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Scandal at Princeton

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Last month, in its annual joke issue, The Daily Princetonian (Princeton University’s campus newspaper) published an insulting and politically incorrect mock letter supposedly written by a man named Lian Ji. The “letter,” in fact, mercilessly satirized an actual person—Jian Li, a former applicant to Princeton who had been rejected in spite of his perfect SAT scores and high GPA. Jian Li had consequently sued Princeton on grounds of racial discrimination.

The Princetonian’s joke “letter” was written using broken English and blatantly made use of pathetic, juvenile Chinese-American stereotypes (referring to activities such as doing laundry and cooking “greasy” food as common “yellow” pursuits). When Asian-Americans began to react to the publication of the article with outrage, the paper quickly noted in its defense that the piece had been written by Asian students. Reading the defense, I initially hoped the editors meant Chinese-American students and weren’t making the almost universal mistake of lumping all Asian races together. On reflection, it doesn’t really matter if the writers were Chinese or not. There is no excuse that could make the piece acceptable. If anything, such a defense only adds an element of self-loathing to the racism manifest in the piece.

Not surprisingly, the article caused a stir on the university’s campus and among Asian-Americans everywhere. While I’m personally not that offended by the notably unfunny letter or its use of old, tiresome stereotypes (I’ve heard them all before), I am annoyed that such insensitive writing would receive a green light for publication, particularly at a “prestigious” university where the “well-educated” students publishing the campus paper really ought to know better. I highly doubt that Princeton would have allowed a hurtful parody of any other minority group to be printed.

In a day and age when some politicians want to ban the use of the “n” word, it’s still fair game to poke fun at Asians. Is it because we are perceived as non-threatening? Because we lack a strong, unified political voice or spokesperson? Or just because of the unfortunate stereotype that we are passive and timid? The fact that Princeton’s Asian-American Students Association issued a joint statement with the current managing board of The Princetonian pretty much downplaying the incident and insisting that all is fine and dandy for Asian students on the grounds of the Ivy League campus, does nothing to dissipate that stereotype. The statement reads, “We understand that the authors of the op-ed hoped to satirize harmful stereotypes of their community. This intent, however, was unclear, and we deeply regret that this lapse in judgment caused some readers pain. We recognize that the race of the authors does not lessen the op-ed’s impact.” In a further effort to clean up the mess, the Association co-sponsored a forum allowing students to voice their opinions on the controversy. 

While I think Li’s lawsuit was a bit excessive, he filed it because he felt discriminated against. Princeton’s case is not helped by its newspaper printing the joke letter—which is not only racist, but demeaning and dehumanizing. Surely it would not be a laughing matter if Caucasian applicants—or worse yet, “legacy” candidates—were being denied admission due to racial quotas. 

Perhaps the joke idea for the piece would have actually been funny (and acceptable) if it had been written in proper English using an exaggeratedly entitled and arrogant tone. Why did the authors resort to bigotry for cheap shots and unfunny “humor”? Regarding the situation, Nick Douglas of the Huffington Post wrote, “Aren’t we in an age when racial jokes are okay? Sure. But ‘racist’ humor only works when it’s not actually racist. And to rise above racism, it has to be funny. Racism isn’t a joke, it’s a setup, and these jokes are just slurs.” Someone needs to tell this to the humor-impaired Harvard and Yale rejects who wrote the “Lian Ji” letter.

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