Asians Behaving Badly: Tufts University

(Hat-Tip: Asian Pacific Americans for Progress)

In a way, on-campus student body elections are a telling glimpse into how important political strategists and marketing people are for politics; every fall semester, we get to see just what happens when a bunch of folks try to run their very own campaigns for campus senate/assembly/etc. Twenty, even thirty, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wannabe politicians (who think being an elected representative will look great on their law school apps) break out the Crayola chalk and colourful Xeroxs to advertise why they deserve your vote for student representative.

I’m no stranger to the whole process. Electroman ran twice for Cornell University’s student assembly. Once, as a freshman representative, he garnered the most votes of anyone in the race (a vote total virtually unheard of at the time, too!) — all with a risque campaign slogan (“Give a Damn!”) a willingness to skip every class he had for two weeks, and an expensive oil-based chalking that remained on the sidewalk long after the votes were cast (courtesy of yours truly). After his first term as a freshman rep, Electroman gained greater notoriety running as an At-Large representative, the hardest race for student reps to win because they couldn’t limit their campaigning to a single college, but to the entire student body (thus they required a greater number of votes in general in order to win). Electroman came in second after a guy named Uzo (there were four At-Large seats total, so Electroman still got elected in)– and let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to win an on-campus race against a guy armed with buckets of chalk whose name is “Uzo”.

Like a microcosm of real world politics, the name of the game for on-campus elections is distinguishing oneself from the pack. “Uzo” had a distinctive name, Electroman had a great campaign slogan, and others performed on-campus stunts like driving around  in a car emblazoned with his name bassing popular hip-hop music as students left class. One guy campaigned on an all-gyro (yes, the Greek food) platform.

And some minority candidates, seduced by the circus of student campaigns, go racial.

Cornell Republican candidates delighted in writing racist articles in the on-campus student newspaper version of Fox News, attacking Cornell’s minority program houses and lambasting African American studies professors. One Asian American candidate capitalized on the popularity of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and adopted the campaign slogan “Crouching [First Name], Hidden [Last Name]” (which, when put together with her actual name, sounded disturbingly like an advertisement for an all-nude strip club).

And this year, at Tufts University, one freshman Asian American candidate named Alice Pang, in her zeal to be elected to the school’s student Senate, put up posters with the campaign slogan: “Small Person. Big Ideas.”  Next to Pang’s photo, she also wrote “hurrah!”

tufts-posters1

Clearly, Pang is trying to distinguish herself with a play on her status as a vertically challenged person. “She’s little,” says the slogan, “but she’s oh-so-smart!” Sadly, if that’s not an Asian American stereotype, I’m not sure what is. Ms. Pang’s poster manages to conjure up images of the working stiff, brainy Asian model minority, while simultaneously jamming a short joke in there for good measure. To top it all off, she’s got the inexplicable “hurrah!” — which I’m tempted to believe is a reference to the infamous “Yatta!” catch-phrase of Heroes‘ Hiro Nakamura.

So, if I were a politically conscious Asian American, I’d probably be pretty pissed about Pang’s poster. But, I wouldn’t do do what In-Goo Kwak, another freshman at Tufts University, did.  

I’m not sure if Kwak thought Pang’s poster was hysterical or offensive, but he and a couple of his friends made a parody poster that they printed up and posted around campus.

tufts-posters2

Kwak’s “slogan” is “Squinty Eyes. Big Vision.” and instead of “hurrah”, Kwak has written “kimchi!”, a traditional Korean dish. And, rather than include the “Vote on Thursday” information that Pang has below “2013 Senate”, Kwak wrote “Prease vote me! I work reary hard!”, complete with “r/l” slurring.

Okay, first of all, yes this is a clear  parody of Pang, who shouldn’t come out unscathed in this whole fiasco. But, this is an offensive, racist, parody that only adds flame to the fire. Rather than articulate why Pang’s posters play on racial stereotypes of Asian Americans to distinguish Pang from the crowd of students vying for a seat on the Senate, Kwak came up with a deliberately racist poster that he circulated to the entire student community. The poster is funny — if you think that anti-Asian racism is hilarious.

Kwak defended his poster in an article on Inside Higher Ed

“Though this was a satire of [Pang’s] poster, this was not a personal insult in any way,” Kwak said. “I thought it would be funny to satire the oppressive environment of political correctness at Tufts. I think it’s unhealthy that people feel afraid to express their views. One of the Asians on my hall saw the poster and showed it all over campus and eventually the director of the Asian American Center contacted me, but not one of the students who found this offensive contacted me directly. Instead, they had someone else do it.”

[…]

“People are so afraid to talk about this or to express their support of my poster because they’re afraid of getting in trouble with one of the groups on campus,” Kwak said. “And this is happening on a college campus, where people should be comfortable sharing their views. I mean, I was [comfortable]. I put my name on the poster in big letters. There’s this taboo against the discussion of racial issues. I’m not going to be afraid to talk about them, and I’m not going to back down.”

Arguably, Kwak’s explanation is worse than his poster. Rather than to acknowledge the racism of the poster, Kwak takes a line from the playbook of student Republicans. He’s a martyr for the First Amendment, claims Kwak. Because, really, why shouldn’t he be allowed to spout racist bullshit against his own community in Xerox form?

The problem with that argument is that it’s a no-holds-barred red herring. No one is telling Kwak that he can’t put hatespeech up on a hallway. In fact, university campuses remain one of the few environments where students and faculty have relative freedom in exploring and publicizing unpopular ideas. But, while the First Amendment protects a person’s right to spout unpopular speech, it does not protect you from public mockery and condemnation over the content of that speech (or, by extension, the “fear” of being publicly mocked as a result). The First Amendment establishes a marketplace of ideas, not a provision that the least popular (and most hateful) idea be allowed to exist free of criticism.

So, Kwak is no martyr for the First Amendment. His second charge is that his critics are cowards, who are unwilling to confront him on why they think his poster is offensive. Yet, Kwak was apparently unwilling to write an email to Pang, telling her why he thought her posters were worthy of parody; instead, he took the indirect route of mocking Pang publicly rather than to confront her privately and directly. (Kwak now claims he apologized to Pang directly, but Pang hasn’t commented on the whole fiasco, so maybe Kwak is making that up.)

If he wants direct criticism, here’s my direct criticism. The “squinty eyes” reference is a direct reference to the monolid eyes of Asians, and has been used countless times in schoolyard fights to denigrate Asian American children. Miley Cyrus, one of the Jonas Brothers, and even two entire sports teams, has been put on-notice by the Asian American community for mocking the so-called Asian “squinty eye” — so turning the “squinty eye” thing into a joke made by an Asian American against an Asian American not only conjures up painful memories of racism that many Asian Americans faced as children, but also appears to validate the “squinty eye” slur by making a public demonstration that an Asian American does it and finds it funny.

Secondly,  I only presume that Pang’s inclusion of “hurrah!” is a veiled reference to Heroes and “yatta!”. But for all I know, maybe Pang’s favourite word is “hurrah!”. Maybe her middle name is “hurrah!”. Maybe she’s got warm, fuzzy memories of her mother rocking her to sleep with lullabies where every lyric  was replaced with “hurrah” and now this word encapsulates Pang’s entire reason for being. Who knows, and bottom line, who really cares?

Kwak includes “kimchi!” as his random word. Not “toast!”. Not “winnebago!”. Not “scissors!” nor “venison!” nor “minestrone!” nor some other non-racialized word. No, Kwak chose to use “kimchi!” — a food that has clear references to Asian culture, and as a further emphasis that the poster is designed to mock Asian-ness as much as it is designed to mock Pang. And finally, Kwak uses the “r/l” slurring which makes the poster a clear insult towards Asians by using a joke that has been employed ad infinitum against Asian/Asian American people. What racist comedian and wannabe morning shock jock hasn’t honed their “r/l” slurring as the basis for a sketch where the punchline is how weird Asian Americans are?

There’s been a series of responses from Tufts on the whole fiasco. The on-campus Asian American student group organized a group discussion on Postergate, while Linell Yunagawa, director of the Asian American Center, released a statement by email to the student body:

“Many Asian/Asian Americans and individuals of other racial backgrounds have been angered, hurt, and offended by these posters,” Yugawa wrote in a letter co-signed by directors of other groups at the university, such as the Latino Center and the LGBT Center. “The posters not only mocked an authorized campaign poster, but used negative and racist stereotypes that correlate with the discrimination and dehumanization of Asians. These posters go beyond affecting one individual or group, but offend all who have an understanding of how racist stereotypes impact our lives.

“Some may argue that we need to ‘lighten up’ and/or ‘reclaim’ the stereotypes and words that have harmed us and our communities. While it is one thing to mutually engage in this type of conversation, it is another to post stereotypical and racist language that is open to interpretation and hurtful to many. We cannot truly know how the content of these posters have triggered members of the Tufts community.”

I’m squarely in the “this shit is racist” camp. And, while I don’t expect that Kwak is going to receive any sort of formal action for his racism (nor am I certain that it would be appropriate), Kwak is being soundly denounced around the Asian American blogosphere for his apparent enjoyment in playing the anti-Asian minstrel for the non-Asian student body of Tufts University. In effect, Mr. Kwak’s only punishment is being called a moron publicly and by total strangers, in a far more extreme and expansive form than he perpetrated against Ms. Pang. And I think that’s punishment enough. The Asian American community should not be tolerant of anti-Asian hatespeech, whether emerging from within or outside the community; and while Kwak is free to say whatever the hell he feels like, I hope he understands that he will not be protected from looking like a jackass for spouting jackassery.

And Mr. Kwak, my friend, right now you look like a jackass.

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