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Message To College Papers: Leave Racial Satire Alone

Recent parodies of Blacks and Asians in college newspapers in the name of satire have been met with condemnation, including journalism scholars who say free-thinking future journalists need to “grow up and put on their thinking caps.

Professor Joe Ritchie, Knight Chair in Journalism at Florida A&M University, says students want to do satire but they need to get some education in sensitivity. Although an ardent support of First Amendment rights, Ritchie says he wouldn’t sanction the students’ writings.

“But these attempts are stupid. It’s a shame that so many intelligent, young people are doing this,” he says

In December, the conservative journal of Tufts University, The Primary Source, published a series of parodies on well-known carols. One was entitled, “O Come All Ye Black Folk” sung to the tune of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and proclaims, “Born into the ghetto. O Jesus! We need you now to fill our racial quotas.”

The lyrics also say, “No matter what your grades are, F’s, D’s or G’s, give them all privileged status.”

In a press release, the editors later wrote: “The Primary Source regrets that the purpose of the carol was not clearly communicated. The carol was intended as a satirical criticism of affirmative action and was, in fact, intended as an anti-racist statement.”

Earlier this month, The Daily Princetonian, the student-run newspaper from Princeton University, came under fire for using a column with broken English and other Asian-American stereotypes in its annual joke edition.

The column ran with the byline “Lian Ji,” referring to Yale freshman Jian Li, who filed a lawsuit against the Princeton admissions office alleging discrimination against Asian applicants.

“Hi Princeton! Remember me? I so good at math and science. Perfect 2400 SAT score. Ring bells?” the column began. It goes on to say: “What is wrong with you no color people? Yellow people make the world go round.”

According to a statement from Princetonian editor Chanakya Sethi, the column was written by a diverse group of students, including Asians on staff.

“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,” says Sethi.

But satire, humor and editorial columns are literary forms that require taste and judgment, says Christopher Daly, professor of journalism at Boston University.

“Those are qualities that are often lacking in young writers,” says Daly. “The only cure is to grow up and be more insightful. Hopefully these writers will approach this with a good will and learn from their mistakes.”

Adds Ritchie: “The Princetonian item was a sophomoric attempt at satire that just misses the mark by several kilometers… I tend to believe there was no malicious intent, and I hope they learned a valuable lesson… But the damage clearly has been done.”

As students get more inspired by comedians like Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart – who make fun of their own communities – scholars caution students not to hop on the bandwagon.

Successful, professional comedians make it look easy, says Daly.    

“Chappelle and Stewart have the perfect pitch,” he adds. “We can’t expect any undergrad or rookie to have that in the cards yet, especially in writing.”

“We teach them to take their role very seriously,” says Ritchie. “But it’s up to them to use their head a little bit.”

Sreenath Sreenivasan, the dean of students and a professor at Columbia’s Journalism School, says satire is a dangerous business and humor is difficult to write, and not just for college students.

“This was definitely a badly done piece. They should not have run that,” Sreenivasan says. The fact that the Princetonian had Asians on staff “is not an excuse.”

“You have to be extra careful, especially these days,” says Sreenivasan, who is of Indian origin. He notes that Indians in India routinely use the word “Paki” as a reference to Pakistanis, but is not meant in a derogatory way. However, the same word is a racial slur [against all South Asians] in England and could cause riots.

How does this bode for coverage of diverse communities from these future journalists? Sreenivasan was reluctant to comment since “not all editors of college newspapers actually go on to become journalists.”

Award-winning broadcast journalist Ti-Hua Chang, who is of Chinese origin, says all Asians are exposed to the same stereotype-filled media as any other North Americans and “as people can make mistakes with an equality of stupidity.”

“I suppose if there wasn’t so much racism against Asians we could take the jokes,” Chang says. “Perhaps in a more equal world we could all joke and laugh at and with each other.”

By Shilpa Banerji

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