College Paper Sparks Debate Over Social and Racial Commentary in Cartoons

On January 24th, the editorial board of the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s student newspaper, The Badger Herald, decided not to run artist Vincent Cheng’s “Ya Boi, Inc.” comic strip for that day. Cheng’s strip (shown above) depicts a middle-aged man updating his musical “Likes” on Facebook based not on his actual interests but on their cultural value. After liking some “interesting” and classical music, the man decides he needs to add “some ‘mainstream’ artists that I surprisingly claim to sincerely enjoy.” The man does not actually know any mainstream artists so after pondering for a second, he asks himself, “What are the names of some black people?”

The Badger‘s Editor-in-Chief Ryan Rainey decided to not run the cartoon, a decision that was supported by his two chief advisers. Rainey’s decision was based on the possibility that UW’s campus would misinterpret the cartoon; he argues that “editors of college newspapers like the Herald, which has been at the center of many unnecessary and preventable campus-wide controversies before and throughout my time here, often have to take a lesser-of-two-evils approach to those ethical decisions.”

Rainey feels the risk was not worth it, explaining that “I did not feel like wasting the opportunity for a real conversation about race, entertainment or anything else on a relatively meaningless comic strip.”

After running through a historical overview of campus controversies started by various Herald Badger articles over the years, Rainey contend that “readers easily could have misinterpreted its message of a young white person’s facade of social consciousness as an indictment of the black community just as much as they could have seen it as an indictment of the hipsters [Cheng] was ridiculing.”

He is aware of the potential backlash he and the paper will face, but he simply does not feel the campus can handle the content of the strip:

In this instance, I suspect we’ll continue to receive criticism for avoiding controversy and capitulating to the demands of a group of fringe radicals on campus who have a history of storming our offices.

Previous editors of the Herald have insisted the community is mature enough to handle even unintentionally offensive content. I agree with that principle. But in less consequential cases, such as the one surrounding this comic strip, I believe the lesser of two evils is to save any potential free speech debate for the kind of content that demands it instead of letting the small percentage of students who misinterpret the work we do hold us hostage.

That is why we can’t have nice things.

One piece of criticism comes from Rainey’s own staff. Design Director Greg McNair penned an editorial for the paper in which he argues that while race is a “touchy subject,” he fails “to understand why this means the issue should be barred from appearing in the Comics section.”

While McNair acknowledges that “race is always a touchy subject, especially when it’s being dealt with by a bunch of 20-year-old white Midwesterners,” he makes the argument that Cheng’s cartoon “clearly isn’t intended to be racist and is difficult to interpret as such.”

McNair’s defense of the cartoon is that it hits directly at the predominantly white student body on the Madison campus:

It is fairly typical for University of Wisconsin students (by and large middle-class and white) to want to appear diverse and culturally literate. And in the age of social networking, it is easier than ever to broadcast one’s taste via the Internet. Anyone who has updated their Facebook “likes” in the last couple years did so at least partly to project a certain image of themselves. Liking indie music will make you hip, jazz will make you cool and cultured and so on.

At the same time, many middle-class white people believe that if they listen to rap, hip-hop or the blues they will be culturally well-rounded. I have friends who believe themselves to understand black culture because they know a couple Kendrick Lamar songs. The cartoon pokes fun at this fallacy — the character is more concerned with appearing culturally astute than actually learning anything.

Because of McNair and Rainey’s willingness to debate the issue in the newspaper, Cheng’s strip ended up seeing print (thus avoiding the paper’s own self-censorship), and it was framed by a collegial debate over both the comic’s content and the role of the student newspaper in discussing race on a predominately white campus.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.