When a Racist Joke Does Not Merit Cancellation

There would seem to be a sincere commitment across America these days to try to listen to one another across divides. To engage nuance rather than pretending that everything is, as it were, black and white. To address discrimination without devolving into the Jacobinesque routines of cancel culture. There is an emerging consensus that while social justice is important, a certain defenestrational commitment has gone too far during the past several years.

If the aforementioned commitment and consensus are sincere, then the folks at Purdue University might consider rounding out 2022 by adopting a script that focuses on acknowledging both error — even serious error — and redemption. Maybe they already have — but especially these days, one cannot know at this early point.

The chancellor of Purdue University Northwest, Thomas L. Keon, did seriously screw up a couple of weekends ago. At a commencement ceremony, the speaker before him mentioned that he sometimes uses a made-up language with his family. Keon, upon reaching the podium, picked up this theme, barking out a sentence in what sounded like an embarrassing attempt to imitate Mandarin Chinese. He then chuckled, “That’s sort of my Asian version of his.”

In other words, as a warm-up note, Keon pulled out a routine reminiscent of Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Japanese character that makes the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” all but unwatchable in spots today. The stunt reminds me, too, of an episode of the antique Milton Berle show on television in 1949, in which Berle wore a silly outfit to be “Chinese,” singing in a goofy accent with Keye Luke, an accomplished Chinese actor of the era, having to stand beside him pretending to enjoy singing the song.

We’re long past that kind of thing today. A Chinese person need not suffer the indignity of allowing a coarse imitation to pass as just kiddin’ around. Why Keon thought his gag would be funny in 2022 is elusive. Perhaps he thought what was funny was him, as a white guy, speaking a language obviously not native to him. But what he missed was that his imitation looked more as though he was ridiculing how people look and sound when speaking Chinese.

When video of this episode got around online, calls for Keon’s head were immediate and legion. Many saw the incident as a cut-and-dried matter of an older white man deserving immediate dismissal for not having gotten the memo about racism.

Keon quickly published an apology that included, “We are all human. I made a mistake, and I assure you I did not intend to be hurtful and my comments do not reflect my personal or our institutional values.” Purdue’s board of trustees accepted the apology.

But will this be the end of the story? Not if this narrative parallels what has happened so often in similar cases lately. Sherrilyn Ifill, a former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has deemed the apology “utterly insufficient.” Would a different apology suffice, or is the idea that Keon committed an unpardonable sin? Purdue Northwest’s Faculty Senate and American Association of University Professors chapter are seeking Keon’s resignation. Calls on social media for him to step down have been legion even after the apology.

Now, Keon obviously should know that his intent was not the whole of the matter; these days we consider that even when intended innocently (though perhaps foolishly), a comment can feel injurious to the addressee or onlooker. An Asian person might easily be hurt, offended, by a white guy — especially one in a position of power at a formal event — quacking out a sentence in mock Chinese with a grin.

However, the issue here is degree. Based on the kind of responses we have seen so much of especially since the spring of 2020, it is conceivable that Purdue will give in to the pressure of aggrieved public opposition and we will read of Keon’s dismissal sometime after Christmas.

That would be wrong. If Purdue instead stands its ground, it will be a gesture in favor not of racism but of reason — a holiday gift of sorts to our public discourse.

I do not deny that Keon’s joke was racist. I would have cringed if I had been in attendance. However, how much racism is in question here? Is it not true that there is still a difference between racism that — however obnoxious — is nonetheless careless or accidental as opposed to intended to send a racist message? (We’ve seen all too much of the latter in the past few years.) Is it true that we must treat racism as a kind of cyanide, where even a trace amount in a glass of water is lethal?

The idea that one tacky joke constitutes the measure of a whole human being has begun to seem almost ordinary of late. However, it is a quite extraordinary idea and even rather medieval. Too often, it is wielded in a fashion that is extremist, unreflexive and recreationally hostile.

Some may think that when the joke is a racist one, all bets are off and that indeed we have seen a person’s essence, his entirety — ecce homo, as it were. But this implies that battling the power of whiteness must center all our endeavors, including determining the nature of morality in general. This is the tacit commitment of much of high wokeness today. And it, too, is less the Platonic good than a modern peculiarity.

If Keon has a record of petty racist offenses, then it is more reasonable to treat this recent episode as a straw breaking the camel’s back. If he has been incompetent as a chancellor in some way, then there is perhaps reason to treat this incident as a last straw as well. But if he has been doing his job well — and I don’t pretend to know whether that is the case — and he just turned out not to have gotten the memo on what’s funny and permissible now versus when he was young, then he should keep his job. Few would have considered that a radical proposition until recently.

Perhaps Purdue will stand by Keon and let life go on. His gaffe will stand forever recorded online. One hopes he will come to fully understand why the “joke” was both lame and hurtful, if he has not already. But if his career continues and he is processed by his colleagues as a flawed but legitimate human being doing his job, then we are witnessing evidence that this era of excess is passing.

Indignation about Keon’s joke will continue, including from people of color and their allies who will process his staying in his job as contravening their version of social justice. But among the people responsible for his employment, there will surely be those who can see that he should not be consigned to retirement for one dumb joke because it was racist. In fact, those people may well constitute a majority. Possibly, in their calls for banishment, Purdue Northwest’s Faculty Senate and A.A.U.P. chapters are following the demands of just a few members.

But if people in these positions are committed both to social justice and to moderation and drawing distinctions — i.e., wisdom — then they must stand up against possible mobbish attempts to “get” Keon.

“Why is this man still in his job?!?” a tweet may plausibly read. I wonder if we have reached a point where a critical mass of responsible people will be confident enough to answer, within themselves, “Because a mature society does not wreck people’s careers because of a single gaffe, even a racially insensitive one” — and vote no on a move to performatively expel Keon from employment.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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