Accuse Harvard of racism, and you fall in a long and undistinguished lineage. When Derek Bok rejected quotas for faculty appointments in the ’80s, preferring to seek out qualified women and minority candidates instead, he was accused by critics of “racism disguised as meritocracy.” Protesters during the student takeover of University Hall in 1968 used to gesture at the portico of Widener, screaming, “Don’t those Georgian columns look like the plantation?” The columns, built in 1915, are more neo-classical revival. So actually, no.
More recently, accusations of racism were leveled at the Fox Club in 2005 for its “Boxer Rebellion Party,” where medium-sized men in boxer shorts attempt to ensnare women in shiny negligees. The word you’re looking for is ridiculous. Ridiculous, not racist. Nevertheless, the Fox discontinued its party last year.
Assaults are evident elsewhere. The ‘R’ word was used freely during the publication of “Disguide,” a self-described alternative introduction to Harvard which described a University still mired in an unholy trifecta of racism, sexism, and classism. Since the incidents cited included those targeting Muslim students, the Disguide editors do not seem to have been aware that Muslims are not, in fact, a “race.”
It is not that racism does not exist. If “Borat” is any indication, it is alive and well. But not at Harvard. At Harvard, it has been bludgeoned to death for well over half a century, where, if it exists, it is now an ailing, sickly worm. Today, the most universal personal quality of white students at the College is guilt. Harvard’s classrooms have become her confessionals. We are nowhere, in short, near a plantation.
With this in mind, behold Princeton University’s newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, which recently published a somewhat funny joke issue. One article hails the arrival of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe to the university. Another details a deal where Princeton would swap 10 spots in college rankings with the University of Florida for one of its top athletic programs.
Amidst this frivolity was a piece by one “Lian Ji,” which was titled, “Princeton University is racist against me, I mean, non-whites.” The reference was clearly to Jian Li, the now-Yale freshman who prattishly filed a lawsuit against Princeton last year for having the gall not to admit him, allegedly because of the admission committee’s prejudice against Asian Americans. The article, co-written with Asian students on the Daily Princetonian’s staff, went on to complain—in broken English—Princeton’s latent antipathy towards admitting Asian Americans. “I the super smart Asian,” it says. “Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me. I get angry and file a federal civil rights complaint against Princeton for rejecting my application for admission.”
And on it goes, not all of it funny, and not all of it in the best of taste. Still, it wasn’t terrible, and none of it was, god forbid, serious. Quite routine stuff among students, actually.
The uproar, however, was extraordinary. A Facebook group was created, with the title, “Dear Daily Prince, This Isn’t Funny, It’s Racist.” As of my writing, it has 480 members. Vapid blogs Ivygate and Brainiac, the latter by the staff of The Boston Globe, also accused the newspaper of racism. Asian American groups on Princeton’s campus mobilized, with the president of the campus association saying, “Even in the context of a joke, it made reference to so many stereotypes such as yellow fever or eating dogs. What really pushed us over the edge is that we don’t speak like that.”
Well, yes, that was the point. The editorial was intended as a satire of Asian stereotypes. It was to function as a stereotype of stereotypes. The intention, the next day’s respectful but defiant Editor’s Note argued, was “to lampoon racism by showing it at its most outrageous. We embraced racist language in order to strangle it.” Like proponents of absurdist theater in the ’20s, the idea is to present to the audience something so outrageous that they are compelled to disagree with it, and in doing so, affirm their moral core.
But moral cores aside, it was not the Daily Princetonian which turned an everyday admissions issue into a racial issue. Rather, it was Jian Li who did that. The satire, in case anyone didn’t notice, was targeted against his competitive egotism, which made race an issue to suit his advantage. Li’s target couldn’t have been more unfair—an enlightened institution, that no matter its past, today mostly strives towards justice. That is what was being lampooned, not Asian Americans in general.
By far the most troubling aspect of this case is the charge of racism, which is symptomatic of an ailing society, not a healthy one. Sometimes one suspects that the ideal for which most liberal groups on campus are striving is an entirely sterile one, devoid of humor, passion, and life. Whistle at a girl, and it’s sexual harassment. Make an ethnic joke, and it’s racism. These liberals cannot conceive of a situation in which such actions are a symbol of a healthier democracy, one whose citizens have somewhat longer leashes, and where every little piece of friction doesn’t ignite into a fire. Where, in short, the social fabric isn’t stretching thin.
The Daily Princetonian’s joke issue controversy is a sign that we are far from this ideal. Instead of lampooning Jian Li for making his ethnicity an issue, the critics attacked the newspaper for mocking his claims, which they implicitly acknowledge as valid. The Prince’s staff forged ahead with the hope of a post-racial world, while their peers constantly pulled it towards their own prejudices.
The politics of victimization are quite useless at a place like Harvard or Princeton, where most mean well. In fact, this is as close to a perfect community as we are likely to see in our lives. Nobody is out to get anyone, and I think most people understand that. Those who don’t must start giving their peers more credit.
Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears regularly.