For a newspaper that was labeled a “racist propaganda machine” just a year ago, The Badger Herald sure is squeamish about mentioning race.
On Jan. 24, 2013, The Badger Herald declined to publish that day’s Ya Boi, Inc. comic strip, created by artist Vincent Cheng. In the interest of full disclosure: I know Cheng and I tend to find his work pretty funny. But I have not discussed this specific strip (or its contents) with him.
Jan. 24′s Ya Boi, Inc. features a character named “Joe Public,” a caricature of social networkers, deciding what music to include on his Facebook profile. He starts by choosing classical music to show that he’s complex, then selects “mainstream” artists that he claims to enjoy sincerely. In the final panel he attempts to remember the names of “black people” whose music he will pretend to like. The Herald’s upper management decided the strip was in bad taste and refused to run it.
Race is always a touchy subject, especially when it’s being dealt with by a bunch of 20-year-old white Midwesterners. The Herald has run a few editorials on race that generated campus-wide anger and frustration, but I fail to understand why this means the issue should be barred from appearing in the Comics section. Besides, Cheng dealt with it as intelligently as one can in the three-panel format.
It is fairly typical for University of Wisconsin students (by and large middle-class and white) to want to appear diverse and culturally literate. And in the age of social networking, it is easier than ever to broadcast one’s taste via the Internet. Anyone who has updated their Facebook “likes” in the last couple years did so at least partly to project a certain image of themselves. Liking indie music will make you hip, jazz will make you cool and cultured and so on.
At the same time, many middle-class white people believe that if they listen to rap, hip-hop or the blues they will be culturally well-rounded. I have friends who believe themselves to understand black culture because they know a couple Kendrick Lamar songs. The cartoon pokes fun at this fallacy – the character is more concerned with appearing culturally astute than actually learning anything.
But ultimately it doesn’t matter to my argument what the cartoon is about. (I probably just ruined it by discussing the punch line in depth anyway.) It clearly isn’t intended to be racist and is difficult to interpret as such. Yet the Herald refused to publish the comic.
Was our management afraid it would lead to controversy? Generating debate is part of a college newspaper’s job, so long as it is clearly editorial. Did they themselves find it offensive? In an age when Louis C.K. rules the comedy world and Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like is a bestseller, I find this difficult to believe.
The incident proves race is still a major issue at UW. And, as a student newspaper, it is the Herald’s job to discuss it – whether that means news coverage, opinion pieces or humor. We ought to be willing to make meaningful controversial statements.
Admittedly, this isn’t a requirement. If we want, we can dance around the issue of race as if it’s deadly. We can act as if there are intelligent things that simply should not be said, for fear of offending others. So long as we do so, we will be the edgiest and most relevant student newspaper of 1953.
Gus McNair (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism and English.