Mathew Halls, an acclaimed British conductor, has been removed from his position as the artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival after imitating a southern American accent while talking to a friend.
Halls made the innocent joke to African-American classical singer Reginald Mobley who is a long time friend of the conductors.
The two had been talking at a reception, held last month during the Oregon Bach Festival, about a concert Mobley, who was born and raised in the southern state of Florida, performed in London.
During the conversation, Mobley said the concert had an “antebellum” feel to it. According to Mobley, Halls responded by apologizing “on behalf of England,” before putting on an exaggerated southern accent and asking: “Do you want some grits?”
According to the Telegraph, a white woman overheard the joke and reported it to officials at the University of Oregon, which runs the festival, while claiming it was a racial slur.
Halls was told shortly after the incident that his four-year contract, which would have run until 2020, was being terminated.
Mobley defended his friend by speaking out on the incident.
“He has been victimised and I’m very upset about it,” he said in an interview with the Telegraph. “It was an innocent joke that has been entirely taken out of context.”
“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,” Mobley explained. “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.”
Although Mobley has spoken out in support of his friend, he was not invited to give evidence for the internal inquiry into the incident.
“I’m the subject of a falsified story, without having the chance to have my say,” Mobley said while saying there is an irony in the fact that authorities have assumed he would have objected to the joke.
“My voice has been taken away in a conversation about race that involved me, and technically that’s racist,” he added.
“Matthew 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,” he continued.
“A lot of our allies have become so eager to help the race and fix the scars they almost go too far,” Mobley explained, possibly in reference to the white woman that reported the joke. “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.”
“It’s well meaning, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions,” he added. “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 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,” said a spokesman for the Oregon Bach Festival in response to the claims. “While I anticipate that more information will be available soon, I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter right now.”
Featured Image Via Flickr/Francis Manguy