ETS and College Board apologizes for racially & culturally insensitive T-shirts

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Front of this year’s AP World History exam essay reading commemorative t-shirt. Photo credit: Angry Asian Man

Last month, Angry Asian Man posted about an incident at this year’s SAT AP World History reading, an annual convention held by the Educational Testing Services (ETS) and the College Board — which administer the SATs and AP exams to high school students — where the written essay portion of AP exams is read and assigned a grade by thousands of teachers and educators. Every year, ETS and the College Board tries to establish a party-like atmosphere around the reading — because really who wants to read thousands of high school essays in one sitting? So, to lighten the atmosphere, entertainment is organized and t-shirts are sold.

This year, one of the possible exam questions involved Chinese communism. And in a profoundly insensitive misstep, organizers decided to theme the reading around racial and cultural mockery of China and the Chinese Communist Party. Oh, yes, they did.

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Back of this year’s t-shirt. Photo credit: Angry Asian Man

Organizers tried to sell bright red t-shirts emblazoned on the front with a cartoon including Asian political figures (seen above); the t-shirts also re-purposed some Red Guard propaganda imagery with inflammatory chop-suey writing on the back.

Angry Asian Man reports that many readers wore Red Guard caps to the reading and that the chief organizer repeatedly made insensitive jokes, including saying in reference to the infamous ‘Tank Man’ — the anonymous man who was photographed protesting for democracy at Tiananmen, and who may have suffered violent retribution for it —  “you wouldn’t want to be that guy”.

This isn’t just about the obviously racist nature of the t-shirts, which includes buck-toothed yellowface caricatures of Asian faces. This is about the fact that the Chinese Communist Party and specifically the Cultural Revolution is no laughing matter; that for many Asian Americans (myself included) the Cultural Revolution is a period of great political upheaval that irrevocably altered the course of familial histories. It was a moment of conflict, turmoil, anguish, violence, and even senseless killing — one that many Asian Americans have a personal connection with. Wherever one stands in regards to the China-Taiwan conflict, we can all agree that making fun of the Cultural Revolution is akin to making fun of civil war and associated death.

That the organizers of this year’s SAT essay reading — which incidentally took place in Salt Lake City, Utah — would think that this atmosphere is appropriate speaks to the ongoing marginalization of minority voices at this conference. That this was allowed to go on despite vocal objections by some reading attendees reinforces an implied assertion that the “normal” essay reader would not find the Cultural Revolution a personal and sensitive subject, and that the Asian American lived experience is abnormal or deviant.

Thankfully, in response to coverage of this incident by Angry Asian Man, Hyphen, Racism Review, and others (note: I had chosen not to write about this subject earlier last month because I felt it was well-covered by my fellow bloggers), ETS and the College Board last week issued a formal apology to little mainstream fanfare. ETS and the College Board distanced themselves from the individual organizers of the annual reading, and condemned the atmosphere of this year’s reading.

Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board have learned of culturally offensive actions during the AP® World History Reading in June 2014. We are outraged by these intolerable findings and are dedicated to preventing any such activities in the future.

As an annual tradition, teachers and professors who attend the AP Reading make independent decisions to create and sell themed T-shirts to their peers. Neither ETS nor the College Board has any involvement in the creation, distribution, or sale of these T-shirts. This year, the T-shirt and some comments made at the AP World History Reading were both culturally and racially insensitive. College Board officials were notified of these incidents after the AP World History Reading was over and the teachers had dispersed.

It is unacceptable that one of the AP Exam Readers created a T-shirt that mocked historical events that were the cause of great pain and suffering, and promulgated racist stereotypes that further marginalize a racial minority. Furthermore, it is entirely inappropriate that references to the AP Program were combined with language and images that make light of a deeply tumultuous period in Chinese history. When some teachers expressed their concerns, others hastily dismissed such perspectives, and proceeded to distribute the T-shirts regardless. All of this was a clear violation of the high standards for respect and dignity that we require and expect at the AP Reading, and ETS and the College Board are deeply apologetic for the distribution of the T-shirt and for the toxic environment it created.

Do I really think ETS and the College Board knew nothing about what was planned for the AP reading this year? While it’s unlikely that unofficial shirts required board approval prior to printing, it’s also unrealistic to think that ETS and College Board representatives had no idea what was going on until Asian American blogs spoke out. At least some representatives of ETS and the College Board were likely at the AP reading; are we really meant to believe they were simply unaware of the significance of Communist Red Guard caps sported by reading attendees? Are we really meant to believe that those representatives were ushered out the back door, such that they did not witness the t-shirts being sold?

In point of fact, it is that the vast majority of those who witnessed what happened at this year’s AP reading were blind to the racial mockery and deaf to the cultural insensitivity — that they were basically not incensed — is what should be most disconcerting. For a test that has been repeatedly accused of racial and cultural bias, this incident speaks volumes. That these essay readers, whom we task with deciding the educational future of the nation’s high school students, have so deeply internalized American racism that they suffer no qualms over obvious and abject racism is deeply disturbing. If these people think yellowface is funny, what impact does that internalized racism have, I wonder, on how those readers are judging the very exams they read?

ETS and the College Board have committed to disciplining the individuals responsible for the t-shirts, the hats, and the jokes — which is great. But, maybe this isn’t really about t-shirts and hats and jokes. Maybe it’s about re-examining why a whole bunch of people thought that t-shirts and hats and jokes that make people of colour the butt of a multi-day joke is ever both funny and appropriate.

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