In the annals of institutional fuck-ups, the University of Virginia’s 2014-2015 school year will go down as one for the ages, despite the fact that much of the painful unrest was initiated and heightened by outside entities: thirsty magazine writers, a joke of a tertiary police force. The student body, for the most part, has responded well and ethically to the scrutiny on their school’s deep underlying problems—racism, sexual violence, genteel bigotry—and are, in this way, living out a microcosm of the reckoning that many other people in this country have experienced in the age of social justice becoming a widely accepted, media-heightened goal.
But there’s an essential complication in the struggle forward to be decent: when you are part of a group, you’re taken to represent that group. It’s true for involuntary groupings most stringently—young black men seen by some as automatic physical threats, young black women often made invisible, young white women frequently read as semi-willing prey. It’s also true for voluntary groupings: not all frat boys are violent, you can hear them saying still—not all privileged white people are racist; not all UVA students are like this.
It’s a genuine cry and a legitimate one. And yet, there’s no way around representation—and there shouldn’t be, for the voluntary sort. On April Fools’ Day, the UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, published two pieces of incredibly bad satire that exactly exemplified, rather than skewered, the racism and frat-boy idiocy they attempted to address.
Here’s a closer look at the first one, which “satirizes” the racism that led to Martese Johnson’s police brutalization and night in chains. Note the names of the imaginary Native American students in the piece (“Dances With Wolves,” “Strong Buffalo,” “Rabbit in the Grass,” “Insect Humming”)—which mainly offend me because the jokes are so painfully fucking weak.
I too am deeply concerned by the fact that what’s actually satirized here is not police brutality but the idea of a sincere institutional response, on the part of administration or students. This is racism so stupid it doesn’t know it’s racist—by far, the most troubling kind.
Okay! Next up, the second piece, which was called “Zeta Psi Hosts Rosa Parks Party.” Presumably written in honor of the fact that old rich-kid frat Zete actually did hold a “Bombs Over Baghdad” party earlier this year, the article is essentially a celebration rather than a satirization—almost nothing about it is escalated beyond the frat’s actual actions and response.
“A bunch of guys in our chapter are huge fans and wanted to do an Outkast-themed party,” said second-year College student and Zeta Psi chapter president Gardner Fiveash.
The funniest thing about that is his name, which is his real name—and that’s a real statement, word for word, that he made about the Bombs Over Baghdad party. Here’s the sum total of the attempted humor in the rest of the piece:
“The pledges have been making this big-ass bus out of cardboard in our house. We’re going to drink in it.”
The party will take place primarily within the cardboard structure, but speculation about having a bar with sick drinks for hot girls upstairs has surfaced. In accordance with the theme, one of the chapter’s new members will be designated as the “Parks pledge,” and will negate every request made to him for the duration of the party.
“If Rosa Parks was deaf, dumb, and blind, how did she even get on the bus?”
Wow, I’m so offended that UVA is revealing itself to be so bad at jokes. “Zeta Psi Pledge Class Literally Murders Your Mom” would have been better. Pretty much anything would have.
Anyway, the backlash was obviously immediate, and the Cav Daily pulled the pieces from their website and issued this pretty hapless apology, which includes the line “Our readers were hurt by this piece, and that makes its publication inexcusable.” Ahh, I’m so sorry that YOU got your feelings hurt! The apology ends on the same evasive note: “We deeply apologize to anyone who felt hurt, marginalized or that their experiences were trivialized by these pieces.”
There’s no point apologizing for hurt feelings, particularly when the problem with this “satire” isn’t that it was too edgy but that it wasn’t even close to edgy enough. The issue again seems like representation: on a large scale, the Cav Daily representing their school as even dumber and more resistant to change than they have been made to seem so far this year—and on the scale where it really matters, failing to understand that thoughtless group representation is exactly the engine behind bigotry, and reproducing it broadly (a Native American student named “Strong Buffalo”) and word-for-word (the “Parks pledge” is barely an exaggeration, if it is one at all) is antithetical to satire, which by definition has a stance. These pieces are stanceless—they’re the UVA newspaper throwing their hands up and shrugging, saying, “I guess this is how we are.”
Is it? Maybe, maybe not. The humor magazine on campus, The Declaration (which I wrote for a few times as a UVA student), has issued a good, scathing, pointed rejoinder to their sister publication:
Satire is a radical comedic tradition wherein the abuses of the overculture are deconstructed and critiqued. [...] Good satire at UVa should speak to the not-so-hidden truths that undercut student life: Greek culture’s gaping wound at UVa’s nucleus; the entitlement complex shared by a majority-white student body; the fetishistic hero-worship of Our Mr. Jefferson; the awkward, elephantine disparity between rich students and poor students; the racism, pervasive and terrifying, woven tightly into this school’s very fabric.
It seems so simple, really, a slice of Culture 101 you’d expect UVa students to have studied long before they entered the university: the “bad guys” look stupid because they are; readers and viewers laugh, duh, but they also question why those “bad guys” are in power in the first place!
As the student publication with the “richest history” and the most influence on grounds, the Cav Daily shouldn’t need this lesson, but when its annual “satirical issue” frames damaging racial stereotypes as funny and trivializes blatantly the marginalized groups satire is supposed to work for, not against, it makes two things clear: 1) UVa works for the overculture, “The Man,” the lived-in, overarching structure that tells you it’s okay to reframe acts of erasure and violence as comedy and call it a day, and 2) UVa is home to a cadre of students who are dumb as hell and didn’t do their homework for Intro to Comedy and Society: or, How to Be a Decent Human Being.
They close it out nicely:
The Cavalier Daily and the Declaration should be sisters in arms, intelligent and fully aware that by attending a university like this we’re effectively doing our part to contribute to the success of a big corporation rooted in oppressive tradition and practice. As student writers with integrity, we should use our power (remember that one thing that dead white guy said about the pen being mightier than the sword?), to deconstruct systems of abuse from the inside-out, and we shouldn’t issue squeaky apologies that dance around the subject (“but that wasn’t our intention!”) when we fumble, because we do and will.
This isn’t, however, about inter-publication rivalry, nor is it about the virtues of so-called satire versus hard-core reporting. This is about Martese Johnson, publically brutalized in front of the corner’s most popular watering hole; this is about the hundreds of black students who suffer marginalization and erasure at the knotted, ancient hands of Mr. Jefferson’s School; this is about the Native American Student Union, which hosted a rich and vibrant powwow on grounds last week that the Cavalier Daily simply opted not to cover. Must we go on? Must we?
We go to a school wherein Greek houses hang confederate flags at their windows. Law-enforcement agents commandeer black bodies on the corner. A statue of a bigot and slave-owner stands at the school’s apex. A statue of Robert E. Lee glowers triumphantly at the center of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. A noose was found hanging on Duke university’s campus, one estimable as ours. The University of Virginia’s largest newspaper publishes articles that satirize, stereotype, and minimalize marginalized human bodies. It’s not fucking funny.
Emphasis all of ours.
Photo via Adam Fagen/Flickr