Today is the third anniversary of the "War Against Asians" controversy, which was sparked by an ill-advised and poorly executed satire in the Campus Press, the student-run news website of the University of Colorado in Boulder. I remember the date because it ran on Feb. 18 -- one day before the annual Japanese American observance of Day of Remembrance, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 110,000 people of Japanese Ancestry, half born in the US and therefore American citizens.
So here was this commentary by a young student journalist, who thought it would be appropriate to make fun of Asians on the CU campus in a piece titled "If it's war the Asians want... it's war they'll get." In my initial reaction to the article, I quoted this passage:
I'm such a fool for not realizing it sooner. I can't tell you how many times the Asians have treated me like a retarded weasel and I've forgiven them. But now I know that Asians are not just "a product of their environment," and their rudeness is not a "cultural misunderstanding."
They hate us all.
And I say it's time we started hating them back. That's right-no more "tolerance." No more "cultural sensitivity." No more "Mr. Pretend-I'm-Not-Racist."
It's time for war.
But we won't attack their bodies or minds. We will attack their souls.
Some people might say that we're being too sensitive, but every Asian I know was outraged and offended. The article spread like wildfire, passed along via email and word-of-mouth. It didn't just make an impression with readers on the CU campus -- especially Asian and Asian American students, who felt unsafe. It provoked passionate angry reactions within the Asian community in Denver, and with Asian student groups in Denver. I wrote my response (and a bunch of follow-up blog posts), and others did too. There were community meetings to discuss what steps to take to protest the column. A group of the area's Asian and Asian American leaders met with CU administrators, including the dean of the journalism school and the university's chancellor. Meetings were held. A public protest on campus drew the attention of the local media. Nobody thought it was funny.
The repercussions from this column have echoed ever since -- and in good ways.
The immediate aftermath was that the Campus Press changed its procedure for posting articles so that today, three levels of editors review every story before it appears on the website. The website itself changed it name, to the CU Independent, and changed from a class within the J-school to a student activity, making it more truly independent from the university (though it's still funded in large part by the school). Diversity training was given every semester t the staff for a couple of years (Erin and I were asked to come speak to the CUI a couple of times). Last year the staff committed to covering issues of diversity by creating a special section called "Speak Out" for those types of stories; this semester they dismantled the section because they saw it as "ghetto-izing" and trivializing stories about diverse communities and issues. They still cover those issues but the stories are in the News and Sports and Entertainment and Features sections, where they belong. There's also a Diversity Board that helps guide the CUI's editorial coverage so that it's multifaceted and diverse.
Last year, the adviser for the Independent, who had led the students on what can be described as a heroic evolution in the way it thought about diversity issues, and turned around the reputation of the CU Independent, left the university.
I got the job and became the new adviser.
So today, I marvel at the "enso," the Japanese word for circle, which is one of the most important concepts of Zen Buddhism. In Western terms, it's "what goes around comes around." There's a kismet to my now being the one who helps the student journalists when they need advice, or guidance on a complex story, or a reference for a job interview.
I'm loving the gig. The students are all passionate about the great values of journalism: Seeking the truth, shining a light on lies, and being ethical and accurate and telling great stories. They don't always nail it perfectly, but I'm very, very proud of their work. Several students are already working or have internships in the "real world," with the Associated Press, the Greeley Tribune and the Denver Business Journal. Many of the CU Independent staff will have terrific careers in the media of the future.
I'm there to help them do great journalism, but they don't need much help on that front. I'm also there to introduce some of the new concepts of the digital age to the Independent. They've amped up the use of social media. They're working on more videos and multimedia. They're trying new ways to engage audiences with innovative games like Prediculous, and soon, Qrank. They hope to try some cutting-edge projects using augmented reality with a company called TagWhat. They're already using a cool tool called VYou to let people ask questions directly of the editors, which are answered in short video clips (Editor-in-Chief Sara Morrey has her own VYou, and so do some other staffers). I'm throwing a lot of cool stuff at them, and they're taking on as much as possible, while they also pursue the journalism that's their main mission.
Journalism is thriving at the Independent, but the shadow of the "War Against Asians" debacle still shows up sometimes. Some of the graduating seniors were fresh young reporters on the staff when the controversy exploded in their collective faces, and I would describe them as gun-shy about generating any more controversy. Sometimes I'd say they're almost too sensitive about offending readers, but on the other hand, I guess it's better that they go out into the world being overly sensitive than being oblivious.
The column hurt the Campus Press' relationship with the J-school's students and faculty, but I think now, bridges are being rebuilt and relationships are warming. I credit the staff's great work on stories last semester including two wildfires and the possible (probably) shut-down of the J-school, which was horribly covered by the area's mainstream media but covered thoroughly and fairly by the CUI. Good journalism is getting the site back the respect it deserves.
I'm sure the students haven't given a thought to the stupid column that ran three years ago today. I won't forget it because it ran just a day before Day of Remembrance. Tomorrow, I'm moderating a panel during an all-day teacher training workshop about Japanese American internment, and Erin's on the panel because her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all interned during the war. On Sunday, a separate Day of Remembrance event will be held to commemorate the horrible injustice of internment.
To me, the significance of February 19 will always be underscored by the outrage I felt on Feb. 18 three years ago today.
I'm glad that outrage has passed and turned into an opportunity for me to work with the eager, smart and savvy students that work today on the CU Independent.
(Cross-posted from Nikkei View)
Follow Gil Asakawa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gilasakawa