When a Cartoon Causes Pain

Controversial image causes a retraction and an apology from University of Virginia's student newspaper, but underlying racial tensions remain.
September 10, 2007


The University of Virginia's student newspaper found itself backpedaling last week after publishing a cartoon that spurred spontaneous protests by students who found it racially insensitive and inflammatory. The outcry culminated on Wednesday night, when between 100 and 200 students marched to the offices of The Cavalier Daily demanding an apology and the firing of the cartoonist.

Racial tensions are not necessarily a new problem at the campus and neither, for that matter, are controversial comic strips. A year ago, a pair of cartoons by the same artist, Grant Woolard, offended Christian groups and was eventually featured on The O'Reilly Factor , which garnered thousands of angry e-mails from viewers. The current uproar has so far remained a local issue at the university, which bears a legacy of discrimination as a result of Jim Crow and also has faced a more recent history of racially tinged incidents on campus. It has made concerted efforts to boost its racial diversity in recent years, including a President's Commission on Diversity and Equity and a statement of regret earlier this year for the institution's onetime use of slaves.

The response was organized through word of mouth, text messages and Facebook by various concerned students and campus groups. "Once again, the Cav Daily has crossed the boundary, but this time will not go unnoticed. We need to organize and end this racism once and for all," wrote the creator of a Facebook group with nearly 300 members titled "THE CAV DAILY IS ABOUT TO BE FINISHED!!"

The cartoon in question, printed last Tuesday, presents a scene of bald, dark-skinned men in loincloths throwing ordinary items such as a shoe and a chair at each other. The caption reads: "Ethiopian Food Fight." The newspaper retracted the cartoon that day and removed the image from its Web site. Although that cartoon was the immediate catalyst for student action, it came on the heels of another controversial strip the previous Friday, again by Woolard, that depicted Thomas Jefferson with a whip, standing before a black woman sitting on the bed (presumably Sally Hemings), who says, "Thomas, could we try role-play for a change?"

The editor of the paper, senior Herb Ladley, said it was a mixture of lapses in oversight and a failure to recognize that the "food fight" scene would be seen as controversial that resulted in the comic being published. "A lot of times we’re just making snap judgments late at night ... not really sitting down and reflecting on our policy like we should," he said. Normally, at least three sets of eyeballs see comic strips before they go to press, he explained: the graphics editor, the operations manager and Ladley himself. But in this case, there was a difference: Woolard, the cartoonist, was also the graphics editor.

The current censorship policy, created in the wake of other controversies in 2006, was reiterated in an editorial published on Thursday in which the newspaper apologized for printing the cartoon: "First, does the author truthfully depict a verifiable historical or contemporary situation? If not, and the context of the work is creative, we ask two more questions. Does the author make a serious, intentional point, the censoring of which would constitute viewpoint discrimination? Also, does the author criticize or make light of a group of people for any reason other than their own opinions or actions?"

The editorial admitted that the work did not meet the last requirement. Ladley made a disctinction between satirizing people's beliefs that are subject to change -- including religious beliefs -- and "things people can’t change," such as race and sexual orientation. The latter, he said, is not allowed under the policy.

Ladley said the paper will not accept submissions from Woolard "until further notice," but he declined to say whether the cartoonist would continue in his role as graphics editor. A meeting on Sunday night was planned to discuss his future at the paper.

From Conception to Controversy

Woolard declined to comment, but he posted a lengthy explanation on Facebook of his intent in drawing the "food fight" cartoon, apologizing "to those whom this comic has hurt." His comic strip, "Quirksmith," has also in the past sought humor in topics such as Hinduism and the Special Olympics. (Ladley said he intended to publish a version of the statement as a letter to the editor today.)

"This was by no means intended to negatively portray Ethiopia or its people," Woolard wrote. "[T]he term 'food fight' was not meant to imply that the figures were fighting for food, but rather with food, as the common usage of the term suggests. In the most extreme cases of famine in many parts of the world, people have had to resort to eating what would otherwise be considered inedible in order to survive.... This surrealistic hypothetical situation invites the reader to realize that what initially appears to be a joke reflects a sobering reality."

By Tuesday morning, the day the cartoon was printed, editors realized that they had a problem. Students had already begun contacting the paper, and Ladley spoke with university deans throughout the day. Calling the retraction "highly unusual," he said that the editors were "definitely on the ball in terms of recognizing our mistake."

The same day, Solome Y. Paulos, a senior who is the political action chair for the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote a letter to the newspaper that was circulated among students. Paulos then went to an informal meeting later that day at Tuttle Lounge, which some 100 students attended, according to Allen W. Groves, the interim dean of students.

Meanwhile, at least 65 bias reports were filed on Tuesday and Wednesday, Groves said, all of which the university followed up on. While The Cavalier Daily is independent of the university, both administrators and editors expressed a willingness to work together to resolve the issue. Ultimately, the administration also expressed distaste for the publication of the cartoon, releasing an open letter that said, in part, "we expect better from its staff and editors than what appeared this past Tuesday."

On Wednesday, student protesters met at the Amphitheatre on campus before moving to the newspaper's offices. Groves said it was "very respectful I thought, very polite, and they wanted to deliver their position to The Cavalier Daily, so a majority of the students kind of sat in the hallway."

Ladley had a somewhat different assessment of the proceedings, noting, "I was disappointed. I think administrators were disappointed also that that particular group who was here wasn’t interested in having a productive discussion." The problem, he said, was that the leaders of the protest were only interested in presenting their demands, and that they did not want a university dean to be present as a mediator at the meeting with top editors.

"I believe that with the support from the university’s administration, The Cavalier Daily has adequately responded to students’ concerns," Paulos said in an e-mailed response. She suggested reviving the Black Student Alliance and Cavalier Daily Commission, which was originally created to address minority representation on the paper's staff and other issues -- an idea that Ladley also endorses.

"I'm not going to trivialize at all the pain people felt at this comic, but I think it’s certainly appropriate to say that there are other things in the background," he said about the campus climate. Groves, on the other hand, said he felt the way that students took matters into their own hands illustrated that "there is not an adverse racial climate ... because they worked with each other. They were upset, but they sat down and talked, and they were mature and responsible."

Ladley said he was glad that the controversy has opened the door to discussions of other important issues, such as the diversity of the paper's staff.

Paulos put it this way: "The University of Virginia unfortunately has a history stained with dark memories. The level of ignorance and racism prevalent on these grounds cannot be sufficiently expressed in a few sentences. The comic strip is indeed indicative of the larger racial climate existent on this campus. It is suggestive of a broader question of black marginalization; whether it’s the treatment of black staff or the hiring and retention of black faculty, students of color continue to feel excluded from the larger community as a whole. As long as these larger issues are not addressed and resolved, smaller institutions such as the Daily will remain ignorant to the concerns of minority students at the University of Virginia."


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