When acclaimed British conductor Matthew Halls joked with his black friend at a social event, neither of them dreamed the exchange would result in the conductor’s sacking.
Halls, who has worked with orchestras and opera houses in Europe and the U.S., was removed by the University of Oregon as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival after he imitated a Southern American accent while talking to African-American classical singer Reginald Mobley, the Telegraph newspaper of London reported.
Someone heard his joke and reported it to university officials, claiming it was a racial slur, prompting the termination of Halls’ four-year contract.
But Mobley himself insisted the joke was completely innocent, the paper said.
“He has been victimized and I’m very upset about it,” he said of Halls. “It was an innocent joke that has been entirely taken out of context.”
Halls and Mobley were chatting at a reception for this year’s Oregon Bach Festival when Mobley recalled a concert in London he described as having an “antebellum,” or pre-Civil War South, feel to it.
Halls responded, according to Mobley, by saying he “apologized on behalf of England.” Then he put on an exaggerated Southern accent and joked: “Do you want some grits?”
“I’m from the deep south and Matthew often makes fun of the Southern accent just as I often make fun of his British accent,” explained Mobley. “Race was not an issue. He was imitating a Southern accent, not putting on a black accent, and there was nothing racist or malicious about it.”
A spokesman for the Oregon Bach Festival told the Telegraph the university “considers many factors when deciding whether to continue a contract.”
“Regarding Reggie Mobley, it doesn’t appear he was involved in the university’s decision. Having said that, it would be inappropriate for the university to disclose details about a personnel matter.
“While I anticipate that more information will be available soon, I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter right now.”
The Telegraph said pressure from other musicians is being put on the festival organizers to reinstate Halls.
But, meanwhile, the conductor, according to Mobley, is “obviously upset, and part of his anger would have to come from the fact he’s been accused of saying something so insensitive to a close friend.”
Mobley said he appreciates the efforts of some white people to confront racism, but some go too far.
“They think they are at the point where they understand racism more than those who have really encountered it in their lives and they make assumptions on our behalf about how we might feel, as if we don’t understand when something said to us or done to use is racist,” he said.
“It’s well meaning, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
He said it also “demeans and cheapens the very serious work done by civil rights activists and abolitionists to have the difficult nuances of racism and microaggressions taken seriously.”
The Atlantic magazine reported on the trend “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
In June, for example, a professor at the progressive Evergreen State College in Washington state was threatened by an angry mob of students demanding he be fired after he said he would not participate in a campus event in which white students and professors were told to leave the campus for the day.
Rather than disciplining the students, the college’s president thanked the protesters and rewarded them with concessions.