Publications balance comedy, sensitivity

Last fall, Benjamin Gonzalez ’09 was reading the Yale Record’s “Blue Book” — a parody of the Yale College course catalogue — when one description stopped him cold.

“Practical Applications of Spanish for WASPs” promised to teach students “how to interact with gardeners, housekeepers and other low-income workers” using phrases such as “Rosa, are you stealing change again?” Although the Record is a humor magazine, Gonzalez, the political action chair of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA, was not amused.

“They’re talking about my mother,” Gonzalez said. “They’re making a joke about my family, and I take personal offense to that.”

Those jokes and others printed in several Yale publications prompted a fierce student outcry, protests and weeks of open-forum discussions last fall. One year later, campus journalists and humorists say they have made tangible changes to their work in response to the criticisms, although some students say a certain degree of unease about race, gender and sexuality will always exist at Yale.

Members of the Record staff said they put more time into editing this year’s Blue Book, which was released during Camp Yale, and gave more scrutiny to jokes concerning race and gender.

“This year, we had more time and energy to put into the Blue Book, so it’s more polished,” Record Editor Ben Orlin ’09 said. “There are still jokes about race — for example, we still have an [African-American Studies] department — but they’re sharper and more carefully chosen.”

This year’s edition omitted “Practical Applications of Spanish for WASPs,” and replaced “Introductory Terrorist Arabic” — which promised lessons in how to “follow a simple bomb-making diagram” — with “Arabic For Liberators,” lampooning the war in Iraq.

Record publisher Gregor Nazarian ’09 said last year’s student reaction and accusations raised the bar for future content.

“The controversy last year made us think a lot about what we were trying to do with the jokes, and whether we were doing the right thing,” Nazarian said. “There was some weak material that was hard to explain to people. We couldn’t honestly say it was some awesome satire about modern culture in America, because we weren’t comfortable with all of the jokes.”

Students had also accused the Record’s 2006-’07 Blue Book of homophobia, pointing to descriptions of the Music Department as like “the art major [but] much, much gayer. No, more gay than that. Still a little more gay. There you go, that’s the music major.”

Nazarian said the negative reactions to that passage seemed especially legitimate.

“Looking back at that [passage] it’s unclear where the humor is,” Nazarian said. “If anything, it had a taint of homophobia. When we touch on race, gender, sexuality, whatever, we want to poke fun at the right things — at stereotypes, at racism.”

Both Nazarian and Orlin said they thought student reaction to this year’s Blue Book has been more positive.

Gonzalez said he thought this year’s issue was certainly an improvement on last year’s, although there is still work to be done. He mentioned the listing for ANTH 152, or “Blah Blah Blah Genocide Blah Blah Blah” as one that could benefit from the same scrutiny as other controversial passages.

“I don’t think they’ll receive as much protest this year,” Gonzalez said.

The publication of the 2006-’07 Blue Book came a few months after an issue of Rumpus, the campus tabloid, drew criticism from the Asian-American Students Association and a number of University administrators. The issue, which was timed to coincide with Bulldog Days 2006, included articles titled “Me Love You Long Time” and “Miscegenation Station.” After receiving complaints, Rumpus staff members decided not to distribute the issue to prospective freshmen visiting campus.

Nazarian and Orlin said they believe students were more sensitive to inappropriate jokes in the 2006-’07 Blue Book because it was published shortly after other publications drew fire for racism.

“People left campus two years ago with the Rumpus controversy still very fresh in mind, and then the Record was distributed right during Camp Yale,” Orlin said.

Nazarian added, “There was a perception [last year] that we had been completely ignoring the issue while everyone else was thinking about these things. … People really wanted publications to be making an effort.”

Molly Clark-Barol ’08, the former publisher of Rumpus, said the accusations of racism brought issues of controversial humor more sharply into focus for Rumpus writers.

“Humor is very much subjective, and every humorist has the obligation to take responsibility for when his or her statements, no matter what the intent, miss their mark, and then the duty to make amends for them,” Clark-Barol wrote in an e-mail.

The past year’s debates over inappropriate content in campus publications has illuminated long-running concerns about how race is covered in campus publications, former Yale Herald Editor in Chief Sarah Raymond ’08 said.

“If and when editors make mistakes, it’s important that readers stand up and say something if they are offended,” Raymond said in an e-mail. “The only alternative I can imagine would be regulation from the Dean’s Office … which is clearly unacceptable.”

The Herald faced its own allegations of racism, after a cartoon in a spring 2006 issue suggested that students not vote for a Yale College Council presidential candidate because he was Asian.

One explanation for the more subdued reactions to this year’s Record “Blue Book” is that other racially charged and homophobic events of the past year may have put the articles into context, some said. In one incident, fliers with the acronym N.O.G.A.Y.S. — or the National Organization to Gain Atonement for Your Sins — were posted around campus on National Coming Out Day last October. A month later, apparently anti-Muslim cartoons were posted on several campus bulletin boards.

Those events, Orlin said, served to put the Record’s content into context. Unlike the posterers, the Record was not aiming to be hateful, he said, and its writers and editors are always available to discuss their humor if people are offended.

But in the end, debates over the line between humor and offense may be as much a part of the Yale experience as neo-Gothic architecture, frequent rain showers and the Harkness Tower bells.

Gonzalez said he thinks many Yale students encounter little diversity in their high schools, so they are not sure how to deal with people different from themselves once they get to campus.

“Everyone wants to get by with diversity by just laughing it off, and most people aren’t laughing,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the discomfort of dealing with someone who isn’t you and doesn’t come from your experience. There are worse things going on at other colleges, but we have our own set of problems.”

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