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Did UCLA and NYT Overreact to Student's "Asians in the Library" Video?

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Just a little over a week ago, Alexandra Wallace, a UCLA college student, posted a short, 3-minute video blog on YouTube that would end up changing her life. In the video, the self-described "polite, nice American girl," a junior political science major, ranted about the customs and manners of the "hordes of Asians" on campus. Her main gripe was with Asians talking on cell phones in the library during finals period -- some apparently to see if relatives survived the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In the most offensive part of the video, Wallace used a mock Asian accent and ethnic slur to portray her version of what Asian students said on their cellphones in the UCLA library: "Ohhh. Ching chong ling long ting tong."

The incendiary video -- which Wallace titled "Asians in the Library" -- soon went viral on YouTube and Facebook, drawing a half million views the weekend it was posted. Other UCLA students, including Asian American students, soon posted response videos on YouTube -- a number quite effectively parodying the female student's offensive video and its use of dubious Asian stereotypes and slurs. After the video went viral, within a few short days, Wallace quickly removed it from YouTube. According to the UCLA Bruin newspaper, she called campus police to report that she had received death threats. Also, the next day, she sent the following apology to the school newspaper:

Clearly the original video posted by me was inappropriate. I cannot explain what possessed me to approach the subject as I did, and if I could undo it, I would. I'd like to offer my apology to the entire UCLA campus. For those who cannot find it within them to accept my apology, I understand.

But it was too late. Others had copied the video and reposted it on YouTube (nevermind the potential copyright infringement, though fair use is a possible defense). Later that Monday after the original video was posted, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block got into the action and posted an official video for UCLA to state that he was appalled by the student's video (though he did not identify her by name, probably out of concern for discreteness) and called for greater civility in discourse on campus.

During the week, and amidst the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in Japan, national media attention grew over the UCLA student's video. By week's end, The New York Times -- amazingly -- devoted a full editorial weighing in on the incident. On that same day, Wallace issued another apology through the school newspaper and announced that she would no longer attend UCLA out of concerns for her personal safety.

In an attempt to produce a humorous YouTube video, I have offended the UCLA community and the entire Asian culture. I am truly sorry for the hurtful words I said and the pain it caused to anyone who watched the video. Especially in the wake of the ongoing disaster in Japan, I would do anything to take back my insensitive words. I could write apology letters all day and night, but I know they wouldn't erase the video from your memory, nor would they act to reverse my inappropriate action.

I made a mistake. My mistake, however, has lead to the harassment of my family, the publishing of my personal information, death threats, and being ostracized from an entire community. Accordingly, for personal safety reasons, I have chosen to no longer attend classes at UCLA.

On that same day, perhaps no solace to Wallace, according to the school paper, UCLA announced that she would not be subject to disciplinary action because her video did not violate the school's code of conduct and was protected free speech.

So what lessons can we draw from this entire affair? Certainly, one important lesson is that negative stereotypes of Asians and use of mocking Asian accents and ethnic slurs are wrong, but are still all too common in the U.S. Like many others, I experienced these hurtful slights first-hand while growing up in the U.S. Although the U.S. has come a long way in race relations, we still have a ways to go.

What Wallace said in mock Asian accent last week was not too different from what Shaquille O'Neal, then playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, first said about Yao Ming: "Tell Yao Ming, 'ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.'" (O'Neal later apologized to Yao, and the two would eventually show a great deal of mutual respect in head-to-head battles on the court.) But Shaq's not the only celebrity to use the Asian slur -- Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, and Rosie O'Donnell have, too, even more recently. Hopefully, from this incident, greater public attention -- and condemnation -- will be raised on the use of Asian slurs and mock Asian accents.

Another lesson to draw, however, is the need for proportionality, particularly in the age of the Internet in which anything and everything can go viral. The Internet doesn't know proportionality, boundaries, or restraint. And it never forgets. There's a good chance Alexandra Wallace's 3-minute video will remain forever on YouTube -- portraying her in a very negative light. The New York Times editorial will likely be there, too. While Wallace has no one to blame for the notoriety from her offensive video except herself, we do have to remember that she is a college student. There's perhaps no other population that is as prone to saying or doing inappropriate or embarrassing things as college students. Yet, at the same time, college students probably have one of the greatest opportunities for personal growth, learning, and expanding their horizons. And colleges have a responsibility to educate their students, no matter how foolish at times they may be. It would be a pity if an institution as great as UCLA could not figure out a way to reach out to Alexandra Wallace and its entire student body, in order to make this unfortunate incident, to borrow President Obama's apt phrase, a teachable moment.