themselves as white. That same year, the faculty and staff of NYU were 57% white, and approximately 5% of the student body was black or of African American descent, 8% Hispanic/Latino and 15% of Asian origins.4

Since its founding in 1831, NYU has grown to become one of the largest private universities in the United States, and the programs within Tisch have gained recognition among industry members across the country. The Tisch School of the Arts first began in 1965 and contains about 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students.5 The school offers training in a wide range of artistic disciplines, but Film and Television and Drama are among the largest majors within the school. And, as reported anecdotally by students, they are likely two of the least racially diverse programs in Tisch.

A 2015 graduate of Tisch’s Drama Program, Daniella De Jesús was granted the unique opportunity to train in performance, playwriting, directing, and design through the Playwrights Horizons Theater School Studio. With an initial focus in acting and performance, Daniella switched into the devising and playwriting track in her senior year at NYU. She recalled several instances where the lack of diversity in her classes limited her ability to cast the projects she was writing and producing. After Daniella elaborated on her love for devised theater work, a method that relies on the collaboration between the actors and playwright, it was clear how the issue of casting was limiting (at the very least) from an artistic standpoint. “The actors I was given just couldn’t put the words in their mouths,” she recalled while discussing a piece she wrote for a playwriting class about two Puerto Rican kids on the Lower East Side in New York during the 1970s. Daniella had envisioned each character speaking with certain and distinct dialect. “There wasn’t much I could learn from the actors speaking my text,” Daniella continued. “[With] them reading it, it just wasn’t my text.”6

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Daniella De Jesús. Photograph by Deborah Lopez Lynch

Now almost a year out of NYU, Daniella is living and working in New York City. She was most recently seen as Zirconia in Season 4 of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, and she is currently attempting to launch a collective of women artists of color. When discussing her experiences as a woman of color at NYU, Daniella frequently referred to a production she worked intensely on during her senior year in Tisch, Assorted Crackers.

Daniella first got the idea for the project from a Tumblr photo, but she cites several students as inspiration for the development of the script. The title was intended to comment on the way Caucasians describe their own race, and the show contained themes of post-raciality (the idea that contemporary America is free from discrimination and prejudice), hipster racism (a term came into widespread use after an article by Carmen Van Keouwe in 2006 at the blog Racialicious as meaning the expression of racist ideas “under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning ‘ironic’ nowadays), educated, liberal and/or trendy”7), and experiences with racism at NYU. It was a reverse minstrel show, a type of theater in which actors of color masquerade as white. For the project, Daniella and her classmates were to hold open auditions for other members of Tisch to cast their productions. “I knew that wouldn’t be enough, though,” Daniella detailed. “Because for every twenty-five students, there was one actor of color. I had to message people individually who I knew.”

One classmate in particular, a student who ranted about a collection of OkCupid emails in which men fetishizied them and compared their skin to coffee flavors, influenced Daniella’s process in developing the play. “I was happiest [working] in devised projects,” Daniella said. “They fostered this open, comfortable, collaborative environment where everybody’s voice felt important and necessary to the piece as a whole.”

Of course, lack of diversity plagues the acting industry beyond NYU. When asked about how her classmates reacted to the Oscars, Gisela laughed. The morning before RAAD’s own open meeting that discussed the performance of Chris Rock and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Gisela remembered being in a film class that, “only wanted to talk about how Sam Smith should have won best song.” She continued, “And I am sitting there like I didn’t even realize anything else happened besides Chris Rock at the Oscars.” It wasn’t until several minutes into the discussion that the professor brought up Chris Rock for the first time.

“I am not afraid of having these conversations because they are necessary for my growth and presence as an artist of color in these spaces—as a woman of color, as a questioning women of color, and from a place that nobody knows about in god-knows-where, Texas,” Gisela said when I asked what she imagined her classmates thought about her comments. “No one can tell me otherwise. I define what kind of person and artist I am.”

Gisela spoke up during that conversation, despite knowing her classmates look at her as “that person.” She often feels like her comments are unwelcome to other students and questions if it’s because they are “intimidated” or think she is “dumb for speaking out.” “I am not afraid of having these conversations because they are necessary for my growth and presence as an artist of color in these spaces—as a woman of color, as a questioning women of color, and from a place that nobody knows about in god-knows-where, Texas,” Gisela said. “No one can tell me otherwise. I define what kind of person and artist I am.”

People need to be held accountable, Robert said. “For me, diversity isn’t just a trending topic that everyone talks about on Twitter and Facebook. It’s something that actually needs to be addressed and resolved, not just by way of the Oscars.”

I mentioned Gisela’s experiences with the Oscars in her film classes while on the topic with Robert. He found the engagement of his classmates and faculty members to be evidence of a larger problem. “I think everyone has good intentions,” Robert said. “I don’t think anyone in the spaces I have been in have purposefully tried to shun or discriminate anyone in terms of color, race, sexuality . . . But I think good intention is not enough.”

To Robert, understanding and support are keys to creating and fostering open discussions about race and diversity within Tisch. “I think it goes beyond intention. It goes to a level of wanting to understand,” Robert stated. “Conversations . . . , taking the time to research. Figuring it out so [people] understand [it’s] not just all about them, their life, and their privilege.”

Despite these questions and comments, Robert continually returned to how thankful he is for NYU. He referred to himself as a “cosmopolitan student” and is grateful for his experiences within the New Studio. In the weeks and months leading up to graduation, he felt nervous and scared of the unknown. However, he expressed that he has faith in himself and the tools and training he has received from Tisch and NYU.

He envisions himself on Broadway. Listening to him speak, watching his mannerisms, I can see it. “Being a student at NYU and then also having this completely different way of living [having grown up in poverty],” Robert said, “I have been able to use both of those realities to impact the work I create.”

Robert, Daniella, and Gisela all mentioned the differences between working in the film and acting industry in New York and California. As students and recent graduates, they all find the work happening in New York more relevant to their work. Daniella said one reason she decided to remain in the city after she graduated was because she doesn’t think the “way she looks” or “her style of acting” fit Los Angeles.

Gisela noted the clear differentiation between NYU and a school like University of Southern California (USC), for example. Tisch, she said, is “telling stories that are independent and further from the Hollywood machine.” Robert hopes to pursue a career in stage acting in the city, while Gisela wants to find a job that combines community outreach with her love for film.

“Because the industry’s changing, Tisch will change,” Robert said. “I just hope that everyone can be on the same page in terms of acceptance and in terms of appreciating and loving one another. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily the case.”

  1. New York University and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), New York University Fast Facts. 17 March 2016. 13 July 2016. http://www.nyu.edu/employees/resources-and-services/administrative-services/institutional-research/factbook.html
  2. (Gisela Zuniga in conversation with the author, March 23, 2016)
  3. (Robert Jackson in conversation with the author, March 24, 2016)
  4. Office of Institutional Research and Program Evaluation. “New York University’s Community Breakdown by Ethnicity.” Facts and Figures. New York University, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.
  5. “About Tisch.” NYU | Tisch. New York University, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016. <http://tisch.nyu.edu/about/about-tisch>.
  6. Daniella De Jesús in conversation with the author, March 25, 2016)
  7. Pearce, Matt. “Trayvon Martin, Kony 2012, L.A. Riots — and Now ‘hipster Racism'” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 01 May 2012. Web. 14 July 2016. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/01/nation/la-na-nn-hipster-racism-20120501>.