Ashkan Forouzani

Dear America, I’m Afraid to Speak

Mehr Naz
5 min readAug 11, 2020


I was 20 years old when I left Iran for a new life in Canada. When my plane landed in Montreal, I entered a strange new world where I was free to speak my mind. In an authoritarian theocracy like Iran, I was always fearful and learned to try to keep my mouth shut. One wrong word could lead to shaming, punishment, or arrest. Freedom took some getting used to. But eventually, my fears melted away and a new, uncensored, outspoken self emerged.

In 2014, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA in Acting degree at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. During my three years there, I met students from every conceivable background. This was a place where we bared our souls, shared our stories, and relished our differences. It’s hard to imagine a more open, free, and welcoming place. We were all loved despite our imperfections and were forgiven for our shortcomings.

Now, something has changed. It all started on June 1st, 2020, when the dean of the school sent a letter expressing solidarity with George Floyd and other victims of police violence. Some alumni responded by criticizing both the letter and the school for failing its non-white students. The school arranged two town halls to discuss the complaints. The first town hall went well. Eighty-plus faculty, administrators, alumni, and students discussed how to make the school more effective for Black students. However, the second town hall, on June 24th, took a strange turn.

An alumna revealed that eleven years ago when the dean was a professor, he had dated an undergraduate student. The student wasn’t there, but the alumna claimed to have permission to share her story. The Zoom audience reacted with confused silence. The alumna called him “a sexual predator” and demanded he step down. Two male faculty members asked the dean to leave the Zoom meeting because they felt that some women might not feel safe speaking in his presence. He left, and the town-hall-turned-trial continued for three more hours.

I couldn’t fathom the logic behind asking the dean to step down because he dated a student when he was a professor eleven years ago. Dating students, while never a good idea, was not against the USC rules in 2009. Why call him “predator” for what appeared to be a consensual relationship? In any case, a Zoom town hall was not the place to resolve such a matter. The dean was adored and respected by nearly everyone at the school, or so I thought. A mistake many years ago could not undo all the good he had done for our little community of artists. And more importantly, we didn’t even have enough evidence nor the qualification to judge him. Yet no one, including myself, spoke up in his defense. A few participants did try to ask some clarifying questions, but their points of view were immediately suppressed. The person who created the MFA program (and had since retired) was present and tried to speak up, but was immediately shut down by an alumna because the student believed he was interrupting her, which she attributed to him wielding his white privilege. One student was even muted by a faculty member. I stared at the screen in stunned silence and watched our once adored professor and dean being humiliated, denounced, and (metaphorically) executed. All of this on the basis of inflated information from a second-hand source.

The next day, the dean resigned and USC started an investigation. Sensational and fact-free articles appeared in the press. The Los Angeles Times interviewed only one alumna — and she was not even present at the town hall. The alumna compared the dean to the former USC gynecologist George Tyndall, who was accused of sexual abuse by nearly 18,000 women (University of Southern California). She stated, “Bridel was part of a ‘culture of abuse’ that USC has yet to address.” The young alumna was a patient of Tyndall’s, therefore concluded that the dean must be coming from the same culture. The LA Times reporter accepted that comparison without question, and gave readers a story drained of all complexity and humanity. The article was so full of half-truths and innuendo, I can’t avoid using two terms I absolutely dislike — “click-bait” and “fake news”.

I attended these town halls to support my community and Black Lives Matter. It was clear that the school could do more to support the Black community and students of color, and I was excited that these town halls would lead to positive changes. However, the accusations against the dean distracted us from that purpose. So why didn’t I, or anyone, else speak out? For one thing, those who accused the dean made it seem that by questioning the attack on the dean, we were betraying Black Lives Matter. Furthermore, specific words such as “sexual predator”, were used to trigger those with a history of sexual trauma. I am a sexual assault survivor myself, and because of my traumas, I recognize the power of triggering words. One more thing: as the accusation of the dean grew louder and more emotional, it became clear that any faculty who defended him might well share his fate. Who wants to jeopardize their job security, especially in the midst of a pandemic, by speaking up and asking questions?

As someone with a direct acquaintance with fanaticism, I know how easy it is to create fear through intimidation, trigger words, emotional manipulation, and groupthink. In Iran, I myself have been punished by “moral police”, and have witnessed completely innocent people being shamed, whipped, and imprisoned. The dean was our scapegoat — someone we sacrificed to symbolize our fervent commitment to social justice. In that town hall environment, dissenting voices demanding mercy, kindness, or understanding — or just human decency — became nearly impossible.

This painful episode has awakened my old fears. That voice inside my head has returned: keep your mouth shut. But wait, I keep telling myself, this is not Iran. This is Los Angeles, California — and the drama school is a community of enlightened artists.

A few days after the town hall, I decided I had to speak out to share my concerns, but some advised me to keep quiet. They agreed that though it may not have been technically fair, I shouldn’t say anything. I was also told, “So what if the dean was called a predator and lost his position, he’ll be fine. He is a white man.” I understand the anger and disappointment of people about our systems, but I truly believe that we can do better. Justice cannot be achieved through injustice. The path of moral absolutism might be paved with good intentions, but it ends up leading to hell. These are sensitive and complex times we are living in, and I wish us all to go through this period with grace, courage, and love.