Princeton newspaper’s ‘joke’ issue offends

When it comes to making a statement, it’s hard to think of a topic more explosive than that of race. While watching television, attending a lecture, or even reading a college newspaper, it’s easy to keep a finger poised, awaiting the ignorant, the tasteless, and the inappropriate. Right now, all fingers point toward The Daily Princetonian, which offended students, alumni, and onlookers alike in its annual “joke” issue.

In exaggerated, broken English, The Daily Princetonian published a fake letter under the pseudonymous byline “Lian Ji” on January 17. The article pokes fun at a real student, Jian Li, who is a first-year at Yale. Li was denied acceptance to Princeton and has issued a federal civil rights complaint against Princeton for its alleged anti-Asian racial discrimination in admissions.

The language of the letter is offensive in its own right: “I the super smart Asian,” it reads. “Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me.” Moreover, the article is stuffed with tasteless Asian jokes, addressing the usual tired stereotypes concerning schoolwork, music lessons, and “FOBs.” Every line of the Lian Ji article is a disconnected jab. There’s no argument, no thesis to justify The Daily Princetonian’s attempt at satire.

It’s hard to gauge the legitimacy of Li’s complaint and others like it. On the one hand, it’s plausible that the notoriously exclusive Ivy League institutions could be rejecting Asians and Asian-Americans in unfair amounts. Li was the perfect applicant on paper: He had a perfect score on his SATs, good grades, and an impressive array of extracurricular activities.

But doesn’t everybody know at least one Ivy League sob story? Your friend the class valedictorian, 4.9 GPA, who cured cancer and pulls orphans out of burning buildings — Princeton pretty much rejects everybody. With so many applications to choose from, a lot of worthy students get turned away. And this one wound up at Yale — boo hoo.

The point is, it would have been easy for The Daily Princetonian to satirize Li’s legal complaint. It could have addressed the yearly collegiate admissions frenzy, the melodrama surrounding rejection, or people’s tendency to play the “race card” when all else fails.

If anything, the article only reinforced the Ivy stigma. Members of The Daily Princetonian were quick to point out that the joke issue — and the paper in general — was the product of a diverse group of students. That may be, but when you read such tasteless racial humor, especially when it comes from a school like Princeton, it’s hard to imagine
that that’s the case.

Also inexcusable is The Daily Princetonian’s initial apology, which came in the form of an editor’s note on January 19. “We embraced racist language in order to strangle it,” the note read. A kid complaining about being rejected from an Ivy League, while it may be worth lampooning, is entirely unrelated to strangling racist language.

The method of comedy that The Daily Princetonian claims to have attempted is possible, but the newspaper didn’t do it. Stephen Colbert “strangles” ignorant language on a daily basis by becoming the same stubborn bigot he seeks to cut down. Another example is the Facebook group “Homophobia Is So Gay,” which turns the popular “That’s so gay” phrase on its head, exposing the senselessness of all who say it.

That being said, The Tartan does not mean to condemn all those who take risks. College newspapers present a unique opportunity for experimentation. With their young readership and fast turnover rate, college newspapers have a unique opportunity to innovate and push the borders of what is accepted with far less risk than a professional newspaper would take on.

A college newspaper, however, also faces the burden of representing its entire institution. When The Daily Princetonian makes a mistake, Princeton looks bad. In the end, its important to find a balance between what’s risky and what’s standard. We wish The Daily Princetonian the best of luck in finding that balance.