From The Telegraph:
An acclaimed British conductor has been fired from a prestigious American music festival after a seemingly innocent joke he made to a black friend was labelled racist.
Matthew Halls was removed as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival following an incident in which he imitated a southern American accent while talking to his longstanding friend, the African-American classical singer Reginald Mobley.
It is understood a white woman who overheard the joke reported it to officials at the University of Oregon, which runs the festival, claiming it amounted to a racial slur.
"I'm the subject of a falsified story, without having the chance to have my say," he said. "My voice has been taken away in a conversation about race that involved me, and technically that's racist." - Reginald Mobley
Apparently the scandalous moment occurred in August during an Oregon Bach Festival reception. Mobley and Halls were engaged in a private conversation, and the subject turned to a concert in London in which Mobley had performed.
The singer, who was born and raised in the southern state of Florida, said the concert had an "antebellum" feel to it, of the sort associated with Gone With the Wind and other rose-tinted representations of the pre-Civil War south.
In response Mobley says that Halls "apologised on behalf of England", before putting on an exaggerated southern accent and joking: "Do you want some grits?", in a reference to the ground corn dish popular in the south.
"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," said 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."
But the singer suspects that a white woman who overheard their conversation and spoke to him moments later went on to report it to the university, alleging Halls had made a racist joke.
Maybe the white woman figured grits + Southern accent = racism, but it's more likely Halls' comments should be filed under "anti-racist." After all, he does seem to be poking fun at England and the American South. (If you're looking for a clear-cut case of a black-white pair of friends basking in racial humor and getting busted by those within earshot at an Oregon campus, check out this Lewis & Clark case.)
Oregon University investigated the incident, but Mobley says he was not asked to weigh in. Perhaps university officials felt it was unimportant to interview the black target of the allegedly racist joke. Perhaps the testimony of the eavesdropping white woman was sufficient.
[Mobley] says there is a deep irony in the fact the authorities appear to have assumed on his behalf that he would have objected to the joke.
"I'm the subject of a falsified story, without having the chance to have my say," he said. "My voice has been taken away in a conversation about race that involved me, and technically that's racist."
Mobley says he appreciates the efforts of some white people to confront racism, but warns them about jumping to conclusions.
"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."
Then again, maybe it's all cool because the university insists it's "incorrect" that the joke had anything to do with firing Halls (the same Halls the university had lavished with a contract extension two months prior to booting him.)