Desi Ivy Twerps Still Ivy Twerps

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 — 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 — 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.

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.

55 thoughts on “Desi Ivy Twerps Still Ivy Twerps

  1. All this talk about the South Asian-East Asian divide going on over here is so utterly uninformed, it’s funny. I happen to go to Princeton and if the people reading this blog would take the time to also read the joint statement released by the newspaper and the Asian American Students Association ( the next day, they’d realize the following things:

    1. Asians, when taken in an American context, usually refers to East Asians.
    2. The article itself was written by East Asian students. Not that that makes it less offensive, but it certainly helps put a stop to the ridiculous racism charges being flung around.
    3. The newspaper acknowledges that the piece was badly done and everyone on campus recognizes the fact that there was no racist or malicious intent driving the piece.
    4. The fact that the current and next editor in chief happen to be South Asian has absolutely nothing to do with the conception or publication of the piece. There are many other people on staff and it just so happens that the editor takes the fall for every else because of his post.

    Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where people read something on the internet, don’t bother to get the full facts and proceed to make it out to be a much bigger deal than it actually is. Maybe the article wasn’t funny, but presuming that you know the intentions of the people writing it and calling them racist is also pretty offensive, not to mention unintelligent.

  2. For Ptonian I can assure you that some of us have indeed taken the time to read much of what’s been written around this issue and we’re not prematurely assuming things. You seem to buy into the “I’m Asian so I can’t possibly racist” argument. The reason I say this is because you link a (rather tepid and unconvincing, in my opinion) article written by the Asian American Students Association as though their stamp of approval should officially resolve the problems anyone else might be having about the op-ed. While I’d be the first to agree that racism, by definition, is structural and far more complex than the dumbass across the street calling you some stupid names, it has just as much to do with history and context. In this case, the editors of a publicly available piece going out under Princeton’s name – regardless of the colour of their skin – need to consider its potential audience and whether such blatant writing could backfire, potentially perpetuating racism and ignorance in the minds of people who really don’t need any additional help from an elitist institution in supporting their stereotypes. If you have that power, then you certainly don’t have the luxury of being careless and flippant with your words. Hiding behind the petulant excuse of “b-b-but sniff my INTENT was good and now you’ve hurt my feelings” doesn’t cut it. Nor does the incredible arrogance of “rejecting” the charge of racism.

    1. Racism is not about intention. Racism is about effect. The effort by apologists like Ptoninan to reduce this to “intention” is a dodge. You can do anything wicked and then claim your intent was to parody wickedness. Same goes for the yobs who think they can prettify their fondness for ethnic insult by calling it “satire.”

    2. Racism is not about offensiveness. Racism is about larger effects in the world, and thinking about effects means hinking about context and history. Offense may be one result, but it’s only a small part of it. The world is full of offensive things and always will be. So reducing this to a game of I’m offended no I’m offended is stupid, and a dodge.

    The really damning part, as several of us have noticed, is not so much the article as the lame and dishonest defense of it mounted by the editors.

    What the apologists for racist utterance will not, cannot talk about is the history of vicious anti-Chinese racism in the United States, and the history of racist exclusion by institutions like Princeton. I don’t know whether the charge that Princeton is currently discriminating against East Asians is valid. But it’s not an unreasonable hypothesis, and the charge is that exclusion works through stereotypes of East Asians as humorless grinds, so that the admissions officer looks at the file and says yeah, top scores and grades, but not well-rounded enough. Terms like “well-rounded” and “character” were what were used for decades to exclude Jews from the Ivies. So when undergrads within Princeton respond to the challenge precisely by playing up the stereotype of a kind of person who should not be admitted despite their enormous hard work because you know, old boy, they’re just a little too keen and not really like us, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

    Folks from previously-excluded groups are not going to get into top colleges like Princeton because they’re old money and their Dad was an alum and they went to the right prep school and have that preppy polish. They’re going to get in through really hard academic work. And to have that, in particular, mocked tells you a lot about what’s going on.