A racist piece of satire transitioned into a confusing crash course in journalistic ethics this weekend after an article written up in Harvard University's student-run Harvard Voice magazine managed to offend pretty much everyone, including its author.
The blog post, published Saturday evening, was called "5 People You'll See at Pre-Interview Receptions" and ostensibly meant to lampoon stereotypical applicants at on-campus recruiting events for finance and consulting jobs. Unfortunately, many readers found the description of "The Asian" less-than-funny. (The post has since been modified, more on that below, but it was reproduced by various sources including Jezebel and the Harvard Crimson.)
You can always spot the Asian contingent at every pre-interview reception. They dress in the same way (satin blouse with high waisted pencil skirt for girls, suits with skinny ties for boys), talk in the same sort-of gushy, sort-of whiny manner, and have the same concentrations and sky-high GPAs. They're practically indistinguishable from one another, but it's okay. Soon, they will be looking at the same Excel spreadsheets and spend their lunch talking about their meaningful morning conversations with the helpdesk of Bloomberg. Uniqueness is overrated when you make six-figure salaries.
As objections to the segment's racially-tinged commentary flooded the post's comments section, the editors of the magazine apparently panicked and started making a somewhat bewildering number of addendums that appeased no one.
First, the byline was changed from "The Voice Staff" to "Anonymous," not exactly a vote of confidence on the part of the editorial staff, and also rewrote the paragraph as "the super-interviewee."
The magazine also posted two notes from the editor, apologizing if anyone was offended by the content, but "standing by" the decision to make fun of the recruiting process at the elite university.
A note from the writer was also added.
Clearly, I've been censored, which in itself is an interesting reflection on free speech in America. If you couldn't tell that this article was satire, then we have bigger problems than me being "offensive."
(If you are curious to know what the fifth stereotype is, just take a quick look around the room. JK!)
The Harvard Crimson followed up with a story featuring undergrads who were offended by the piece.
Pamela Yau ’14, co-president of the Harvard Radcliffe Asian American Association, told The Crimson that the blog post led to a discussion about lingering racism on campus.
“It’s sad that there are still these stereotypes that exist about Asian people,” Yau said. “Even if the post was written in a joking way, trying to be humorous, I think that to group all the Asians together still plays to that stereotype that Asians are always trying to fight against and speak up about. We do appreciate the fact that there was a backlash.”
IvyGate pointed out that the Harvard post's causal stereotyping is characteristic of a continued pattern of anti-Asian sentiment that crops up across the Ivy League from time to time.
In 2007, a controversial column featured in the Princeton paper's annual joke issue was written in broken English and drew on several stereotypes about Asians, including perfect SAT scores and greasy food.
And this spring, posters advertising an appearance by Margaret Cho at Cornell University prompted a strong backlash from community members due to their "oriental" font.
In regards to the current Harvard Voice controversy, the Yale Daily News noted that at the end of the day, the post in its original form was neither witty nor interesting:
Maybe a short and witty style could have given the piece some color, but, as the piece clearly shows, it can be difficult to make color funny yet tasteful.