On racism in satire: A response to the March 15 Combat Zone cartoon
After careful consideration and counsel from multiple sources, The Trail has decided not to reprint the cartoon due to sensitivity concerns. We encourage the campus community to view the cartoon in the archives at soundideas.pugetsound.edu/thetrail_all/2513/. Click on “March 15 Original Version.”
By Hanna Woods and Linnea Stoll
On March 15, the Combat Zone published the headline “Isiaah Crawford sees his shadow; spring is cancelled.” The headline was accompanied by a picture of a groundhog with a drawing of President Crawford’s face photoshopped over the groundhog’s head. The drawing of Dr. Crawford’s face had exaggerated features and looked much more like Barack Obama than Dr. Crawford. This piece was racist, and readers were understandably disturbed, offended and alienated.
This week’s Combat Zone spread seeks to transparently acknowledge what happened and why it is wrong, as well as to use this incident as an educational tool to deepen this community’s understanding of racism in media and how it relates to our context and campus.
It is important to fully understand why this piece is racist. Both the text of the headline and the photoshopped image insert a black person into the role and body of a groundhog. This connection invokes a long and painful history of white people comparing black people to animals or even claiming that they are animals. Black people have been dehumanized as “beastlike,” “savage” or “brutish” for centuries for the purpose of justifying slavery and post-abolition racism and inequity. This racist stereotype is still prevalent today in both explicit and covert forms. For example, overemphasizing the athleticism of black men is one evolution of this stereotype because it locates black men’s value in their bodies and erases their humanity. Subtle expressions of this stereotype are no less serious than explicit ones; they carry the full weight of the stereotype’s history and the fundamentally racist and oppressive intentions behind it.
Beyond the implications of imbuing a black person with animalistic qualities, there was the issue of the drawing of President Crawford’s face. The drawing itself is cartoonish in style with slightly exaggerated features: an elongated chin and face and an enlarged smile. Due to these exaggerations, the identity of the face does not obviously belong to President Crawford and instead closely resembles drawings of Barack Obama.
This invokes the serious concern whether the artist could distinguish between President Crawford and Obama, calling to mind the racist assumption that all black people look alike, or that one black person in a position of power can be interchangeably used for another. This is especially important considering that one of the fundamental structures of racism is that people of color are defined by their group, while white people are defined as individuals. The inherent harm in assuming all black people look alike is the subsequent implication that all black people are alike, and can therefore be reduced to a small number of defining stereotypes.
Moreover, there is a long history of exaggerating black features to the point of being grotesque, for the express purpose of mocking and dehumanizing black people. Examples can be found in abundance both historically — such as blackface and cartoon characters like “Little Black Sambo” — and recently, such as Mark Knight’s caricature of Serena Williams. That our cartoon was made without regard to or knowledge of this history is incredibly painful, and is part of an ongoing pattern of white ignorance and denial.
The option to not consider such factors is a product of white privilege, and the ability to describe such a mistake as “oversight” continues to harm communities of color by denying any sort of racial responsibility. This is not simply a matter of not knowing — the ability to not know comes from systemic racism that caters to the comfort and sensibilities of white people. We hope that, by publishing this spread, we can attempt to counteract some of the option of ignorance. This is only the beginning of an institutional and individual learning process, and we invite the Puget Sound campus community to engage with us in reflection.
By Hanna Woods
I pitched the headline for the racist piece. I believe it is very important to transparently examine what happened, what went wrong and what I can do differently in the future. Hopefully, taking the time to thoroughly process and identify opportunities for growth and change will help me and anyone reading to become more responsible creators and avoid generating harmful material.
Reflecting on this incident has caused me to discover several blind spots and habitual problems within my process. I believe my fundamental failure was that I did not take any time to consider if the headline had implications with respect to racial identity. To put something into the world without taking the time to think how it might affect people of all identities is careless and neglectful.
I see now that I (and all white creators) must ingrain the habit of always asking: “How could this material impact a non-white reader? Does it have any racial implications?”
This is not a practice to be turned on or off depending on whether or not race is explicitly relevant. Race is always a factor. It is only due to my white privilege that I am capable of being oblivious to the role of race in a piece.
The experience of creating racist satire complicates my understanding of the commonly cited comedy rule, “punch up, don’t punch down.” The rule states that whenever you create a piece of comedy that makes fun of an individual or group it is essential that the target is a powerful and privileged one, not a vulnerable one.
What power and privilege look like can vary a great deal depending on the context, the speaker, the scope and style of the piece, but the point of this rule is that comedy should not be used to degrade people or demographics who are already unfairly disadvantaged.
When I wrote the piece, I assumed Isiaah Crawford would be an appropriate high-status figure for the piece, but because power is entwined with identity, the application of the “punch up” rule is not so simple. This is not to say that people of color should never be the butt of a joke — that would harmfully exclude them from comedy — but because identity complicates power, targeting a person of color for a joke requires careful thought on the part of the creator and must not be done recklessly.
By Linnea Stoll
I am the creator of the racist image. Looking back on my process, I can see multiple moments of painful ignorance– both in my lack of knowledge about the history of racist cartooning, and in my failure to consider the effect of race in satire. Visual comedy, in particular, must always be treated with careful consideration, as visual associations are made much faster than written ones.
Intent does not matter nearly so much as what the cartoon looks like, because images will immediately be connected to ideas in the minds of readers. My failure to recognize this speaks to the privilege I hold on a personal and institutional level. After much education, and looking back on historical examples of racist cartooning, I am deeply mortified at the carelessness with which the cartoon was made. I encourage readers to examine for themselves the history in racist and offensive cartoons.
A good example of visual satire gone wrong can be found in Barry Blight’s 2008 New Yorker cartoon, which depicts the Obamas in militant Islamic gear. Though the cartoon was made with the intent to satirize such opinions, it instead instantly reiterates racist tropes in the mind of readers.
On a personal note, the publication of this cartoon has been an incredibly eye-opening and humbling experience. One of the most important things I’ve gathered is that, through my inability to escape responsibility, I’ve had to directly and carefully confront my own ignorance and role in systemic racism. Though my initial instinct was to claim ignorance and guilt, I’m working to put my ego aside and do the work of reparations.
I’m incredibly grateful to all the people who have helped me take stock of my personal and professional failures, who have taken the time and energy to educate myself and my staff with both directness and compassion. I’m only in the beginning stages of confronting my racial role and responsibility, so I openly welcome and invite additional feedback.
By Erin Lungwitz
I will examine how the publication of the racist cartoon is symptomatic of whiteness operating at Puget Sound and The Trail. This piece was published at a predominantly white campus, by a predominantly white newspaper staff and within an entirely white Combat Zone section. To best understand how this piece was published and how to use this harmful mistake as a learning opportunity, I will use Robin DiAngelo’s ideas about the “Discourse of Individualism.”
DiAngelo explains that the “Discourse of Individualism” is “a storyline or narrative—that creates, communicates, reproduces, and reinforces the concept that each of us are unique individuals and that our group memberships, such as our race, class, or gender, are not important or relevant to our opportunities.” So, the Discourse of Individualism operates to absolve white people from acknowledging that their entire lives and opportunities are shaped by being white.
The Discourse of Individualism works at Puget Sound so that white students can attempt to claim the position of the “good” white person. I find that I and many other “liberal” white students try to distance ourselves from white students on campus who have done something racist.
For example, I did not create the racist cartoon that we are addressing, but when I initially saw it, I did not recognize its inherent racism. When I first heard that the piece was racist, my gut instinct was to distance myself from its creation.
This initial reaction reflects my desire to protect my mythic image as a “non-racist individual.” Instead, my initial reaction should have been a desire to learn more about the history behind the cartoon, how to be a more responsible creator and how whiteness ceaselessly operates in my life. Essentially, there are not “good” or “bad” white individuals; rather, all white people benefit from whiteness. Because all white people benefit from whiteness, I hope that white students will examine the racism in the cartoon and learn from our harmful mistake.
Because Puget Sound is predominantly white, it is easy for white students, including myself, to choose when and when not to consider race. I’d like to call myself and other white students to consider that race matters in all scenarios.
On a personal scale, I hope that myself and other white Puget Sound students will begin to engage in thorough self-education. Self-education could look like: reading books and other literature by people of color, following social media accounts run by activists of color, attending optional lectures on campus by people of color, engaging with material that examines race and identity, exploring critical whiteness studies and choosing to take courses at Puget Sound in Critical Identity Studies (African American studies, Latinx studies, Asian studies, etc.). This is in no way a comprehensive list, but it hopefully provides a place for folks to start and/or continue to self-educate.
Within the institution of Puget Sound, I hope that discussions about race can move out of the KNOW requirement and Critical Identity Studies and instead permeate all realms of our education. As The Trail, and as the Combat Zone section, we are responsible for this incident, but it also reflects the need for Puget Sound curriculum reform where all classes better address race. Race matters all of the time, and should be discussed in all formal educational spheres.
Further, The Trail should reflect all voices on campus. The Trail plans to reach out to identity-based groups on campus with the desire that the staff more accurately represents the Puget Sound community. Additionally, The Trail will prioritize the coverage of events that specifically pertain to race and identity.