Monday, April 04, 2005

Big Red Bigotry

There's a problem with Asian American mental health. Did you know that Asian American women have the highest rate of suicides of women over 65 in the United States? Or that Asian Americans have the lowest rate of seeking help for mental health issues: one study showed that only 17% of those experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder sought treatment. Meanwhile, Asian Americans have a high rate of displaying depressive symptoms though their diagnosis and treatment remains the same as white Americans. Some groups of Asian Americans show a markedly high suicide rate, particularly Hawaiian American youths as compared to white Hawaiians of the same region. While other Asian American groups have lower 'completed' suicide rates, Asians also do not get adequate focus in many mental health studies because of language barriers. At Cornell, Asian Americans represented (approximately) 8 of the 13 completed suicides over the last several years. With APIAs being only 13% of the overall population, this high suicide rate is incredibly alarming. When I was a student at Cornell, I was fairly active in trying to help address this problem, although solutions were slow going because of a reticence in recognizing the problem within APIAs and because there were many reasons why APIAs might be reluctant to face their own mental health issues. Recently, a shitstorm began brewing at Cornell. With the annual "Hey, remember the Asian American mental health problem?" article in the local campus paper, the Cornell Daily Sun which highlighted problems with the model minority myth and Asian American suicide, the paper also published in their comics section a strip of the 'Antman' comic by local cartoonist Stephan Davis '08 in which the title character says that the terrible things at Cornell are: 1) inclement weather 2) hills 3) "curve-busting" CyberAsians I will post a scan of the strip if I can get my hands on it. So far, I seem to have misplaced my copy of that issue. A recent rally at the student union was met with counter-protests by those seeking to 'save Antman'. Editorialists at the Sun have tried to defend Davis' brand of humour. Discussion has cropped up about First Amendment rights and, above all, non-Asians have indignantly called for the Asian American community to grow a sense of humour. To get a good sense of the hubub, see the thought-provoking letter by Cornell's foremost Asian American mental health advocate, Dr. Wai-Kwong Wong, who's also a really awesome guy, btw. Check out also the feedback section at the bottom of the article to get a sense of some of the lame rhetoric being flung around by the comic's supporters. Cartoonist Stephan Davis wrote the following open letter to the Asian American community this morning:

I'm Stephen Davis, creator of the "The Adventures of Antman."  I'm pretty sure I recognized you at the protest on Thursday, and I believe you're the guy that wrote a feedback comment on the website about white "snowflakes" or something.  Well, it looks like I have some explaining to do, so I hope you can pass on what I am about to say to your Asian-group peers.  (By the way, I already apologized to Gregory Hom and said most of these things to Professor Wong, but apparently they did not relay my sentiments to other Cornell Asians).  First, I would like to offer an apology to those members of the Asian community who were offended by my comic. In retrospect, my cartoon was inappropriate, especially given the headline article "Counselor Discusses Asian Mental Health." The timing couldn't have been more ironic for that lecture and my comic, and my critics certainly recognized this disparity in that issue of the Daily Sun.  That question of timing aside, my cartoon was insensitive and ignorant when considering the real pressures faced by Cornell Asian students. However, over the past few weeks I have grown frustrated when people insinuate that I was deliberately glorifying "corrosive racist stereotypes" or "regarding Asians as objects of disgust."  At worst, my comic is inappropriate and ignorant, but I adamantly reject the accusation that I am a racist deliberately insulting or denigrating an entire class of people. Please consider the following: 1. My actual intentions in portraying the CyberAsians were in no way malicious... I had previously assumed that making a lighthearted reference to the popular conception of strong Asian work ethic would be harmless, if not complementary. Obviously, I was wrong, but this is due to ignorance, not hatred. 2. Through associating the stereotypical CyberAsians with relatively trivial complaints like the Ithaca weather and campus topography, I actually intended to disarm the stereotype by taking it to the point of absurdity. In President Lehman's underground lair, there are no "diabolical" devices - only a measly weather machine, a hill control, and some Asian robots. Antman's characterization of these "terrible things" was facetious, and it is unfortunate that some misunderstood this. 3. When I portrayed Asians in the comic as academic robots, I did so NOT as a means of dehumanizing or insulting their capacity for human emotion, but rather as a way to exemplify the stereotype of a superhuman Asian intellect to an extent beyond ridiculous. The idea was, "They're so smart, they're robots," which I thought people would find funny, NOT "They're robots because they're so cold and invisible" or something.  4. Finally, consider the fact that I am a cartoonist, not an administration official or an actual writer for the Sun. The Adventures of Antman regularly targets individuals or groups of people for laughs, and it does so indiscriminately - for example, I have ridiculed athletes, engineers, fraternity members, badminton players, President Bush, and last week my entire cartoon explicitly insulted white people (perhaps to appease critics accusing me of racism). All racial groups - white, black, Latino, Asian, etc - have positive and negative stereotypes associated with themselves (justified or not), and today comics from all mediums - television, film, cartoonists, etc - regularly exploit these stereotypes for laughs, often far more insensitively than I did.  Dave Chappel had a "racial draft" where Whites, Asians and Blacks got to "draft" people like Tiger Woods, Condoleeza Rice or Vanilla Ice as officially belonging to a specific race.  Chris Rock had an entire routine using the n-word.  I recognize that these circumstances do not excuse my comic from actually being inappropriate.  It was - it was insensitive, and I made a mistake.  However, when considering that I merely made a one-panel mention of the "over-achieving, curve-busting" Asian, my cartoon does not warrant the intensity of the criticism it is currently receiving. One last note about your post on - the week after the controversial cartoon about CyberAsians, I actually drew my next cartoon exclusively insulting white people.  Check it out, I attached it as a document to this email.  I have not received any feedback about this cartoon at all. Respectfully, Stephen Davis 08'
A brief response: 1. Portraying Asian Americans as cyber-ized is the quintessential acceptance of the model minority myth. It is not "complementary" nor is it complimentary. 2. I'm not sure how it is not villifying something when a hoarde of cybernetic Asian "curve-busters" are kept in a diabolical lair. Sure it's meant to be humourous vilification, but it's vilification nonetheless. 3. I'm not sure how cyberization isn't dehumanizing. I've never heard of someone being described as: 'cute, cuddly, overly emotional and sensitive, so like a robot!'. 4. Whoever said that Dave "Chappel" Chappelle was doing racial minorities a favour? By illustrating racial stereotypes, it's hard to do it in a way that challenges them and makes people laugh and think about them. Usually, just mentioning a stereotype does little to challenge it, you need to have a great skill for satire which, unfortunately, Davis has none. (This controversy aside, Antman isn't really very funny at all). 5. Making fun of whites doesn't make making fun of Asians any less insensitive or more right. If you would like to post your two cents on this issue, and feel commenting on my blog won't do that much, feel free to post your responses in the feedback section of Dr. Wong's article (it's open to the general public), write a letter to the Daily Sun at, or write Mr. Davis, himself, at or


Anonymous Anonymous said...

pull-eeez stop apologizing and everyone else should lighten-up. everyone seems so eager to do the 'gotcha' when it comes to race issues. it's obvious you are no more racist than anyone else. and oh by the way, WE LIVE IN A RACIST SOCIETY -- NO ONE IS EXEMPT. it is a life-long process dealing with and overcoming it. humor is one of the best ways of doing that.

5/19/2005 02:19:00 PM  
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