A few years ago the editors of the late, great mag ego trip published a fantastic Big Book of Racism that must be one of the funniest, edgiest, most on-target treatments ever produced on the glory and ridiculousness of inter-cultural discourse in America through the ages and today. In 300 pages of over-the-top gonzo charts, lists, graphics, mini-essays, and assorted unclassifiable content, the collective turned every stereotype on its head and made fun of everyone on an equal basis using as its great leveler the power of the absurd. A precursor to Borat, in a way, but with much broader scope, knowing detail and subtlety, and without the escape hatch of the visiting-foreigner device. I wish I had my copy on hand so I could excerpt a few of its classic moments, but I don’t, so I can only encourage you to check out what’s available on the Google Books preview and, better yet, just buy the damn thing.
It seems a close reading of this book would also have benefited Chanakya Sethi, the editor in chief of the Daily Princetonian, and his colleagues at the student newspaper of Princeton University. Last week the paper ran its annual “joke issue” made up entirely of fake news and parodies, and as you may know, included a faux op-ed by “Lian Ji.” The reference was to Jian Li, a student who filed a civil rights case against Princeton for not admitting him (and went on to Yale), and the copy included passages like this:
Princeton claims that it increase diversity by rejecting an Asian-American. You make joke? My mom from same province as General Tso. My dad from Kung Pao province. I united 500 years of Rice Wars. I invented Asian glow Â— new color, new race. Hey, what about yellow fever? Heard that’s hot on this campus. This is as diverse as you can get.
Plus, no-color people all go to Ivy Club; I would have made Campus Club alive again. Plus, I would have created first Asian a cappella group. Plus, I would have starred in first Chinese Opera in McCarter Theater. Plus, I would have join USG, become USG president better than Rob Biederman. Who you think get better deals with Ivy Garden boss anyway? Plus, I know how to make bubble tea. Plus, I would have taken one engrish class and be liberal arts. Writing seminar count, right? Multiply, I make DDR varsity sport.
I’ll spare you the blow by blow account of the ensuing shitstorm: see the New York Times wrap, for instance, here. But there is also a Desi Angle (TM) in that the paper’s editor-in-chief, and therefore presumably the one ultimately responsible for what get published, is desi — as is, incidentally, the next editor in chief, Kavita Saini, who takes over next month. Sethi and his team have now apologized in an editorial, adding:
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 Â— including several Asians on our senior editorial staff Â— who had no malicious intent. Given our purpose, we are deeply troubled by and reject the allegation of racism.
You can read letters to the editor here. They span the spectrum of course: offended Asians, non-offended Asians, offended non-Asians, non-offended non-Asians, people objecting to the theme but not the writing, people objecting to the writing but not the theme. You can count me in that last group. As the Big Book of Racism and Borat demonstrate, heinous racial stereotype can be put to use in its own destruction, with the added benefit of deflating self-appointed guardians of one ideological correctness or another. But it’s a difficult art, and one that doesn’t work unless you take a real risk.
What Sethi and crew did was the opposite. They didn’t take the risk of offending everyone: instead, they targeted one ethnic group alone, and to do so, impersonated a real-life character who is already vulnerable and compromised. Borat took the risk of playing the offender; Sethi and crew took the easy route of playing the offendee. They wanted to be Sarah Silverman; they came off like Michael Richards. Memo to Chanakya Sethi: It isn’t racism, my brother. It’s laziness, privilege, and idiocy.