Satire as Racial Backlash Against Asian Americans

Sharon S. Lee writes that recent student newspaper controversies point to larger issues about the way groups interact and are defined on campuses.

February 28, 2008

Imagine for a minute if student leaders at elite college campuses devoted themselves to mocking black people or Jewish people or gay people. I’m not talking about drunk students posting pictures of their offensive parties on Facebook, but student newspaper editors – thought of as being both smart and progressive – giving space over for the sole purpose of making fun of people because of their background. It’s hard to imagine. And yet recently this phenomenon of racial caricatures as "satire" has emerged with Asian Americans as the object of the jokes.

Why Asian Americans? After all, Asian American college students tend to make headlines as super students, attending prestigious private and public colleges at rates way above their state demographics (hence they are "over-represented") and as excelling academically above and beyond any other racial group, whites included. This "model minority" image is not new and has been around since at least the late 1960s, with Asian Americans often embraced as symbols of the merits of hard work and individual effort, all undertaken without complaint or political agitation. So ... shouldn't that mean that Asian Americans would be seen as well integrated -- academic and otherwise -- with white students?

Indeed, this image and the stereotype that all Asian American college students are high achieving have led to a belief that they are well integrated into higher education. I would go so far as to say this model minority image has also conveyed that racism and racial hostility are no longer issues for Asian American students. It is not uncommon for colleges to exclude Asian Americans from affirmative action recruitment efforts and services for "minority" students. Yes, it is true that unlike African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans, many Asian ethnic groups -- though not all -- do not struggle with severe under-representation in college matriculation or retention rates. However, does this mean that they are not racial minorities and do not continue to confront racial issues on campuses? In my years as a student and administrator on various university campuses, I have been troubled by what I have observed to be the increasing exclusion of Asian Americans from "minority" student or diversity discussions. Asian Americans are not seen as contributing to diversity though, in and of themselves, they are extremely diverse. They are frequently not identified as being minority students; when I see conference papers, journal articles, or Web discussion on "minority" students, I look for any mention of Asian Americans, only to find, more often than not, their omission. The focus now seems to be on "underrepresented minorities" -- or code for "minority, but not Asian American." Asian Americans have been what I call "de-minoritized," erased from these discussions.

By no means do I want to detract from the critical issues of representation that persist for African American, Latino, and Native American students; under-parity is a serious signal of inaccessibility and hostility for students of color grounded in long and problematic history. However, I do not subscribe to the presumption that the opposite of under-representation (over-representation) means that a racial non-white group has achieved integration and full acceptance. In fact, in the case of Asian Americans, their over-presence in competitive institutions such as Ivy League colleges has heightened a sense of backlash that takes highly racialized overtones and contributes to a negative campus climate for this "high achieving" group. Enter the campus paper satire, the latest manifestation.

As many Asian American studies scholars have pointed out, Asian Americans are depicted as model minorities but they are also portrayed as foreigners, disloyal to America, and suspicious. Despite generations of citizenship in the United States (after years of denial of naturalization rights for Asian immigrants), Asian Americans are still seen as foreign and un-American, often as the "enemy" during economic and military crises, as during the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, during the 1980s economic recession and competition with Japan's automotive industry that lay the backdrop to the beating and death of Vincent Chin, and currently with post-September 11 depictions of South Asians and Muslims as terrorists. Dual images of Asian Americans as model minorities, people to be praised and emulated and embraced, and foreign threats, people to be watched, monitored, and distrusted, have long been a part of U.S. history.

Recently, Asian American college students have emerged in the media in this foreigner/ invading guise -- as the butt of "satirical" jokes published by college student papers. Whether or not these articles are "satires" or offensive representations is not my point. My focus is on the powerful and racialized imagery evoked -- the jokes that continue to depict Asian Americans as foreign, un-American, inscrutable, non-English speakers-- basically as anything but a regular college student on a university campus. And my focus is on the fact that often times not many people are laughing at these satires.

For instance, in October of 2006, Jed Levine published a "modest proposal for an immodest proposition" for the UCLA Daily Bruin. Speaking as a white male, he identified as an "underrepresented minority" and pointed to Asian Americans as the real problem who took away admissions slots from Black and Latino students and proposed a solution to the "Asian invasion" as funneling "young Maos and Kim Jongs" into a new UC campus "UC Merced Pandas." In January 2007, the Daily Princetonian published its annual "joke issue" that included a satire of "Lian Ji", a twist on Jian Li, the Chinese American student at Yale, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department for Civil Rights claiming his rejection from Princeton was due to his ethnicity. The joke article, from "Lian's" point of view was written in broken English, complaining that Princeton did not accept "I the super smart Asian," and touting the stereotypical nerdy Asian American credentials of winning record science fair awards, memorizing endless digits of pi, and playing multiple orchestral instruments simultaneously for the New Jersey youth orchestra. Ultimately, "Lian" accepts his fate at Yale saying, "I mean, I love Yale. Lots of bulldogs here for me to eat."

Most recently, Inside Higher Ed reported on yet another satire in the University of Colorado at Boulder paper, The Campus Press, which resulted in controversy and a statement by the chancellor. In the satire, Max Karson, noticed the tensions that Asian American students exhibited towards whites. While pointing out the racial tensions on both sides, Karson deduces that Asians just hate whites, and it was "time for war." Such efforts included steps to find all Asian Americans on campus (easily identifiable by areas of campus they frequent and by their ability to do a calculus problem in their heads), forcing them to eat bad sushi with forks; and a test for them to display emotions beyond a normal deadpan (read: inscrutable) face. At the end, Asian homes will be redecorated "American" style, replacing rice cookers with George Forman Grills and the like.

My point here is not to argue over what is satire, freedom of the press, artistic license, or the "right way" to read pieces such as these. Rather, my observation lies in the continued pattern of Asian American students being a) the butt of such jokes, basically the punchline; b) that the jokes are heavily laden with racial stereotypes; and c) that these such essays reveal volumes about racial relationships, tensions, and perceptions of Asian American students as all being, in some way, the same -- foreigners, math and science nerds, and all around different from the regular average college student.

What does this recent rash of Asian Americans-as-satire articles tell us? Ultimately, that despite an image of Asian Americans as model minorities, super achieving students who thrive on college campuses, race continues to matter for Asian American students. Many Asian American students reject and challenge these depictions and stereotypes and seek campus policies that acknowledge and support their experiences. It tells us that higher education administrators need to look beyond Asian American model minority-ness and begin to reconsider a conception of "minority" student experiences beyond easily measured assessments of grade point average and SAT score, to recognize instances of racial alienation and marginalization embodied in these satires. It speaks to uncovering the experiences of Asian American students who want academic courses that reflect their histories and literature, to meeting their counseling service needs, to providing spaces of support through cultural centers and minority student services. It is to challenge the silencing and de-minoritization of Asian American students.

Many educational scholars demonstrate that campus climate measures go beyond statistical representation. These satirical articles reveal that something else is happening on campus regarding how Asian American students are perceived and represented and even reveals something in the sheer license felt to put forth such racialized representations of Asian American students at all. As campus parties where white students dress up like stereotypical African American or Latino caricatures seem to be in "vogue" these days, the preferred venue for Asian American figures seems to be in these campus pieces.

I end this essay aware that I am exposing myself to the response: "Asian Americans have it relatively made in higher education. What are you complaining about?" I have heard this response from students and administrators from all racial backgrounds. To those who would argue that other minority needs are more pressing and urgent, my appeal is to widen our working definitions and perceptions of "minority" students, to allow spaces for Asian Americans to enter and to work in coalition against such racialized hurtful images that affect all people of color. To those who don't see Asian Americans as dealing with race at all, my response is to complain, to challenge the presumptions and expectations that I, an Asian American woman, should be the model minority who works hard and doesn't complain. And I raise the question of these satires, what they mean, and how they can inform a better understanding of the experiences and needs of Asian American college students -- no longer as "objects" of satire but subjects of their own lives.


Sharon S. Lee is a doctoral student in educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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