The Few, The Precious

by Abiola Lapite | 1/21/97 6:00am

In the past week, not a few gallons of ink have been spilled expressing outrage at David Berenson's Bear Bones cartoon strip, and the resulting controversy has proved, to say the least, interesting -- interesting, but at the same time, thoroughly disturbing.

The roots of the controversy can be traced to a letter in last Monday's Vox Clamantis by Frank Aum '97, in which he accused Berenson of perpetrating negative stereotypes about Asians in his cartoons. To quote Mr. Aum, Berenson "portrayed an androgynous Asian character with glasses as a nerdy, asexual student who is only concerned about his/her GPA." Aum then went on to say that "portraying Asians as asexual, GPA-crazy nerds...is no less dangerous, irresponsible...and socially unacceptable than portraying Blacks as hypersexual [sic], dumb buffoons."

Setting aside for a moment the veracity of Aum's accusations, I think that his response says a great deal about the workings of his own mind. Since when has wearing glasses and being concerned with one's GPA come to be on the same level as being clownish, incompetent, alcoholic and hyper sexual to boot? Anyone who could compare the two with a straight face would seem to have a strange set of values. Aum may have wished to put across a point he felt strongly, but in the execution of his goal he came across as being just like those people who never hesitate to use the Holocaust in reference to their own "persecution."

And what about the cartoon that drew Frank Aum's wrath in the first place? In the same cartoon, we see Berenson lampooning two (white) mentally-challenged hockey players, two (white) deadhead counterculture types, and, along with the reason for Mr. Aum's anger, another (white, female) grade-obsessed pre-med student. Given all the above, may I be forgiven for thinking that some people are just too sensitive, and that in fact they seek to take offense even when they are perfectly aware that none is meant? The use of types in cartoons has a long and glorious tradition, and not all such images are the products of ignorance. There really are grade obsessed pre-meds at Dartmouth, of all shapes and colors, just as there are slow-witted athletes, lecherous frat boys in plaid shirts, cheery, empty-headed sorority girls, tenured professors who are nothing but deadwood, administrators who spend their days and nights kissing up to donors, and eternally protesting and self-righteous blacks and Hispanics. It would be absurd to pretend that this were not so.

Had the saga ended there, one could have taken Aum's outburst as just another manifestation of the terrible preciousness that so many Dartmouth students work so hard at cultivating. Unfortunately, we were not to be so lucky, for Berenson, perhaps in a fit of anger, responded with a strip which was all too easy to take the wrong way. Predictably, a response to Berenson's strip duly appeared, in which, along with some insightful comments, appeared two absurd claims: that the portrayal of Asians as the "perfect minority" group was extremely damaging, and that the way for the administration to show support for Asians on campus was by the appointment of a full-time dean for Asian-Americans. Excuse me?

The idea that the perception of Asians as "perfect minorities" is a bad thing is one of the most foolish notions I have ever heard expressed. What would those who hold this idea desire to be the case? That Asians be seen as flawed or in some way tragic figures? That women cross the street at night when they see an Asian man walking behind them? That people flee the neighborhood when they see Asians moving in? Or that teachers should refuse to take them seriously because "they obviously can't hack it"? I wish it were within my power to switch skins for a few weeks with anybody who believes that being thought a member of a "perfect" minority group is such a bad thing.

And what about the demand for a dean for Asian-Americans? Implicit in such a demand is the idea that an ordinary dean, perhaps due to limitations imposed by heritage, cannot fully address the needs of Asian-American students. Presumably, only a dean who happens to be Asian-American will be fully capable of doing the job. To carry this view to its logical conclusion, the college would need a dean to represent very background that Dartmouth's students could possibly have -- one for Ethiopian Jews, another for students of Belorussian origin, and so on. How ridiculous!

The advocates for a dean for Asian-Americans justify their position by saying that other minority groups have theirs, but I would say that, if anything, such a justification only points to the absurdity of deans for any minority groups. Special administrative structures for minority groups, along with all the ethnically oriented organizations on campus, by their clannish nature only help to set people apart, abetting the very resentments and misunderstandings they are supposed to ameliorate.

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