When someone engage in racism or stereotyping, they usually defend themselves by saying "It's just a [fill in the blank]": a movie, a joke, a satire. The following posting effectively debunks the "it's just a..." defense:
by guest contributor Jeff Yang
Hot on the heels of that whole Rosie mess, some of you may have heard of the flap over the Daily Princetonian's publication of a parody op-ed, supposedly from a student named "Lian Ji," in their annual "joke edition" of the student paper. Here's a brief excerpt from "Princeton University Is Racist Against Me, I Mean, Non-Whites":
Hi Princeton! Remember me? I so good at math and science. Perfect 2400 SAT score. Ring bells? Just in cases, let me refresh your memories. I the super smart Asian. Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me. I get angry and file a federal civil rights complaint against Princeton for rejecting my application for admission.
And yeah, the spelling and broken English goes on. And on. And on. Along with references to doing laundry, working railroads, dog eating, etc.
That said, it wasn't the op-ed alone that goosed my gander–it was the post-publication spin. Faced with a firestorm of controversy over the supposed satire, the Daily Princetonian's Managing Board (who collaboratively wrote the op-ed) responded with an editor's note of surpassing arrogance:
Since publishing Wednesday's joke issue, we have learned that some of our readers were offended by a column satirizing Asian stereotypes. The response surprised us: We did not seek to offend, and we sincerely regret having upset some of our readers.
Many criticisms of the column, however, do not recognize its purpose. Using hyperbole and an unbelievable string of stereotypes, we hoped to lampoon racism by showing it at its most outrageous. We embraced racist language in order to strangle it. At its worst, the column was a bad joke; at its best, it provoked serious thought about issues of race, fairness and diversity.
The column in question was penned by a diverse group of students — including several Asians on our senior editorial staff — who had no malicious intent. Given our purpose, we are deeply troubled by and reject the allegation of racism.
We welcome debate about our column, especially in the pages of this newspaper. We hope our readers will see the column for what it is.
Chanakya Sethi '07, editor-in-chief; Christian Burset '07, Neir Eshel '07, Anna Huang '07, Nancy Khov '07, Alex Maugeri '07, Tom Senn '07 and Ellen Young '07, Editors, 130th Managing Board"
Now, okay, these are kids. They have room to grow and learn. Most of them will go into fields that have little to do with media or entertainment or journalism. But regardless of what industry they decide to join, they've got to understand that this kind of post facto rationalization, what one might term the Rosie Carolla Defense, never flies.
"We have learned…the response surprised us"? Uh…guys, you couldn't have guessed that some of your readers would be offended? How tone-deaf can you possibly be? Dave Chappelle and Sasha Baron Cohen and other line-pushing comics can be offensive (though arguably, that's in service of a larger message they're trying to convey); they are, however, absolutely aware that in doing so some, if not all, of their viewers will be offended. That's their job as humorists–to get people uncomfortable, so that they have an emotional reactin (and if they learn something, cool–but at least they won't walk out with the same blank sheet of paper they walked in with). Bottom line: Don't write any reality checks you don't have the cojones to cash, comprende?
Sadly, the DP Board failed to even think it through that far–they just assumed that everyone would get it, because, you know, Princetonians are funny. Like Bill Bradley, he's hilarious. And Brooke Shields. My sides hurt.
And then there's the creative un-apology that follows: "Many criticisms of the column, however, do not recognize its purpose…we hoped to lampoon racism by showing it at its most outrageous. We embraced racist language in order to strangle it. At its worst, the column was a bad joke; at its best, it provoked serious thought about issues of race, fairness and diversity."
Reading this made my teeth ache. Translation: "You didn't laugh, because you didn't understand/have no sense of humor/are dumb and ugly and should die."
Once more, the Rosie Carolla Defense rears its ugly head. Why is it always the least subtle, least inventive, most humor-challenged "comedians" who accuse other people of not having a sense of funny? Worse yet, these kids didn't just see their essay as thigh-slappin' high-larious. It was also supposed to "provoke serious thought"…good grief.
The editorial continues with some ethnic figleafing (noting that there are several Asians on the senior edit staff, including, presumably, the editor in chief) and then this kicker: "Given our purpose, we are deeply troubled by and reject the allegation of racism."
Highfalutin' SAT words, but again, all in service of the Rosie Carolla Defense. First they apologize for hurting your feelings. Then they imply that if your feelings are hurt, it's because you suck. Then they say their feelings were hurt because you called them on their crap. Then they reject your argument out of hand, because, you know, it's not what they said, it's what they intended that matters.
Or, to put it another way: "I didn't mean to crush your head with this two-by-four. I meant to tickle you with it, even though I swung it with both hands as hard as I could and aimed at your temple. The reason you didn't laugh is because you have a thin skull. And I reject your allegation that you were hurt, because it was not my intent to cause you multiple fractures and brain damage. Finally, by accusing me of hurting you, you hurt my feelings, so really, I'm the victim here–beeyotch!"
The note's conclusion, referring to the board's "regrettable mistake" (e.g., believing that other people had as brilliant a sense of humor as themselves) and requesting a "constructive debate on race and race-related issues" is, like most Rosie Carolla un-apologies, too little and too late:
"We threw a grenade into an outhouse, and now we want to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' in the flying fecal matter that has erupted. This guy Jian Li has submitted a suit against the college with the Department of Education. People are already pissed off in 15 directions, at all levels of the administration and faculty and student body. Some Asians think Li has a point. Some think he's a cancer. Lots of white people think exactly what the op-ed piece seemed to suggest–that Asians like Li don't belong, because they get good grades but have no soul, or something. And as the Managing Board of the official daily newspaper of the Princeton campus, we've decided that the best way to create an 'opportunity…for constructive debate' is to run this joke op-ed. Tiger pride, yo! Reprazent!"
Am I being too tough on these kids? Remember that, after the Michael Richards N-bomb flap, Malcolm Gladwell, of "Blink" and "Tipping Point" fame, used his blog to outline a framework for determining if a statement is genuinely racist (I smell a book coming on, Mal). He brings it down to three factors:
* Content: "What is said clearly makes a difference. I think, for example, that hate speech is more hateful the more specific it is. To call someone a n——r is not as a bad as arguing that black people have lower intelligence than whites."
* Intention: "Was the remark intended to wound, or intended to perpetuate some social wrong? Was it malicious?"
* Conviction: "Does the statement represent the individual's considered opinion?"
By these standards, the DP Managing Board gets a pass, right?
I think Gladwell's being reductive, which is, of course, his stock in trade: Simple, universalist answers to highly complex questions.
What he doesn't take into account is that racism isn't solely the province of the speaker; it is shaped by context and colored by the nature of the audience. Assuming that our goal is a civil society, we have a responsibility to understand and acknowledge the reasons why others might see harm in our actions or statements; the harm may not be intended, but if, as the DP Managing Board suggests, flaps such as this offer an opportunity for advancing the dialogue around race and stereotype–well, isn't a dialogue by definition a two-way street? You can't categorically "reject" one party's position, then call for an open debate, can you?
For future Rosie Carollas, here's my personal set of metrics around race and humor–your mileage may vary. Quantifying what's funny and what's offensive is always tricky and sometimes dangerous, as one of my friends pointed out. For instance, most definitions of pornography tend to fall on "you know it when you see it"…not, uh, that I've ever seen it.
But I submit the following as thought starters, if not necessarily rules of engagement–at the least, these are things people should consider before busting out with a questionable and potentially inflammatory statement:
1. If you're using humor as a way of pushing people to think about a situation, by illuminating foibles or disconnects between and within racial groups, you should get some leeway (if not a blank check). I would put a lot of Dave Chappelle's stuff in here, especially things like his "Racial Draft" sketch and his "black Ku Klux Klan member" skit. It's uncomfortable to watch some of it, there're things going on that some people might take offense at, but you get the larger point of the parody–there's a message beyond "look how stupid/cheap/crude/lame etc. [insert ethnic group] is! HAW!"An offensive statement or caricature may just be one stop toward a final destination, and we owe artists, performers, and other creatives some elasticity before jumping on the racism wagon. The problem with Rosie O' Donnell, Adam Carolla, and their ilk is that their jokes tend to be either thoughtless or ad hominem, and they compound their problems with weeks of pathetic, defensive spin.
2. As a kind of addendum to point 1, if you are a member of the racial group you're satirizing, you are in a better position to illuminate said foibles or disconnects–it's at the least a more defensible position, and probably a more informed one. Arguably, it's a position of privilege. I would say that the latter is probably true if you're a member of an ethnic group satirizing that ethnic group in front of a private audience of fellow members of that ethnic group–the room for misinterpretation or unfortunate repurposing is narrowed. Not everyone would agree with this, but it's a practical issue on some level, not a political one.
3. Being funny helps. Again, it's not a blank check, but at the least, if diverse audiences find what you're doing hilarious, at least there's some kind of utility to your shtick, right?
4. If it's a novel take on a topic or situation, well, again, no "get out of jail free," but at least you can stake a claim to breaking new ground. For instance, if someone were to do a sketch about how all Asian men are sexual dynamos, capable of incredible feats of erotic prowess–well, hey, I haven't seen that before. It's a caricature, but it's a new caricature. I personally would not be that offended.
5. Power matters. Sorry. It just does. It's not the same thing when a white, educated, upper-class person makes fun of a nonwhite, less educated, working class person as vice versa.
By these standards, where does the DP's "joke op-ed" stand?
* On point 1., I'd give them a thumbs down. I can't for the life of me see what the larger point of the piece was, or how it's meant to interrogate or satirize stereotypes–I think most readers of any race would assume that the piece is if anything satirizing, you know, Asian people, and in particular, Jian Li, the Yale student who's suing Princeton for reverse discrimination. (The broken English is a big, red X, for one.) This guy Jian Li got a perfect score on his SATs, and he's going to frickin' Yale. Now, say what you will about Yale's quality of education, but no one's going there who doesn't have basic command of, like, articles and prepositions.
* Point 2., also a fail. Sure, there are Asians who are part of the ed board, but that doesn't absolve the non-Asians, and if anything, it makes you kind of wonder what Anna Huang and Chanakya Sethi (and maybe Tom Senn and Ellen Young, who knows) were thinking. This is a piece that was going out under the banner of the Princetonian, and from there, to the world. It should have been read from that perspective before publication–that's the responsibility of an editorial board. When we print this, how, objectively, will it be read and interpreted? What is our message? Is it getting across?If they truly wanted to satirize the Jian Li issue (and the larger notion of Asian "whiz kid" stereotypes), why not write a fake op-ed by, say, a doped-out slacker Asian American dude who's spent the last four years smoking pot and surfing, got straight Ds and 600 on his SATs, but still claims to have been rejected from both Princeton and La Jolla Community College because of "reverse discrimination"? (Though naturally, Yale still accepted him. Rimshot!)
* Point 3. and 4., two more thumbs down. The gags they use are unfunny. Old as rice. And ultimately, at least from my perspective, lame.
* Point 5. Well, Jian Li is far from a poor, uneducated, unable-to-defend-himself individual, but the way the piece is written, it has a distinctly anti-immigrant note to it. The bad fake accent, the "My mom from same province as General Tso. My dad from Kung Pao province" lines, Ugh. When you can't tell parody from racist propaganda, it's time to think hard about what you're doing.
As the puppets in Avenue Q say, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." But if you're smart and you put a foot in it, you admit it, you apologize, you learn something, you move on–you don't jump on a high horse and accuse others of being dense.
If you're not smart, and apparently there's a lot of dumb floating around on Ivy League campuses, you do the Rosie Carolla thing, and turn a tempest in a teapot into Katrina 2.0.
Comment: Excellent posting, Jeff. This issue comes up often in the Native American field. People write an essay or tell a "joke" using Native stereotypes, then defend themselves by saying they were just poking fun at the stereotypes. As I usually respond, if you can't tell the difference between stereotyping and "poking fun at stereotypes," there is no difference.
Responding to a couple of comments on Jeff's essay:
>> My humor button must just be old and rusted, but wouldn't a joke that DEFIES the stereotypes be poking fun? <<
Yes. The proper way to make fun of stereotypes is to actually make fun of them—by defying them, subverting them, turning them inside out. It's a pose to claim you're repeating stereotypes only to mock them. As Jeff wrote, if the humor and intent aren't obvious, you're deluding yourself about your actions. You're stereotyping people whether you think you are or not.
>> Nope, every minority or disenfranchised group gets this — I get it all the time on online forums, and I'm not Asian. <<
Native people get this whenever they protest something too.
Here's an example of the type of complaint I occasionally receive. In this case it happened to be about Mel Gibson's movie The Patriot, but it could've been about anything.
>> Mel Gibson has publicly stated it [The Patriot] was a movie, not a history book. <<
It's always "just a movie." Birth of a Nation was just a movie too. Minstrel shows were just plays. Amos 'n' Andy was just a radio show. Little Black Sambo was just a children's book. "Redskins" is just a sports team name. "Chief Wahoo" is just a sports team logo. "Nigger" is just a word. Etc.
In other words, racism can't occur in the media? And if it does, it's inconsequential by definition? The stupidity of that line of "reasoning" should be obvious.
Racism is racism, however you try to rationalize it. It's wrong because it harms people—because it violates the universal maxim of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The magnitude of the harm is a detail. It doesn't justify doing harm.
Equal opportunity offenders
The harm of Native stereotyping: facts and evidence
"South Park is famous for their stereotypical portrayals of other races. It isn't meant to be offensive, it's meant to be funny."
"You IMBECILE. It's a JOKE."
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