In the Spring of 2012, two Duke freshmen running for the positions of Class of 2015 President and Vice President circulated a campaign image that members of the Asian American community at Duke found issue with. These two students posed for their campaign picture smiling in front of two Duke eateries: one holding a piece of matzah (Jewish unleavened bread) in front of the Duke Freeman Center for Jewish Life (known to serve Jewish food); the other, holding chopsticks in front of Panda Express (an on-campus “Chinese Bistro” restaurant that also serves sushi). An overlay on the photo made a quip about the candidates eating preferences for “Latkes and Lo Mein.”
Members of the Asian American community, including leaders of the undergraduate ASA (Asian Students Association) and the AAA (Asian American Alliance) were quick to respond with comments regarding the appropriateness of such imagery. Public criticisms, and personal outreach to the candidates running were made. Fortunately, the candidates retracted their campaign image within the span of hours and issued a public apology in the following day, saying they did not intend to offend any members of either the Jewish or Asian community. The quick and genuine manner in which the candidates responded was greatly appreciated by the Asian American community leaders. However, while the candidates stated their intentions were completely innocuous, discussions of the racial offensiveness of such a campaign continues among those who saw the campaign ad.
Was the campaign “racist?” This was perhaps the most burning question of all— was this just a “light-hearted campaign,” or was it a situation worthy of the big “R” word? Many people have their own working definitions of what is racist and what is not, but according to historic and current academic definitions of racism, no— the campaign was not racist, though it was racially offensive. Since the candidates were directly representing only themselves in a racially stereotyped way (as a Jewish and Asian American), the campaign image was not racially oppressive (racist), more than it was racially self-deprecating. The stereotypical image they perpetuated was only harming their own racial communities—a much different case from the Pilgrims and Indians party hosted by Duke’s chapter of Pi Kappa Phi last fall, in which a primarily white group of students were portraying a racially defined people of color in a stereotypical and degrading way. That was racist.
The problem with this campaign was it fell too easily into historically stereotypical narratives that are racially oppressive and “muticulturally comforting.” In America’s past, white supremacists have used political cartoons of Jews with facial hair and large noses, minstrel shows, and Chinese language mocking as a way to put down people of color strictly on a racial basis. These examples are just a small part of a larger mainstream American culture of racialized imagery, stereotypes, and narratives that oppress people of color— historically initiated by elite white men, and primarily benefiting elite white men. When people of color refuse to deny these depictions of themselves, or aid and further these stereotypical narratives, it becomes racially offensive due to the universality of race. While these candidates probably did not intend to make a stereotyped claim on behalf of their races, the problem with the world is intentions don’t carry over into reality. Because race is such a unifying characteristic, this Jewish and Asian Americans’ depictions of only themselves inevitably reflected upon the members of their collective racial communities.
In other words, the campaign ad was racially offensive because it spread a message that stereotypical (un-complex) views of Jewish and Asian people are okay, because they are true and supported by actual Jewish and Asian Americans.
This is a very dangerous slope to play on. As smiling candidates looking for some easy votes, pandering to a very white-racial-framed way of understanding people of color as simply different “flavors” downplays the real significance of race—that as racial minorities in America, people of color have been subjected to centuries of oppressive history that primarily benefits white males. Instead of playing off the benefits that being a person of color may give you, such as a unique perspective into how power and privilege works, these candidates unintentionally played to a racially stereotypical mainstream tune, suggesting that all being a racial minority “really is” is enjoying different kinds of food and having some “really interesting (commoditized, un-American, and non-progressive)” culture.
Ultimately, the quick response of the candidates running to the ASA’s political judgement showed open-mindedness and political competence. Following the retraction, the freshmen resourcefully requested a BSA board member to represent them in a summit between the two cultural groups. As a cultural group dedicated to educating Duke about its Asian/Asian-American population and calling out racial insensitivities, the ASA was very pleased in the manner in which these candidates responded. While this in no way excuses their racially offensiveness of their initial campaign image, the ASA believes this episode shows hope for the future of Asian American depiction on campus.