These were the words that came out of Letitia Chai’s mouth as she delivered her college scholar thesis on the integration of refugees into host communities Saturday morning.
The Cornell student stripped down to her bra and panties as she uttered these words, and was joined by 28 of her 44 classmates. Chai’s derobing was in protest to a comment her professor had made about Chai’s clothing choices during a trial run of her presentation earlier that week.
“The first thing that the professor said to me was ‘is that really what you would wear?” Chai explained of professor Rebekah Maggor, according to The Cornell Daily Sun. Chai was wearing a blue button-down top and a pair of cutoff denim shorts and told the student newspaper she “was so taken aback” by Maggor’s question that she “didn’t really know how to respond.”
Chai described that Maggor’s specific criticism was that Chai’s shorts were “too short” and that she was “making a statement” with her outfit choice. The situation escalated when a male student said during discussion that the speaker has a “moral obligation” to her audience to dress conservatively during a thesis presentation. Chai left the room.
“I am not responsible for anyone’s attention because we are capable of thinking for ourselves and we have agency,” Chai told the student newspaper.
When she returned for the final thesis speech presentation, she wore the same outfit as before, but then proceeded to undress in protest of “oppressive beliefs and discrimination,” according to The New York Daily News.
She was emotional in a livestream of the presentation, telling the 28 students who also undressed, “Honestly, I’m floored by your support. For those of you who are totally confused by the scale and size of what is going on, on Wednesday I sent out a plea for solidarity, solidarity with individuals like myself who have been asked to question ourselves — specifically, our appearance for the comfort of others. … For years, we’ve made excuses for unacceptable behavior.”
According to The Sun, 11 of the other 13 students in the class wrote a statement clarifying the situation. They expressed their support for Chai, noting that they did not mean to discredit her narrative, but did not agree with her account of what went down.The students wrote that once Chai had initially left the room, Maggor, “apologized [to the class] for her choice of words” and acknowledged that “the notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage.”
“[Maggor’s] focus on attire was a means of noting the importance of professionalism in certain public speaking situations,” the students wrote. “After Letitia left … [Maggor] apologized for her choice of words, acknowledging that the notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage. Unfortunately, because Letitia was not in the room, she was not able to hear these comments, and we believe this contributed to the miscommunication.”
“[Maggor] is a gift to Cornell,” it continued, adding that the students felt a since-deleted Facebook post Chai wrote about the incident did not “adequately represent [Maggor’s] past and continued advocacy for women and minorities” and that Maggor had “apologized on more than one occasion.”