Asian-American males have often been portrayed in the media as short, hairless, socially awkward nerds with a disproportionate love for math and science. This issue of negative racial stereotypes in the media has made itself manifest in The Crimson's own daily comic strip, "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu."
How has "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu" reinforced negative Asian stereotypes? In past strips, Mr. Chu has explicitly linked his physical appearance to his race in comments like "Chinese, male, and untall" and "Well, I am not hairy. I am Chinese."
Socially, Mr. Chu has endured similar treatment. He describes his interests as "geometry, algebra, analysis" and is proud of wearing quadratic reasoning T-shirts every day. When his proctor invites him to a study break, he asks why people would take a break from studying. Several strips have shown Mr. Chu wondering why people bother finding friends in college, much less romance. In an introduction to a female peer, for example, he rudely offers her only the address of his web site. Chu's "misanthropic" tendencies are further evident in past episodes when Mr. Chu traps his white roommate in a box and taunts him saying, "I should have gagged you."
One could argue that Mr. Chu is a dislikable person, but not indicative of the Asian community in general. Unfortunately, Asians are rarely represented in the media at all. Therefore, when Asians do appear, the fact that they are Asian assumes a disproportionate importance. Whatever qualities they are assigned tend to be projected onto the race as a whole.
"The Misanthropic Mr. Chu" projects an image of Chinese males as socially awkward, people-hating math nerds. So what? At Harvard, we pride ourselves on being reasonable individuals who can surely tell the difference between a (supposedly humorous) comic strip character and a calculated attempt to viciously stereotype races as a whole. Surely reasonable readers know that "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu" is only about one negative character and does not reflect all of the different facets of the Asian-American community.
Still, even reasonable people are offended by negative portrayals of their race, although they well know that such stereotypes are inaccurate. And not all people are reasonable. When Asian guys leave Harvard, for example, they often encounter people who assume they are nothing more than wimpy Chinese nerds who care only about science and math. Perpetuating these images through the media--even in a daily comic strip-- doesn't help the general public learn to see Asians as rounded people.
Demeaning portrayals of race in the media should be of concern to everyone. This is evident in the rallying of ethnic associations as diverse as the Asian-American Association, the Black Students Association, RAZA, and others against "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu." After all, wouldn't South Asians be offended if the strip's title was "The Misanthropic Mr. Patel", and wouldn't African-Americans be offended if the protagonist was racially stereotyped as a black jock who did nothing but run around playing basketball?
The controversy surrounding "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu" is made more complicated by the fact that one of the authors of the strip is Asian and shares many of the physical and intellectual characteristics of his protagonist. He is short, loves math and takes pride in frequently wearing quadratic reasoning T-shirts. Creating the strip is perhaps his way of poking fun at himself. Indeed, his acquaintances may think the strip is funny, because they know the real person on which it is based. One wonders if a cartoon strip that runs in Harvard's daily is the best medium to air inside jokes that play on offensive racial stereotypes.
Ideally, both Asians and non-Asians could react to "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu" without regard to the racial identity of its characters. Judging from the widespread negative reactions of Harvard's ethnic organizations to the strip, however, such a benign reading is unlikely. In general, political correctness exists to avoid offending minorities. The media must be made aware of the damage it inflicts when it eschews political correctness and indiscriminately links negative qualities to race.
In sum, "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu" raises a plethora of general issues related to unattractive portrayals of minorities in the media. What should be more respected, artistic license or ethnic sensitivity? When does an autobiographical parody cross the line and become a demeaning racial stereotype? To what degree should media organizations regulate their content's political correctness? The debate on these issues, and on "The Misanthropic Mr. Chu", is far from closed. We encourage you to add your voice to the debate.
Jenny I. Shen '01 is a chemistry concentrator in Cabot House. Andrew S.H. Ting '00, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Shen is the co-president and Ting is a member of the Asian American Association.