KALAMAZOO, Mich. — For Katherine Plier, music is her world. She loves to harmonize, sing, play the keyboard and perform.
“It’s funny actually; when I was adopted the only thing that would calm me down in the hotel lobby in China was the pianist in the lobby,” Plier said during an interview with FOX 17 in mid-March. “My mom would take me down there, and I would just listen and smile. Music has always been the tether, even when I was really young.”
While growing up in Wisconsin, she fell in love with jazz. So, when she was accepted to Western Michigan University’s School of Music to study jazz vocal performance, she was excited to learn and grow.
However, the excitement quickly faded when Plier said she faced racism.
“Well, all of this started with hearing Travon's story. Travon Williams is a Black student who came out with an open letter about his experiences with racism inside the WMU music program, especially inside the jazz program, which is led by an all-white, all-male jazz faculty, which in itself doesn’t really quite make sense,” Plier said. “But, he experienced a lot of discrimination, and students would call him the ’N’ word in the hallways.”
“To the students who are experiencing something like this, I would say first believe yourself.”— Lauren Edwards (@LaurenEdwardsTV) April 2, 2021
Former WMU music student Katherine Plier shares her journey to combat racism at the college (& stand up for justice in Chicago).
Catch her story, & WMU’s side, on @FOX17 at 5p/6p pic.twitter.com/eZTAzhQeG0
Williams detailed this alleged incident and others in an 11-page open letter that went viral on social media last fall. He talked about feeling gaslighted after he pointed out that lyrics to a few songs were offensive and culturally inappropriate. And, when it came to the ’N-word' situation, he described seeking Prof. Greg Jasperse's help to intervene, but he said he was dismissed.
The letter was written to Jasperse, in which Williams stated that his time in his class was “disgusting and traumatizing” and it was the most “disrespectful and degraded” he’s felt in his life.
“It got even worse than that. So, hearing about Travon Williams's story really made me want to tell mine as an Asian female who would dare to take upon leadership roles,” Plier said. “There's something called the bamboo ceiling, which is inspired by the glass ceiling, where if Asian women would take on the experience of leadership, and if we were to be assertive, if we were to be thoughtful, then we would be beaten down because we’re essentially subverting stereotypes.”
Plier said during her junior year she was named music producer for the Gold’s Company show, a major production put on by the program. She arranged 60 percent of the music that year and felt good about her work. However, not everyone applauded.
“At every turn, people were yelling me, fighting me, not giving me the benefit of the doubt, whereas my white peers who were saying the exact same thing in the exact same voice tone in the exact same position were being somehow honored for all of the work that they were doing,” Plier said. “It was a really kind of like a dual experience where I feel like I was being shut out from what my white peers were being able to experience.”
Plier said instances like these happened a number of times. She felt targeted and singled out, even by Jasperse at times, she said. She alleged that he yelled at her at over a vocal blending issue, “stormed” out of the room and, upon return, asked a white student to take over the class that day.
Plier was shocked, she said. However, she grew angry when she saw Jasperse portray himself as an ally to people of color.
“Greg’s hashtag #BikingForBlackLivesMatter was really hard for us to see, and it was actually really the fuel that started Travon’s letter after all the experiences that he had,” Plier said. “It was really gaslighting for us as people of color to go through this program and experience racism and discrimination and then all of sudden see these news agencies touting the same professor who marginalized us.”
FOX 17 was one of the news outlets who aired a story on Jasperse’s efforts to raise awareness and money for the Black Lives Matter movement. The professor was an avid cyclist, and during the summer of 2020, he rode his bike the number of miles that victims, like George Floyd, lived.
"There is a very strong bridge that happens between the idea of solidarity and what allyship can look like in a classroom" ~ says @but_im_kim_tran ... The anti-oppression consultant wrote about it an article titled "How to Call Out an Offensive Professor"— Lauren Edwards (@LaurenEdwardsTV) April 2, 2021
Story at @FOX17 pic.twitter.com/5rnucqOS6V
Plier said watching the stories were hard to stomach. So, she decided to write a letter of her own to the School of Music.
“In this letter, I will be sharing my experiences as the only Asian female vocalist in the Jazz Studies program with sexism, racism, and emotional abuse,” Pliers read while sitting on a bench at Bronson Park.
Plier said she and Williams then tried to meet with Jasperse to remedy the problems. However, she said they walked away feeling dismissed.
She then reported her experiences and the letter—which was signed by 22 other students and professionals in solidarity—to the school’s director, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and then the Office of Institutional Equity, which led to a six-month investigation.
Plier added that the investigation was supposed to last 60 days; however, it went on for six months.
Then she received the following letter on Feb. 4, 2021, which read in part:
“You submitted allegations to the Office of Institutional Equity. As the case advanced and we engaged with the respondent, it triggered a provision in the University’s contract with the WMU-AAUP. Consequently, the review process then followed the provisions of Article 22 in the contract, a legally binding.
In following the process, the outcome is that the respondent was “not found to be responsible for protected class discrimination. In addition, academic leaders have discussed extensively the impact of these experiences and how they can be avoided in the future. As a personnel matter, this is the extent of information I can share.”
Plier was devastated.
“I feel like my story has been thrown away,” Plier said after letting out a deep sigh. “I feel like my story has value, and I know it’s true because I lived it. And there’s so many students and professors who signed my letter who saw this happen, who believed me.”
Kim Tran, who’s an anti-oppression consultant, researcher and author, said this happens all the time.
“One of the unfortunate realities in the American legal system and of course the educational system and higher education is no different, is that we define racism very specifically. You have to have intent,” Tran said during a Zoom interview in late March. “We saw this with the Atlanta shooting very recently that the shooter said it wasn’t racially motivated, and for some odd reason a lot of people are believing that. So, one of the issues within these claims when students file them, staff file them, is that we’re looking for intentionally, motivated, explicit forms of racism, and race plain and simply doesn’t work that way.”
Kim Tran is based in California and works with universities and colleges about matters like what Plier experienced. A few years ago, she wrote an article for VICE Media titled How to Call Out an Offensive Professor in which she details the emotional and psychological burdens students endure on college campuses due to racism and discrimination.
Specifically, Tran highlighted a 2015 Racial Microaggressions study conducted at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign that surveyed 4,800 students about their experiences with racism on campus. The study found that 51 percent have experienced stereotypes on campus and close to 40 percent have felt uncomfortable because of their race.
“This is a really good example of why we can combat these things at the university level and why it needs to be combated because universities are a really good example of how power functions in the world,” Tran said. “So, the fact that students are saying, 'I’m getting stereotyped and people are making uncomfortable comments,' well you can be rest assured that everyday people just in their everyday lives are experiencing the same thing.”
Tran said since racism, sexism and marginalization works on the institutional, interpersonal and individual levels, the training and healing needs to be on those levels as well.
“I want universities to have robust anti-discrimination and harassment policies,” said Tran, who earned her doctorate in African American and Ethnic Studies from University of California at Berkeley. “We’ve been undermining things like Title IX for a very long time. They don’t really have teeth. We don’t really know what to do when someone files a Title IX claim, and there are very few advocates on campus even for Title IX claims.”
She said there needs to be a shift in policy at universities.
FOX 17 reached out to Jasperse for an interview or comment, and he emailed the following “statement of truth”:
“Western Michigan University's Office of Institutional Equity conducted a thorough investigation and the claims of Katherine Plier were not supported by the record. The concluding letter states that I was "not found to be responsible for protected class discrimination."
The claims were taken very seriously by me, by the College of Fine Arts and the University, as well as the Office of Institutional Equity. The situation was thoroughly studied and the investigators determined that the allegations were unsupported and that Katherine was not denied opportunities on the basis of race or gender.
As for myself, I abhor all forms of discrimination, racial or otherwise. I am a gay man and not unfamiliar with the damage and hurt caused by discrimination. My commitment to listening and learning in order to do better remains steadfast.”
FOX 17 also reached out to WMU and they stated:
"WMU’s commitment to providing an educational environment that embraces respect and inclusion. This is more than words. We are taking action. For example, the School of Music is in the process of developing a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic action plan, which will engage faculty and also engage external DEI expertise.
The University has begun the work at the institutional level of addressing inequities through the Racial Justice Advisory Committee, with financial support for institutional-level DEI initiatives made by the president through his Mountaintop Initiatives fund. In addition, the second cohort of the Professional Development Institute for Cultural Competencies will begin in May 2021."
Plier said she wanted the university to do more in her situation. In March, she shared her story with WMU’s Board of Trustees. Nevertheless, she hopes her story inspires others to tell their stories and fight for change when they face racism and discrimination at school.
“When I released my letter, I also released it for change. I want students in the future to be able to have their stories heard and have real action be taken in order to protect the students who are experiencing discrimination,” Plier said. “There needs to be actual protection that takes a critical look at universities, at these institutions, and say, ‘I believe your story and I’m not going to silence you any longer.’”