Angi S. alerted us to a cartoon that ran this month in Eastern Michigan University’s student newspaper, The Echo. It featured two people in white supremacist hoods in front of a noose hanging from a tree. One says to the other: “Honey, this is the tree where we met.”
The ensuing conversation is a good example of how claims that materials are racist are dismissed by their producers. After receiving criticism, The Echo made the following “response” (here):
We understand the “You Are Here” cartoon may have offended some readers. We apologize for the lack of sensitivity some felt we showed for publishing the piece. The cartoon points out the hypocrisy of hate-filled people. Its intent was to ask how can someone show affection for one person while at the same time hating someone else enough to commit such a heinous act as hanging. We wish to remind readers that they are free to express their opinion on our discussion boards and we hope to continue to foster free thought and open discussion on campus and in the community.
– The Eastern Echo
First, notice that it is a typical “we are sorry that you were offended” non-apology. The first sentence acknowledges that some readers “may have [been] offended” and then says that “some felt” that there was an insensitivity. It does not say that the cartoon was offensive or insensitive.
Second, it also explains that the intention was to point out the “hypocrisy of hate-filled people,” not make light of lynching, without interrogating the relative importance of intent and reception. One could argue that cultural producers are at least somewhat responsible for the myriad of ways that an item could be reasonably interpreted.
Third, it backs into the free speech corner by claiming to be open to all opinions (using the word “free” twice in one sentence).
The Detroit News covered The Echo’s response and also added that while one African American student objected to the cartoon, another thought it was funny. So…
Fourth, the coverage relied on the idea that if just one member of the relevant group is not offended, then maybe the rest are over-reacting.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Keeley — October 8, 2010
I don't think I would call it "racist" - there is no discrimination or hatred levelled against a particular race here, though there is undoubtedly a degree of insensitivity towards people of a particular race.
Stupid, yes. Racist, no.
Unless I'm missing something?
Anon — October 8, 2010
First, The Echo doesn't need to apologize for anything, as it has the right to stand behind its creation and publication.
Second, "cultural producers" are not responsible, at all, for other's opinions on their creations. The only person responsible for their opinions, is them. The creators are not indebted or owe society anything, and it is not their moral imperative to make their creation acceptable for everyone. And some people want to be offensive to make an important point (South Park).
Third, the free speech argument is completely open to interpretation, and this article makes a fairly big assumption based on no evidence. Perhaps the writer at the Echo who drafted the response legitimately wanted a discussion, but either case is nothing more than speculation. Lisa I believe is reading way too much into that statement, and deliberately spinning it to discount the writer and support her viewpoint.
Fourth, the author of this article tries to assign guilt to the Echo by using completely separate evidence. The Detroit News finding two African Americans who lie on either side of the issue does not support, in any way, her original thesis.
Lastly, as a creative person, I have no ethical obligation to be unoffensive. It is my direct choice if I wish to be offensive, and I reap the consequences of that. I also have the right to respond to criticism in any manner I choose; I can be sympathetic and apologize, or I can say screw off and be done with it. This article implies some frightening things: people need to apologize if they offend someone, they need to make something as lest offensive as possible, and the creator's intended subtext is meaningless if the audience is offended.
Patrick — October 8, 2010
Keeley, you're right. This cartoon speaks about all the Asians, Caucasians, Latinos, Indians and so on that were lynched by the Ku-Klux-Klan just as much as about the Blacks.
dub — October 8, 2010
If making fun of the KKK is racist then its rascist. Otherwise it's not
Anonymous — October 8, 2010
It's racist because, although it is critical of the KKK, it makes light of a very triggering topic, right? Is it OK for a Black cartoonist to joke about lynching in this manner? Is it OK for Jews to make fun of Nazis, likewise, but not for others to do so? I'm not making an argument for or against, here, I'm just wondering.
Anonymous — October 8, 2010
I have to say, if the message is actually supposed to be what they claimed, it doesn't come across very well.
Bill — October 8, 2010
Interestingly enough many of these dismissive excuses are the same used by social scientists when confronted about their offensive criticisms of religion.
Kaethe — October 8, 2010
"The hypocrisy of hate-filled people?" The racists don't acknowledge people of color as human, even, so where's the presumed hypocrisy? It's horrific that whites treated lynchings as family-outings, but I don't see how it's hypocritical.
Sue — October 8, 2010
The author was Jason Promo. The student editor who defended it was Josh Coudret.
Just exercising MY right to free speech.
Keydar — October 8, 2010
I'm going to say this at the beginning of my post because I think its important: Just because the dominant narrative doesn't realize something is offensive yet, doesn't mean I won't call you an asshole when you produce it.
Its pretty clear that like many things, humor is defined by a white male perspective. Anybody who doesn't find something funny through very legitimate offense (life experience as a marginalized group) is deemed overly sensitive or humorless. If the dominant group is the only group that finds a joke funny, then by definition the joke is lazy, and unimaginative. It is also the dominant narrative which gets to draw the line in the sand where something goes from "Not funny" to "Funny and you are too sensitive to get it." The issue with comics like these is the fact that the dominant narrative often does not even THINK about issues of racism or sexism before they produce media. Not only that, but their response is always putting blame on the offended.
I am a comic writer myself, and to me, when I write comics, I have a choice of what kind of comics I produce. If I post something racist, even thought it is my right to do it, it is also my choice. It says something about who I am willing to hurt in order to make a joke. Everybody has a line they will not cross in the production of their work. It is not because they are evilly censored, it is because past that line they either don't find it funny, fear the consequences, or don't want to hurt others. The problem here is that with subversive racism, the dominant group will find it funny, there will be no real consequences, and you won't offend most of your readership (white males). So when something subversively racist comes along, people will defend it with talk of free speech, and how creativity can not be restricted, even when they restrict their own free speech all the time. This is flat out hypocrisy. Again, Just because the dominant narrative doesn't realize something is offensive yet, doesn't mean I won't call you an asshole when you produce it.
It is also important to remember that in issues like these, free speech rights, and whether or not something should be posted are two separate issues. Do they have the right to post unfunny crap? Yes of course they do. Do we have the right to call them assholes when they do it? Yes.
Tim wise talked about something similar in the use of the N word by white people:
None — October 8, 2010
Most of the replies to this post are excellent examples.
lol humorless anti-racists.
Angi — October 8, 2010
I don't think there's anything inherently off-limits in humor; incredibly controversial images and words have certainly been deployed countless times to make really powerful, subversive statements. But if that was the intent of this comic, then I think it failed. It comes across as simply playing something incredibly offensive for a joke, and in my opinion that's not a worthwhile use of something so loaded with horrific connotations. As others have pointed out, racism isn't just about having a specifically anti-POC intent. Racism is also insensitivity about and ignorance to how offensive a particular image or words can be. I believe the cartoonist didn't have racist intent. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be having a conversation about what it says about our society that this sort of thing can be produced and published *without* anyone realizing how hurtful and offensive it is.
The question isn't one of free speech or censorship. No one is arguing whether the cartoonist had a "right" to draw this cartoon, or whether the paper had a "right" to publish it. But we can still talk about "shoulds" and shouldn'ts" in spite of what we technically have a right to do. In my opinion, artists and editors should be very careful with material like this, and if they aren't absolutely certain that the intended message is being conveyed, they should err on the side of not wanting to hurt people by printing something so likely to offend (and "offend" seems like not nearly a strong enough word when talking about something as horribly painful as the history of lynching). Having a right to free speech doesn't mean there are no ethical limitations on how we should use that right, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't be having these conversations about where those limitations are.
dana — October 8, 2010
i'm sorry but i really don't get it. could someone please explain this to me? is it that white people are not "allowed" to make fun of the kkk because they weren't affected that much? thank you in advance!
Nadia — October 8, 2010
I don't think the cartoon is racist. If it was depicting Nazis, I wouldn't be offended and I'm Jewish. They are making fun of KKK. They are not making fun of lynching.
Bosola — October 8, 2010
The issue for me is not so much that of "free speech" (freedom of the press, really, but whatever). Does a newspaper have a legal right to publish this sort of stuff? Yes.
But a student newspaper, as an officially sanctioned campus organization, owes a higher standard of care to the members of the community it serves, as it is both chartered and supported by that community. Activity fees assessed on every student almost certainly go to support the operations of this newspaper. Every student is therefore a stakeholder, and one thing a student-stakeholder probably ought to be able to expect is not to see cartoons about KKK members gathered around the lynching tree.
The entire editorial board ought to be cashiered, at once, by the college administration. The purpose of colleges is to educate. The editors of this fine periodical seem to have learned the high points of the "rights" part of the civics curriculum; it's time they moved on to lessons in responsibilities...and consequences.
Syd — October 8, 2010
Huh. If the assumption that the cartoonist is glorifying the KKK? Because that's pretty clearly not the case, from what I can see. I got the joke immediately, but I suspect I've done more research about the specific topic displayed of late than most commenting here. I can see insensitive or tasteless in a university like the one mentioned, but as someone who's history is actually involved with the imagery, once more, I'm more offended by white sociologists telling me what I should be offended by. The message of the cartoon is fairly clear if you're up on your current events,* which I admit, many students at Eastern Michigan might not be 100% up on.
*(FYI, if anyone's head has been in the sand for the last few week, I suspect this is subtly referencing the fact that the KKK wants to mark at Augusta State University in support of a woman who thinks that having to take a gay studies course is violating her first amendment rights, and the rhetoric used is not too different from the rhetoric used in the past where lynching non-whites was a happy event for those whites attending. I have serious doubts that the cartoonist thought 'lol lynching joke.' Though I may be biased. A similar situation happened on my campus a few years ago, with the n-word implied in reference to the 2008 presidential race. People failed to realize that the cartoon, by a black liberal cartoonist, was satirizing a specific group of voters, not just using the cartoon to throw slurs at Barack Obama for no reason)
T — October 8, 2010
(a) I want to echo all of the commentors that are saying, "Umm, this is offensive to the KKK and their ilk, if anyone." Does it include uncomfortable subject matter? Yes. Is it 'making light' of lynching?! Uggh. Really? If you think that, I don't think you should be allowed outside.
(b) Why did Lisa refer to the newspaper's response as a "response"? Yes, it's a non-apology. I think that was intentional. They are NOT apologizing. But they are showing a certain amount of empathy for folks that found the cartoon disconcerting. But, again, wasn't that the point of the cartoon?
(c) What is your point about "backing into the free speech corner"?
Hilary — October 8, 2010
Let me say that one of the most important things we learned at art school was that you are responsible for all possible interpretations of your art. "Well, I didn't want X piece to mean Y" was not allowed as a rebuttal during critiques. It is your job, as an artist, to anticipate and manage interpretations of your artwork. If you were still receiving interpretations that you hadn't intended, then you hadn't done your job properly, and back you went to the drawing board.
This is a poorly executed comic, with several murky meanings. Since the cartoonist hasn't done their job properly, it's no wonder there's confusion and anger over the possible meanings, since it can be taken any number of ways. One could ask why it was created in the first place, since it seems the only value and social commentary it's generating is from whether or not it's racist.
larrycwilson — October 8, 2010
To the extent that the law might be involved the standard is not the intention but the perception.
acutia — October 8, 2010
Hi, I'm new to these discussions, but it would be great if people would post using some kind of username. Mine is acutia. The plethora of people posting as anon/anonymous above make it damn hard to follow any of the several to's and fros of responses to this post.
kevin — October 8, 2010
"One could argue that cultural producers are at least somewhat responsible for the myriad of ways that an item could be reasonably interpreted."
Yes, one could. And in doing so, the reasonable conclusion to draw from this example is that they are terrible political cartoonists... not that they are racists.
FernandaT — October 8, 2010
I'm a person of color (Latino) and I didn't find it offensive at all.
I think it makes a pretty salient point, actually. U.S. media tends to depict racist or oppressive social forces (like the KKK or lynch mobs) as faceless mobs of people removed from any social context. When media depictions do highlight a racist or hateful individual they usually depict the individual as completely monstrous and reprehensible and impossible to relate to. In reality, the people who participated in lynchings or who belonged to racist organizations like the KKK were usually everyday individuals with many of the same mundane concerns that you or I have. It's an important point to make, in my opinion, because it reminds people that the racist and oppressive social structures that have historically existed in the U.S. were constructed by and deeply integrated into mainstream society and were not the work of individuals or organizations on the fringe. I believe Hannah Arendt makes a similar point when she writes about "the banality of evil" in Nazi Germany.
I honestly don't know what interpretation(s) people are getting out of this comic that are offensive. The main grievance seems to be, as Lisa wrote, that it is "mak[ing] light of lynching."
That seems to be true to me but it isn't alone in taking a historically tragic circumstance and analyzing it in a comedic light. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of 'The Producers,' 'Blazing Saddles' or the Holocaust jokes that circulate in some Jewish communities. Do the individuals who object to this cartoon also object to cultural works like these? I think comedy can be a pretty effective way of knocking down oppressive ideologies or even gaining insight into the nature of hatred.
I have to say I disagree with the perspective that cultural producers should be responsible for the way their works are interpreted by others. I'm trying to parse what it means, relative to this cartoon, when people make that criticism.
First, there seems to be the worry that people may not be sophisticated enough to understand irony and may see this as a glorification of lynching or something along those lines. But that seems to me to be calling for art to cater to the lowest common denominator. A lot of people read 'A Clockwork Orange' and conclude that it promotes violence as life-affirming (if you don't believe me, look at any of the soccer hooligan firms in Europe that hold up banners of Alex at matches). Does that mean we should dismiss that novel, and its insight into how social conditions breed violent behavior, because some people are, well, too stupid to "get it"? In my opinion no.
Secondly, there seems to be a concern that it might offend people simply by depicting the KKK or making reference to lynching. The "trigger effect" if you will. The problem is the same could be said of just about any cultural work in our society. Continuing my references to movies: there were a whole lot of Christians who were angry when Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' came out because it depicted crucifixion and other elements of Jesus' life in a satirical light. If you're arguing against the production of cultural works that may be offensive to any significant population group then you're arguing against the production of the vast majority of cultural works in existence in American culture at the moment. I don't think that's what this site is doing though. It's arguing against the production of cultural works that may be offensive to people with particular sensibilities.
maus — October 8, 2010
I'd probably feel a lot different about the "controversial" comic if it was funny, like Space Moose.
T — October 8, 2010
Toni -- "But you’re barely above a troll on this blog, so I should probably disengage..." Yes, you probably should.
T — October 8, 2010
Toni - your response to FernandaT above is odd. There is a HUGE difference between "targeting someone because of X" and "sending a message to everyone associated with X."
Hate crime (or bias-motivated crime) laws are not written to deal with the latter. You are inserting a secondary layer of intent.
Keydar — October 8, 2010
You know, I'm a white guy, and everything I have to say is super super important. I have a lot of things to say, you know? And it is important that everyone hears these things that I say, because, well, I'm white and manly and these things I say are full of smartness.
I have gone through my entire life being able to say everything I wanted, with almost no consequences. This has been pretty rad. And I just want to say, I really don't appreciate it when you tell me that maybe I shouldn't say everything I want to say. I mean, it makes me so mad that I'm willing to defend a really unfunny comic. I mean I'm a white guy god damn it! If I want to make a comic that even Garfield readers won't laugh at, it's my right!
Now, my anger at this post has everything to do with the fact that I'm entitled and can't handle being told "don't" every once in a while. But I'm in denial and can't admit that. So instead I'm going to say that I support this comic for reasons of freedom of speech and freedom of creativity, even though these reasons are completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. Oh, Family Guy is on, I have to go.
That about sum it up?
RGR — October 8, 2010
"The inability to understand why something might be offensive is a form of sociopathy."
- Sherman Alexie, in an interview with the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Language in the US
Dragonclaws — October 8, 2010
As a white person descended from Holocaust survivors, I agree with the Jewish people above who say that if this were about Nazis I would find it unoffensive. I can totally understand why people would find it uncomfortable, but I wouldn't call it racist as much as a morbid depiction of racism. The comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which is often featured here for feminist content, has a few extremely morbid strips I find disturbing that do not touch on the subject of racism, and it's that kind of vibe I get off of this strip. I acknowledge that as a white person I can't understand the perspective of a black person entirely, but I think it's a relevant comparison. It's also worth noting that the Nazis and KKK both target both Jewish and black people, so it's not quite as big of a step away to consider this cartoon with Nazis. Well, that's my perspective, anyway.
KNOWS the DIFFERENCE — October 8, 2010
To attribute ANY act of humanity, e.g. "Honey, this is the tree where we met (apparently a positive experience) to anyone clad in Klan outfits is to miss the boat by a mile.
And these are college students in 2010? The history of the pre-civil-rights era should be strengthened and made mandatory as a freshman course.
End of story.
anna — October 8, 2010
I agree with fernanda. I think the cartoon gets it's point across very well. Lynching in the US was very much a social occasion, where people would take photos and send postcards of the event. These images can still be found online today, as proof. The fact is that people did use lynching against Blacks as a form of entertainment.
However, we like to think that only 100% evil people participated in racist acts, and that "good people" wouldn't do that. Unfortunately, the history of racism in the US shows that people could be decent and kind to each other, and still feel entitled to perpetuate hateful acts towards another group. History shows us that evil deeds are done by both the evil and the good.
We want to forget that lesson so badly. When we do, we make apologies like "oh, that person could never be a racist! That person is (a pastor, doctor, one of my best friends, my husband, my friend since kindergarten, married to someone of that group, just like me)!" Or whatever can be filled in the blank.
It's a conceited attitude that makes it easy to dismiss we live in racist society, and that the mechanisms established to perpetuate that racism are deeply entrenched in our society: they don't just go away because we are nice people.
I don't think the comparison to the Nazi gas chambers is a good one: that was done as a military act, not a social one. The removal and genocide of the Jews was done in a systematic, planned way. It was also done under orders and laws (morally reprehensible laws, but laws nonetheless.) Citizenry that prevented this from happening were also punished by the state.
Lynching, at it's heart, was a mob act done in the heat of passion. It was done by large groups of people acting to repudiate Constitutional laws that allow due process and fail trials. It's not the same as having the military come and take you and your family away. It's like the people in the neighboring town hear a rumor you did something, rally themselves and come to drag you from your home, torture and kill you. Then take photos and have a picnic by your hanging corpse.
Or a mob would storm jail cells, taking out prisoners to lynch them before trial. Either way, they're acting on their own initiative, not under direction from the state, like in Germany. In Germany, the Nazis wanted the Jews gone. In the South, the Whites wanted the Blacks to retain an inferior social position, and used (or circumvented) laws, terrorist acts, demeaning acts and economic influence to make that happen. They didn't want the Blacks gone though, just set aside and beneath them (like they were in slavery.)
The social aspect is the KEY element that made lynching happen. That's why this cartoon works so well for me. If it weren't for the fact that people got some sense of enjoyment and satisfaction by taking the laws into their own hands, lynching wouldn't have occurred at all. (That, and the unwillingness of the courts to legally punish anyone involved.)
I agree that their write-up could have been more nuanced, because as it stands, it's easy to shut down the discussion about how racism flourishes, in spite of people who should know better. But the cartoon itself works. It's spot on to what happened at that time.
Dominika — October 8, 2010
I thought it was black humor. http://www.answers.com/topic/black-comedy I don't see it as racist. Try deconstructing the Monty Pyton group with your type of analysis and they're downright colonial villains. Too simplistic.
anna — October 8, 2010
If you google "lynching parties" you can see the photos taken at these events. Note the women and children in the photos, the young couples holding hands. This wasn't just done by stone cold wicked people. It was a socially acceptable occurrence.
It's deeply unwise to forget how easily good people can participate in evil acts. Especially since lynching occurred through the late 1960's, which means that a 50 year old could have seen this as a child. That may be younger than some of your parents. But it's a part of our history that we would like to forget. Part of that forgetting means we don't discuss what factors led to an environment where a person could be so dehumanized that it seems justified to deprive them of their legal and human rights. These conversations are too important to forget about, and that's another reason why this cartoon works so well for me.
Cats — October 9, 2010
You know what would be cool? If I could go to a website that features images in a sociological context and discuss those images and their context within the framework of sociology. I'd like a site like that. It would be interesting.
What I would not enjoy is a site where I'm constantly having to read racism/sexism/psych/soci 101 conversations with very little movement forward on any subject ever.
I'm glad all the anons up there have so much free time that they feel completely oblivious to the fact that they waste so much of mine.
Rajeev — October 9, 2010
Cats.. agreed. That's why I keep checking in, though I never have found anything. Check out "Savage Minds", "CutureBy", "Everyday Sociology", and "THickCulture" for attempts at proper analysis.
Palaverer — October 9, 2010
I'd like to introduce some of the commenters to the principle of charity: In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker's statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation."
Whether anyone finds the the comic offensive or well-executed is subjective. There is no right or wrong answer there. But to read the paper's explanation of the comic and dismiss it as excuse-making, rather than taking the writer at his word, is not charitable and makes any discussion of their intent useless. It says a lot more about you, than about the writer.
E — October 10, 2010
The comic is intended to offend the reader, because the KKK is a horrible terrorist group that does offensive and horrific things. Yes, lynching is a triggering subject. I think that the artist could have probably gotten by with just including the pointed hoods, but that implication would still be strong. We can debate the quality or tastefulness of the comic all day, but the artist clearly did not intend it to be racist.
alicia — October 15, 2010
"It does not say that the cartoon was offensive or insensitive."
Well, interpretations of media are, as can be seen from the above discussion, subjective. Just because you believe it is offensive and insensitive, does not mean that it is undeniably so. You can't criticize people for failing to agree with you. You can criticize them for intending to offend, for failing to explain their point of view, for not caring if they upset people - the editors did none of these things.
Alice — November 2, 2010
1. The point of the cartoon, as far as I can tell, is "Some people can look at the site of a horrific hate crime and see nothing wrong with it - how awful is that? Clearly none of our readers would ever side with the couple in the cartoon, hence its clear satirical message."
2. The newspaper apologised for offending some of its readers. The newspaper does not believe that the cartoon was unequivocally racist (which it wasn't, given its intention and current social standards) or offensive, hence: "may have offended some readers".
3. If all things triggering should be banned from the press, then surely that should include all reports of hate crimes, rapes, kidnappings, war and murder?
The cartoon wasn't particularly funny or intelligent and I imagine some people would have found it distasteful - hence the newspaper's apology. I don't see anything wrong with the way the publishers handled the whole thing.