An Education in Representation

The Wall Street Journal's Magazine, Asian Underrepresentation, and Race at Juilliard

In the Juilliard feature for the Wall Street Journal’s lifestyle magazine, many of the featured students are non-white. Each division is represented. The group seems diverse. Except, that is, for one glaring omission: none of them identify as Asian or Asian American.

It is possible to sit in Juilliard’s Student Multipurpose Room and not see any students. To the southwest, a wall of glass looks out onto the Illumination Lawn, the Pool through the windows of Lincoln Ristorante, and the tops of the trees in the Grove. To the northwest, windows overlook a rarely used walkway and the wide chasm between the SMR and the Student Lounge. Far from the barefoot dancers, rowdy opera singers and discordant practice rooms, this room is where ‘contained’ events at Juilliard take place; opening night receptions, closed faculty meetings, Juilliard ‘Spotlight’ video shoots, and visiting therapy dogs all find safe haven here.

One Monday in December, the day after the first snow flurries of the season, The Wall Street Journal set up shop in the SMR. Two representatives from WSJ. Magazine (tagline: “The Luxury of Choice”), accompanied by an assistant from the Juilliard Development & Public Affairs office, individually met with students during an “open call” for a forthcoming feature on “the people at Juilliard who make it what it is.”

Some students and observers have cried foul on just that: who makes Juilliard what it is, and who decides?

The piece, titled “An Education,” which ran online April 3 (behind a paywall) and in the April issue of the print edition, featured 11 students from across the three divisions. Photographed in various locations around Juilliard, the actors, dancers and musicians are dressed in mostly borrowed clothes, identified by brand in the captions. An Alexander McQueen sweater. A Burberry belt. Prada pants. An Alexander Wang long-sleeve bodysuit. A Gucci vest. In the online version, prices accompany the captions. $3,565. $285. $550. $160. $2,300. “I definitely wasn’t expecting to walk into a room with all this wardrobe. There was so much—clothes, shoes, jewelry,” said Katherine Turner (Drama ’20).

The students look as serious and self-possessed as any model might. “It was so professional,” said Jeffery Miller (Jazz ’18). In the print edition, an introductory paragraph tells of the school’s history, its current leadership transition, and its prestige. The photographs are accompanied by quotes from the students about their hopes, gratitude, passions and crafts. “I thought it was cool that it was more than just pictures,” said Turner. “They get to have a little snippet of who I am as an artist.”

“Wait. Wait, where are the Asians?” —Mosa Tsay (Music ’18)

Many of the featured students are non-white. Each division is represented. The group seems diverse.

Except, that is, for one glaring omission: none of them identify as Asian or Asian American. This school year at Juilliard, one out of every three college students identifies as being primarily of Asian ethnicity. In undergraduate music, ethnically Asian students are the majority. According to the Admissions office, of the 5,500 applicants for next year’s graduate and undergraduate classes who chose to respond, “nearly 20% identified as Asian or Asian/Pacific Islander.”

Given that large population, Fala Chen (Drama ’18) was “expecting to see some Asian faces.” Connor Kim (Music ’18), a first-generation Korean American, called the piece a “blatant misrepresentation,” adding that it “just provides an excuse to dampen our existence.” When Mosa Tsay (Music ’18) scrolled to the end of the article, she thought, “Wait. Wait, where are the Asians?” Tsay said Asian success at Juilliard “is a source of pride,” noting how in Taiwan, she often encounters people who respect Juilliard and are familiar with Taiwanese alumni like the renowned violinist Cho-Liang Lin. The oversight bothered and puzzled her and many students of Asian descent. “Is it because they’ve never set foot in Juilliard?” she wondered of the editors. It’s possible that those who made the final selection hadn’t.

Tsay was taken aback by her own reaction. “I felt sick to my stomach, confused, and as though someone had ignored me,” she wrote. Tsay, who is of Taiwanese descent, took Asian American courses during undergrad at UC Berkeley, where ongoing conversations introduced her to ideas of ‘Otherness’ and ‘Forever Foreigners.’ It’s not a conversation that she hears happening at Juilliard, she said.

Outrage and baffled curiosity didn’t come only from the students of Asian descent. “It saddened me greatly to see the lack of Asian and Asian-American representation,” wrote one Caucasian student who participated in the shoot. The student didn’t know who would be in the final roster of featured students. “I am still very grateful for being a part of the WSJ article,” posted Taylor Massa (Dance ’20), one of the featured students, “however I am disappointed with the total exclusion of any Asian students.”

Many saw “An Education” as a positive representation of African American students at Juilliard; almost half of the featured students were African American. While some African American students saw it as positive representation, they, too, wondered where the Asian representation was. “It was great to see us represented in such a dope way,” said Miller; but when it came to the Magazine’s choice not to include students of Asian descent, he asked, “How do you miss that?” Turner also appreciated the representation of African American students like herself. She and her family thought it was “super-cool,” but, she added, “it would have also been cool to see people of Asian descent.”

Some students dealt with their frustration by contacting those responsible for the piece. Carlos Avila (BM ’08, MM ’10), a Filipino American alum, sent a letter to the editorial section of The Wall Street Journal, and said that “leaving us out completely in a piece designed to represent the school” was irresponsible.

Tsay tweeted to @WSJMag on April 9, asking, “Was this intentional, to not photograph any Asian students?” Following the advice of one of her professors, she had written an email to Thomas Gebremedhin, the writer of the article, on April 3. She told Gebremedhin that the lack of Asian representation “struck me surprisingly hard in the gut.” She sent a follow-up on April 10. Later, Tsay said she had felt “stuck in this kind of gray area of wanting to do something but not wanting to be perceived to be angry or irrational or emotional.”

Neither Tsay nor Avila have received responses from The Wall Street Journal, WSJ. Magazine or anyone involved outside Juilliard. “Maybe I wasn’t angry enough,” said Tsay.

closed call

33 students in total attended the ‘open call’ in December. “It was a very quick process to just take your picture and write down your major and go and see if you’re asked to come for the shoot,” said Turner.

Many music students were unaware of the opportunity because they hadn’t been informed about it. Tsay, too, hadn’t received an email about it. “It wasn’t really an ‘open call,’ in that respect,” she said.

The PR request from WSJ. Magazine had been forwarded to department heads, so relaying the invitation to students was up to their discretion. Dance, Drama, Historical Performance, Jazz, and Vocal Arts students received the information, but the Music Division as a whole did not. “We get dozens of PR requests every year, and quite honestly this one slipped by me,” wrote Dean Adam Meyer, Director of the Music Division.

Alexandra Day, Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communications, oversaw the communication between WSJ. Magazine and the students. “We don’t email the student body directly with PR requests, which I have to agree with, even, as a PR person. Because otherwise, you would hear from me probably every 10 days while you’re trying to study, right? So I think that’s an appropriate workflow.” She added that she respects an individual department head’s “prerogative to not bother their students with something like that.”

It might be easy, then, to blame the school for not reaching out to departments where there are more Asian students. However, four students of Asian descent attended the initial meeting, and noting the lack of representation, Day’s office submitted photos of eight additional students, four of whom were of Asian descent. So, in the end, the portfolio of possible students had an Asian percentage close to the school’s applicant pool: nearly 20%. “I can really say, with confidence and pride, we presented a nice section of the student body,” said Day. “In my experience, it really varies by outlet how much you can control or not. We didn’t have say in that in this piece.”

So then, how did it happen that WSJ. Magazine neglected to select any student who identifies as Asian or Asian American?

Many assume the Asian students weren’t selected because of conscious or unconscious bias. One student wrote, “I’m a whitewash Asian so they probably would have picked me for their Asian demographic.” (‘Whitewashed,’ when referring to people, can be a perjorative term for non-white people who ‘act’ or ‘look’ white.)

Availability may have played a part in the decision, since editors were given access to the students’ schedules. As a policy, students aren’t pulled from class for PR opportunities. Indeed, one Asian student who attended the initial meeting had very few breaks during the day. However, one student of Chinese descent whose photo was considered had nothing official scheduled on the day of the shoot.

“I hesitate to assign motive in this instance, or subconscious neglect, because of how complicated it was for them logistically. I don’t want to make excuses for them, either,” said Day.

“…the black-white binary continues to be the dominant frame by which Americans see race relations in this country. In that kind of frame, Asians are expendable, or they get used as the butt of an easy joke.” —Ian Shin

Turner argued that every choice makes a statement. “So, I’m curious as to what kind of statement they were trying to make in who they chose.” The incident made many people interviewed for this article consider what diversity means inside and outside Juilliard. Sometimes, the “gatekeepers to mainstream visibility…think diversity is just black and white,” said Turner. However, she said, ethnic and racial “diversity is black, white, Asian, Latino, Native American. The list goes on.”

Ian Shin, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer who teaches Asian American history at Bates College, wrote that “the black-white binary continues to be the dominant frame by which Americans see race relations in this country. In that kind of frame, Asians are expendable, or they get used as the butt of an easy joke.” He said it was up to Juilliard students to decide whether the piece was offensive or not. “But I do think it was intellectually lazy,” he said.

Whatever it was, the selection process remains unclear. It’s possible those who chose the featured students “never set foot in Juilliard.” The Citizen-Penguin has made multiple requests for comment, and none have been granted. Calls were made, emails were sent, LinkedIn connections were requested and tweets were tweeted to those involved outside Juilliard, including the publisher’s office of WSJ. Magazine, Sarah Schmidt (a managing editor at The Wall Street Journal), Thomas Gebremedhin (the writer of “An Education” and an associate editor at WSJ. Magazine) and even representatives of Zoë Gunter, the photographer. Each request received no response or was delegated elsewhere. Even one Juilliard administrator has received no response to their own follow-up attempt.

human-interest Burberry ad

Though some of the featured students were aware that it would be a fashion-heavy piece, some were surprised. Avery Amereau (Artist Diploma in Opera Studies ’17), who was “humbled” to be included, also wished for a more in-depth piece. “I had the impression it would be like an arts/human-interest piece,” she wrote. “It was more of a fashion advertisement with catch phrases. I say that with complete respect; my opinion is that it could have been a lot deeper.” Chen also hoped for a deeper view into life at Juilliard. “You hear, ‘Oh, you’re a Juilliard student.’ There’s a certain mystique that comes with that name.”

Day often encounters the question of control in the “earned media” space while advising students and alumni on matters of press. (Earned media could be a feature, interview, or review—any press granted by an outside publication or media outlet where Juilliard doesn’t have final say in how the piece appears.) “Would I have rather had thoughtful pieces that were not about fashion? Personally, yes,” said Day. “We wouldn’t have had coverage in The Wall Street Journal in that case. That’s a choice. And I think that’ll be a choice for our artists as they are approached by various outlets that say, ‘We’d like to feature you in these ways.’”

Earned media doesn’t always go well. Day once worked for an opera star, and remembered a feature that turned out to be more fashion-focused than the star expected. “And she kind of sighed and said, ‘You know, would I have wanted them to focus on the price of my Burberry jacket? No. Am I happy that someone who now sees my name and thinks they might buy a ticket and go to their first ever opera as a result?’ That was enough for her. It wouldn’t be for everyone, I guess.”

“For as long as I’m here, I don’t think I’ll ever really shy away unless I consider it a high risk.” —Alexandra Day

Misses notwithstanding, Day still believes in the power of earned media. “For as long as I’m here, I don’t think I’ll ever really shy away unless I consider it a high risk,” she said. She thinks coverage is particularly important in the current political climate, where arts funding is constantly being threatened and coverage of the arts is dwindling. “It’s not only overall representation, as in, ‘Is this accurate? Is this who we are?’ But also, ‘Are you paying attention to us at all?’” She sees Juilliard President Joseph Polisi as an example of someone who uses press opportunities for Juilliard as an opportunity to serve as an ambassador for the arts in general. She said, “I want people to be thinking about the value of the arts, as cheesy as that sounds.”

Still, wrote Day, earned media can be “a lot trickier, since we can’t control how the press represents Juilliard (or any institution).” When it comes to things Juilliard can control, though, she wrote, “We strive to celebrate the entire Juilliard community in all that we do.”

Asian representation in the media

Beyond just representing Juilliard’s diversity, the feature’s lack of Asian representation indicated what some see as a problem in the media at large. One Chinese student was disappointed in the choice to include no students of Asian descent because news outlets like The Wall Street Journal purport to reflect our society’s values. “It’s not the right thing to do,” she said. “A mainstream media leader such as The Wall Street Journal should have thought about it more.” Day said artists and institutions are still dependent upon those media leaders. “The world still relies on the platinum-tier outlets, like the Times or the Journal to create that buzz or awareness,” she said.

Many note the absence of Asian faces in much of American Fashion. “Why are Asians or Asian Americans largely invisible in the world of fashion?” wondered Tsay. “That’s really at the heart of it for me.”

Mandy Dyonne Lieveld, a coach for runway models who led a workshop at Juilliard last year, wrote that “in print you see more and more Asian models,” citing Armani’s recent ads as an example. The runway is improving, too, said Lieveld. A trend towards what are considered “unique and different looks” has opened doors for diversity. Economics have helped, too; Victoria’s Secret runway shows had no Asian models in 2009, but one year after opening shop in China in 2015, their runway shows had four Asian models, Lieveld notes.

“I mean, it’s simply about time that we have more Asian faces across all media, be it in print, on screen or on stage.” —Fala Chen (Drama ’18)

But, said Lieveld, in terms of a perfect “reflection of society…we’re still not there yet.”

Chen sees hope ahead for Asian representation in the media. “The growing spending-powers in Asian markets, the Chinese market especially, makes it inevitable that Asian faces will be in higher demand.… I mean, it’s simply about time that we have more Asian faces across all media, be it in print, on screen or on stage.” Shin, too, sees increased awareness and hope in the media in the form of an increasing amount of “some really smart portrayals that play with and challenge stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans.”

an emerging conversation

“An Education” made students wonder about ways in which minorities interact inside and outside Juilliard. In the outside world, the dominant group in many societies often holds onto power by pitting subdominant groups against each other. A recent New York Magazine op-ed by Andrew Sullivan wondered why African Americans couldn’t assimilate into American society as well as Asian Americans could, despite the fact that both had suffered hardships; the piece accepts the idea of the ‘Model Minority‘ as a premise. Kat Chow of Code Switch at NPR wrote in response to the op-ed that “at the root of Sullivan’s pernicious argument is the idea that black failure and Asian success cannot be explained by inequities and racism, and that they are one and the same; this allows a segment of white America to avoid any responsibility for addressing racism or the damage it continues to inflict.” She calls the ‘Model Minority’ myth a “classic and tenacious conservative strategy.”

“Slowly, I see individuals, whether it be digitally or in person…trying to knock down those walls…We have to all be vying for each other.” —Katherine Turner (Drama ’20)

Turner has observed walls between Asian and African American communities outside Juilliard, but notes a shift. “Slowly, I see individuals, whether it be digitally or in person…trying to knock down those walls…We have to all be vying for each other.” To fully knock down those walls, Turner points to a need for deeper change than simply filling quotas. “I want to go to the root of the issue and start to show these communities—Black, Latino, Asian, whatever it might be—that you’re not limited, you know? Or, you’re not excluded from this. If this is something you’re interested in, you can pursue it, train in it, and continue on in your life in it.”

Inside Juilliard, Turner doesn’t see those walls, but notes that there could be more encounters between communities.

Tsay remembers one quiet evening at Juilliard when “everyone was either practicing or at home.” She was sitting by the windows on the fifth floor, overlooking Broadway, with her headphones in. After a while, two African American students sat next to her and started catching up. Their conversation caught her ear when they started talking about microaggressions: insensitive things being said in the classroom, repeatedly not getting called on even though their hands were raised, and not being able to express themselves fully in a group setting. Tsay thought, “‘Wow. This stuff is really happening.’” She didn’t want to admit she had been eavesdropping, but she had wanted to say, “‘I hear you, and I’m so sorry that this is happening.’” She added that those conversations are happening around campus, but they tend to stay between members of the same groups.

Tsay said she often catches herself worried that starting conversations around race might make people uncomfortable. “I think it’s okay. I think they understand, too.” Shin credits these conversations as the source of a recent increase in awareness around Asian representation. “It’s happened because Asian Americans like Constance Wu, along with their allies, have spoken up and demanded fairer treatment,” said Shin. “In that vein, I think it’s great that Juilliard students are raising these issues and challenging a situation that they see as unfair.”

The more Tsay has tried to “figure out” race, or what it means to be Asian American, the more she feels like she’s “looking into this black hole…being drawn into something [she doesn’t] understand.” But that’s not stopping her.

“It’s all very nuanced, and I think it’s just healthy to keep asking questions,” said Tsay. “And that’s what I’m going to keep doing, until someone answers them.”

One thought on “An Education in Representation”

  1. This omission does seem to represent a failure to think through the impact of unbalanced reporting. I am, however, more offended that the follow up from students and faculty yielded no responses. That is just plain rude.

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