Guest Blogger

Fruit Roll Up: A Systemic Failure of Empathy

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 22, 2012 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: anti-gay violence, Kristina Bui, Landon Bryce, Mark Woodhams, offensive cartoon, The Daily Wildcat, University of Arizona

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Landon Bryce writes about autism at thAutcast.com. He lives in San Jose, California, with his partner Max.

Last Tuesday, The Daily Wildcat, the student newspaper of the University of Arizona in Tucson, ran a comic strip that appeared to celebrate violence against gay people:

daily-wildcat-cartoon.png

"Ya know son... If you ever tell me you're gay... I will shoot you with my shotgun, roll you up in a carpet, and throw you off a bridge."
"Well, I guess that's what you call a 'Fruit Roll Up'"
Laughter.

I initially wanted to write about this because I see Daily Wildcat editor Kristina Bui embodying an attitude I see over and over again in the autism community and which I am certainly sometimes guilty of myself. We live in a time where American culture teaches us these two things:

1) We have the right never to be offended.

2) We have the right to say and do whatever we want, and that others are wrong to take offense at the expression of our ideas.

As I've learned about the situation at the Daily Wildcat, though, my focus has changed from the student editor to Mark Woodhams, director of student media at the university, who ignored obvious warning signs that Bui lacked the maturity to be in a position of real responsibility, allowed her to take the paper's publication process in a direction that emphasized speed over following good procedures, did not provide adequate supervision in making sure that the student-run publication did not have major holes in its editorial processes, and has shown total indifference toward how the Wildcat has treated minorities for years. He needs at least to be reprimanded and put under more direct supervision himself.

The Right to Not Have Your Feelings Hurt

Kristina Bui acknowledges in her blog that she has led a sheltered and privileged life:

I've never really had to go beyond my comfort zone. I'm going to college in my hometown, I live a short drive away from my family, I've been fortunate enough to have only supporting professors and friends. I have never really had a reason to be scared of anything.

Almost exactly one year ago, she wrote an editorial for the Wildcat which praised a program out of Ohio University that sought to raise consciousness about the hurt that people can feel when others wear costumes based on racial stereotypes:

It's hard to explain exactly what is so wrong about being a geisha or a sheik for Halloween. It's unsettling. It's a feeling I've always struggled to articulate -- a discomfort that sort of just sits in the place between your heart and your stomach, quietly nagging. It's a sense of being wronged without knowing exactly what was done to you.

People who think racism is dead think so because they don't see active discrimination. They think, "But minorities are allowed to do everything I'm allowed to do, so where's the harm?" STARS' poster campaign calls attention to another problem: Minorities are often made into caricatures.

And that's why Ohio University's Students Teaching About Racism in Society exists. STARS aims to "educate and facilitate discussion about racism and to promote racial harmony and to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings."

STARS exists because racism is only playing dead. It manifests itself not in slurs and exclusion, but in stupid jokes and really inaccurate costumes. As a minority, you're a character, not a person. People dress up as you on Halloween. On TV, you're the token black guy, easily replaced by some other black guy after one season.

I agree with Bui that costumes based on the ethnicity of others are a bad idea, but I'm not sure this campaign is a good one. I've seen a lot of racist costumes, but I've also seen people who chose to dress as heroes they wanted to be who happened to belong to other races. I worry that campaigns like this teach people that everyone who complains about discrimination is saying that they have the right never to be teased and never to have their feelings hurt.

You Can't Be Trained to Know How We Feel

I worry that that is the only message that Bui has picked up, not only from this campaign, but from her experience as a mentor and dorm counselor for the UA Journalism Diversity Workshop for High School Students. Several commenters have suggested that Bui be given "diversity training." Seeing as she's already helped give it to others, I don't think that will work.

Certainly, she will not get good guidance from University of Arizona Coordinator of Social Justice Education Hannah Lozen. I contacted Lozen because I was incredulous about a Facebook comment she had made praising the school for its response to this situation when the response thus far has been to do nothing. I hung up on her when told me that, although she was not a member of the LGBT community, she knew how I felt.

No, she does not, and neither does Kristina Bui. If college diversity programs are teaching children like Kristina who do not know what it is to be afraid that they understand discrimination because they feel ooky when they see someone in a geisha costume, I think they are doing more harm than good.

I know fear. Every gay person knows fear. We know it from childhood because many of us are in danger of being rejected by our parents.

  • 50% of all gay and lesbian youth report that their parents reject them due to their sexual orientation.
  • 26% of gay and lesbian youth are forced to leave home because of conflicts over their sexual orientation.
  • In a study of 194 gay and lesbian youth, 25% were verbally abused by parents, and nearly 10% dealt with threatened or actual violence.

Bui's History of Insensitivity, Incompetence, & Bad Decision Making

Gay people are not the only minority group whose fears Bui has failed to show any sensitivity toward. She also does not understand the actual threat of violence that many African American people have. She wrote an editorial last spring in which she criticized the Daily Texan for firing Stephanie Eisner after publishing her insensitive cartoon about the death of Trayvon Martin.

Bui can't see that Eisner's cartoon has embedded in it a "Why is there no White history month" sort of racism. She can't see that Eisner may have intended to tell a joke about the media, but she did it at the expense of a real dead kid. Neither shows any sensitivity to the very real fears about violence that most young black men face.

Eisner's cartoon, her editors' decision to run the cartoon, their subsequent statement about the cartoon's "sensitive nature" and then Eisner's firing are indeed a timeline of failures in judgment. But the controversy isn't about the cartoon or even the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Instead, it raises questions about journalistic integrity, the willingness to take risks and the conviction necessary to endure the consequences.

There is no taking back your errors in judgment, especially when they're published in print and online. There's no deleting them, even if you pull them from your website, and no mealy-mouthed statement of apology will undo their damage. Firing Eisner didn't make the problem go away.

Daily Texan editors caved. The point of the editorial cartoons - and the editorial pages of newspapers in general - is to challenge readers' views and provoke them to engage in meaningful discussion. Sometimes people get offended, and you have to have even more meaningful discussion to work through the offense.

I disagree, but this is actually a defensible attitude - just not from someone who demands that others to be so sensitive that they not put on a poncho and wear it to a party.

The editorial should have been a red flag to staff at the University of Arizona. So should her application for the editor-in-chief position, in which she said "we have to stop thinking like such a news organization." She compares journalism education to a "crusty old man" who keeps calling the newsroom to ask the score of the game. She praises herself for the nontraditional format of her application and her enthusiasm for taking risks. Even though she was the only applicant, what she wrote should have warned Woodhams and the rest of the Student Media Advisory Board that her tendency toward arrogance would require a shorter leash than might be ideal for a student-run publication.

Instead, she was allowed to go on with the scheme that might have resulted in the Fruit Roll Up strip going to press through sloppiness. She wanted content to go online while students were still awake and would enjoy it. That makes sense but it indicates that she might be valuing speed over quality. In the YouTube videos where she explains what she wants to do, she says that all content should still be looked at by two editors.

However, the comics section was overseen only by Bui herself, as explained by Bethany Barnes in one of three inadequate apologies the Wildcat has published.

One person usually reviews cartoons: the editor-in-chief. Not a copy editor, not the copy chief, not the managing editor. Just one person.

It's now abundantly clear that the comics are too often reviewed as more of an afterthought and not as editorial content.

We wrote that the Wildcat is reviewing editorial policies. You deserve to know exactly what that means.

Having the cartoons looked at by one person is insufficient and puts too much pressure on an individual. Especially when that individual is the person running the entire paper.

Cartoons are opinions and editorial content. They should be treated with the same care because they are powerful. Good comics do more than cause a chuckle; they can discuss important issues in a meaningful way. Bad comics - and this was a doozy of one - not only hurt others but can cause hate to be perpetuated.

Leadership from the Bottom

Mark Woodhams, who has been the Wildcat's adviser since the 1990s, should have known from experience the difficulties comics can cause and made sure that this hole in the production process was mended. In 2008, the Wildcat created controversy by including a comic strip from a Black cartoonist which showed someone announcing their intention to vote for Obama by calling him the N-word. At the time, the staff claimed that ran as a result of an error.

The year before that, the Wildcat fired cartoonist Joseph Topmiller after publishing a cartoon that mocked Jewish people for being lousy tippers. At that time, Woodhams stated the staff's wish that the controversy would just go away and rejected requests that they get needed education.

However, Woodhams says there will not be any sensitivity training. Helping editorial staff and reporters think smarter is the solution, not re-education, Woodhams says, adding that he plans to sit down with editorial staffers to discuss how to prevent this kind of problem from happening again.

He displayed a similar attitude when I talked to him on the phone last week.

Did he know any gay people? He was offended by the question.

No, really, did he know any gay people? Of course.

Had he discussed the comic strip with any of them? No.

Would he considering doing so? No.

He reiterated the same things he said to Arizona Daily star reporter Carmen Duarte.

Mark Woodhams, director of student media, said "the students are entirely responsible for the content of the paper, and there is no prior review."

He said Bui was "taking responsibility and has done a good job of stepping up to the plate, recognizing the problem and apologizing for it."

In response to the online petition calling for Bui's resignation, Woodhams said he had no comment, and added that Bui "has my full confidence as editor in chief."

Responsibility Is Not a Joke

But Bui has not taken responsibility. Even though she is the person who hired cartoonist D.C. Parsons and was the only one who reviewed his work before it was published, the Wildcat claimed that "staff" was to blame in their first inadequate apology, which did not acknowledge any real problem with the comic strip itself, noting only that "some readers felt (it) was homophobic and inappropriate." In a later piece under her own name, Bui still fails to admit that she personally made the error, again blaming "staff" and readers not hip enough to get that she thought it was supposed to be ironic bigotry.

On Tuesday, the Daily Wildcat staff made a serious error in judgment in printing a cartoon that some readers felt was homophobic and inappropriate.

She apparently does not understand that the reason over 600 people listed their names as LGBTQA allies in an ad that appeared in her paper last week is not only because it was the fourteenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death but because as he lay dying, a group of college students, very very much like herself and D.C. Parsons, mocked his death. The person who found Matthew beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die thought he was a scarecrow.

A very different sort of tribute to Matt appeared in the Colorado State University homecoming parade the same day in the city of Fort Collins. As Matt lay in the hospital just a few miles away, a float in the parade carried a scarecrow draped in anti-gay epithets. While the papers were reluctant to report the full range of insults, I heard that the signs read "I'm Gay" and "Up My Ass." Colorado State University acted quickly to punish the sorority and fraternity responsible for the float (the censured students blamed vandalism committed by an unknown third party), but still it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the degree of dehumanization such an act required, how much those responsible must have felt, however fleetingly or unconsciously, that Matt was not a fellow human being, their age, with his future torn away from him.

She was a child then, but Marks Woodhams was not. He should know better. The University of Arizona needs to take action against both him and Kristina Bui. I worry that the attention she has gotten from this will be rewarding for her. In the first line of her bio, she brags.

Once, a conservative talk radio host called me a "snot-nosed punk," among other names, while he was on the air. Afterward, a couple of angry strangers wrote me some emails about how pissed off they were.

Someone needs to tell her this isn't a joke. So I suggest you join over 8000 people who have signed a petition asking that she be fired.

But the person who really needs to be fired is Mark Woodhams, who should have seen this coming and stopped it.

The First Amendment Is Not an Excuse for Incompetence

Today Bui has written the closest thing to a legitimate apology that the Wildcat has printed so far.

Last week, I made a terrible mistake.

In a distracted rush, I allowed the Daily Wildcat to print a comic strip illustrating a parent threatening his child to scare him about coming out. The child makes a crude joke, both fictional characters laugh.

Its intention was not to be funny in the same way that comics like "Garfield" should be. Instead, it meant to highlight a social commentary about hate speech and crimes against the LGBTQ community. But the cartoon's message came across as "this should happen" although it meant to say "this does happen." And the message should have been, "This does but should not happen." That message could not fit in a four-panel drawing.

The world is full of awful things, and joking about them can work to shed light on them. But the jokes can only work if you use your medium to make those awful things better, not worse.

And then she goes on wrap herself in the First Amendment.

She does not get that the University of Arizona has an obligation to its gay students to make sure they are not threatened and that the school is subject to lawsuits if it does not take action to prove it is not promoting an atmosphere where violence against gay people is winked at.

Nor does she understand that if the UA does what it should and removes both the editor and the adviser from their positions it will not be because of the expression of legitimate views. It will be for incompetence.

She has admitted that she published the strip through carelessness. He let an aspiring provocateur be put in charge and did not make sure good journalistic practices were followed.


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