Open Thread: Of Racism, “Satire,” and Humor

by Latoya Peterson

Here we go again.

Angry Asian Man reports on the newest bit of racism masquerading as humor:

This is really unfortunate, but I’m not surprised in the slightest…. Soon after Dartmouth College announced that it had appointed Dr. Jim Yong Kim as the school’s next president — the Ivy League’s first Asian American president — the racist comments started flowing, including a widely-distributed email from the Generic Good Morning Message (GGMM), a student-written/edited “tongue-in-cheek” daily news update: E-mail on Kim stirs controversy. Here’s the email in question:

    Date: March 3, 2009 11:06:39 AM EST
    To: GOOD-MORNING@LISTSERV.DARTMOUTH.EDU
    Subject: Good Morning

    This is the Generic Good Morning Message for March 3, 2009.

    Yesterday came the announcement that President of the College James Wright will be replaced by Chinaman Kim Jim Yong. And a little bit of me died inside.

    It was a complete supplies.

    On July 1, yet another hard-working American’s job will be taken by an immigrant willing to work in substandard conditions at near-subsistent wage, saving half his money and sending the rest home to his village in the form of traveler’s checks. Unless “Jim Yong Kim” means “I love Freedom” in Chinese, I don’t want anything to do with him. Dartmouth is America, not Panda Garden Rice Village Restaurant.

    Y’all get ready for an Asianification under the guise of diversity under the actual Malaysian-invasion leadership instituted under the guise of diversity. It’s a slippery slope we are on. I for one want Democracy and apple pie, not Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. I know I sure as shit won’t ever be eating my Hop dubs bubs with chopsticks. I like to use my own two American hands.

Okay, show of hands – who was able to read this as satire? What was the intended target of this email?

Resist Racism has a link to the apology released by the student, which notes:

I hope you can all understand that my intent was never one of malice against the Asian community, but an extremely crass attempt at hyperbolic satire. I was initially trying to criticize what I perceived to be surprise among many at the naming of an Asian-American President-Elect, Dr. Kim. I then tried to broaden my attack to encompass all of the reactionary, xenophobic, neo-Patriotism that exists in our post 9/11 America. I tried to create a narrator that would be viewed as ignorant, and I hoped that by removing any semblance of subtlety, this voice would not be taken seriously. I realize now that somewhere in that transformation, the specific target of my satire was lost, and all that remained on the page were my extremely racist words.

That being said, I now know that I can’t hide behind my “intent.” Intent and execution are two entirely different things. I know I hurt many people personally, and damaged the reputation of the College publicly. I deeply regret my actions and the harm I have caused. I had no right to spread a message that alienated and belittled one ethic group, particularly one to which I do not belong.

I’ll give him a half a point for writing that “intent and execution are two different things.” That they are.

However, this latest episode brought to mind some general questions I have swirling around the Satire Defense. Help me flesh this one out readers, I might have to make this one of the posts on the sidebar.

As far as I know:

1. Satire works best when you run through a logical argument (or true to life situation) to an absurd conclusion. Or, the ideas are so ridiculous, they can be spoken in a deadpan tone and people would still get the humor. The golden example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” which falls into the former category. The latter category is best illustrated by a more recent piece, Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa.” I’m not seeing how this one fits into either parameter. Readers, what am I missing?

2. I am also trying to understand how satire focuses around the subject of the subject. For example, if I was writing a satire about Otaku culture, I would probably have many references to nonsensical words like “Squee,” strange practices like “glomping,” general nods to fan culture, and some kind of scene where someone was trying to stalk and woo someone of a certain ethnicity using short phrases in a language that they do not speak. (I.e., white guy to Korean girl – “You’re cho-kawaii!”*) What would NOT be present are stereotypes about Japanese people. Why? Because Japanese people are not the subject of the satire! If you’re going to satirize Joe Sixpack, can we please introduce Joe Sixpack in the piece?

3. You know, whenever I get an email about these kind of things, I always have the same little thought nagging at me. What happened to satirizing your own community? Why is it always another community that gets to be the butt of the joke?

Anyway, add your thoughts in the comments.

*That actually happened.


(Thanks to reader Alice, who reminded me that I twittered this but didn’t post on it, and thanks to reader Michael for pointing out the comic that became the illustration for this post.)

(Illustration Credit: F-Minus over at Comics.com)