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A Tale of Two Posters

September 28, 2009

At Tufts University, one student’s brand of political satire smacks of racial insensitivity to a number of his fellow Asian-American students.

Two weeks ago, In-Goo Kwak, a freshman studying international relations and an immigrant from South Korea, put up a series of posters around his dormitory parodying the campaign poster of Alice Pang, another freshman of Asian descent who was running for the Tufts Community Union Senate. Kwak was not actually running for a student government position, but posted the parody next to Pang’s at the encouragement of his dorm mates. who thought he was right to poke fun at the air of political correctness he perceived on the campus.

Pang’s poster included the campaign slogan, “small person, big ideas,” with the exclamation “hurrah!” next to her portrait. Kwak’s parody poster looks strikingly similar in design to Pang’s and includes the slogan “squinty eyes, big vision.” Next to Kwak’s portrait is the word "kimchi!" -- a traditional Korean dish. Additionally, where Pang's poster read "vote on Thursday," Kwak's said, “Prease vote me! I work reary hard!” in deliberately broken English. (A picture of both posters side-by-side can be found in The Tufts Daily, the student newspaper.)

Photo: In-Goo Kwak

Kwak's controversial poster.

Though some on campus have expressed great concern about the poster since it was posted, Kwak defended his actions and noted that none of the concerned students approached him directly to voice their distaste before informing campus administrators about the incident.

“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.”

Linell Yugawa, the director who contacted Kwak, said she did not wish to comment on the matter, and hung up during a call requesting an interview. Still, days after the incident, she did send an e-mail to the entire Tufts community denouncing Kwak's parody, which she called “racist.”

“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.”

The Tufts administration had a more reserved response to the matter, preferring to let student groups facilitate the discussion Kwak’s poster has stirred.

“We are writing to express our view that the denigration of any individual or group based on race or ethnicity is not consistent with the kind of civic discourse that makes for a great university community,” wrote Robert Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and Linda Abriola, dean of the School of Engineering, in a joint e-mail to students. “A vigorous exchange of ideas is best conducted when individuals and groups honor the values of community, respect and civility. How we treat each other reflects our ability to understand each other, respect difference, and grow. This incident is an opportunity for us all to learn about the persistence of racial and ethnic stereotypes and that education can enable us to rise above them.”

The week after Kwak’s poster was discovered, the Asian-American Alliance, a student group, organized an open group discussion for students about the incident. Members of the organization did not respond to requests for comment, but Kwak said he attended the meeting without being noticed to hear the student response to his parody.

“They organized this meeting like it was an emergency session of Congress,” Kwak said of the student group’s discussion. “There seems to be a lot of double standards out there. For instance, there was one student who said it was okay for one Asian student to call another Asian student a ‘chink’ but that it wasn’t OK for a white student to do so. At the same time, one girl just kept on saying, ‘I heard he isn’t getting punished. Why is he not getting punished?’ I was interested to sit and hear some of those views, even thought I respectfully disagreed with some of them.”

Kwak also said that he has since apologized to Pang, explaining the purpose behind his poster, and that she graciously accepted his apology. Pang did not respond to requests for comment.

Though the debate roused by Kwak’s poster has faded in the weeks since the incident, Kwak said he hopes his satire will teach those at Tufts a lesson about what he perceives of as the ills of political correctness.

“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.”

Rosalind S. Chou, a sociology doctoral student at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, offered restrained praise for both Kwak and Tufts in their handling of the incident and subsequent debate.

“You have to commend [Kwak] on his bravery to do this act of resistance, and you have to commend Tufts for reacting quickly and having its students feel comfortable enough to have a dialogue about it so soon,” Chou said. “Not to take anything away from the individuals who this may have brought pain, but there are some positive things about this. Of course I don’t condone actions like this to where it hurts feelings and brings pain, but it says something that the envelope can be pushed at Tufts and they can use it as an opportunity to talk about race. If this had happened here at Texas A&M, it would have been swept under the rug immediately.… If we want racial progress, we have to talk about these things.”

 

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