Of all places, the battle against bigotry, racism and hate against Asians and Asian Americans blew up in Greenwood Village last week.
A failed attempt at the always dangerous April Fools joke by a weekly community newspaper is now erupting into an all-out war.
Some Asian-Pacific American leaders are promoting an effort to persuade advertisers to boycott the Villager newspaper over an April 1, page-one parody.
“A group of community leaders have created this boycott toolkit,” Harry Budisidharta, head of the Asian Pacific Partnership, said in an April 13 tweet. “Please share it widely and contact the advertisers to get them to remove their ads. We do not support #RacistVillager. Our community deserves better.”
A group of community leaders have created this boycott toolkit. Please share it widely and contact the advertisers to get them to remove their ads. We do not support #RacistVillager. Our community deserves better. https://t.co/tWXzJETvP9
— Harry Budisidharta (@HarryBudisidhar) April 13, 2021
The debacle started with a page-one Villager article headlined, “AMERICA’S LARGEST AMUSEMENT PARK HEADS TO GREENWOOD VILLAGE.”
Greenwood Village is an enclave of about 16,000 people, of which about 94% consider themselves white, and most of the rest of the metro area would consider the residents there relatively wealthy. The average median household income is about $120,000, about double that of Aurora.
The splotch of tony homes and upscale chain stores and eateries lies in the shadow of the Denver Tech Center. The area’s claim to fame has long been as a home to wealthy Broncos players and officials — and Freda Poundstone. Poundstone, once Greenwood Village mayor, was a fiery Republican who led a successful effort in 1974 to send Denver straight to landlock hell, where it still suffers eternal damnation. A state law led by her, and named in her honor, effectively forbade Denver from annexing into the metroplex through “flagpole” annexations. It was a miraculous feat softened only once in 50 years, for the sake of Denver International Airport.
Other than that, the burg has pretty much remained unremarkable, often by design.
That changed last week when the staff of the Villager wrote that the village that just wants to be left alone would become home to the largest amusement park on the planet.
“The design shows the largest merry-go-round in America in the center of the complex with a live entertainment stage and 100 real silver metallic elephants and donkeys to ride,” the article, penned by “LOOF LIPRA,” goes on. “Prominent rock and roll stars will perform live as the stage turns featuring evening performances until 11 p.m. with daytime taped music.”
Loud rock bands in Greenwood Village aggravating a bunch of rich people. Ha. Ha.
The satire takes a dark and regrettable turn there.
“Because of the recent Asian alleged hate crimes, the planning commission and council have moved quietly through confidential Zoom meetings with Chinese officials to complete the contract,” the masked writer writes. “Several city planners traveled to Wuhan, China to work out the details that include bringing over 1000 Chinese workers and their families to the area for the two-year construction period. Unfortunately, the GV planners were quarantined in Wuhan for two weeks slowing the development reports back to council for review and public hearings.”
It gets much worse.
The satire goes on to say that Cherry Creek schools officials were going to have to hire teachers who speak Mandarin “that is spoken in that province.” It also said that area hotels were being “contracted for lower rates for the Chinese families and adding more rice, vegetables, and chopsticks to their morning breakfasts.”
“Alleged” hate crimes? They’re real. The crimes are dangerous attempts to deprive entire generations of millions of Americans of their constitutional rights, their peace of mind and their dignity. These “alleged” hate crimes are where racism meets motivation. It’s hard to argue this supposedly satirical diatribe of tropes and innuendo isn’t a prime example.
Aurora is home to a vast community of people who recently and long ago came from Asian-Pacific nations, far too many to count. You only have to take a short drive along South Havana Street and South Parker Road to appreciate the seemingly endless Asian-Pacific cultures that thrive here.
Aurora community leaders like Budisidharta have made clear, even in a place like Aurora, racism exists and hurts the lives of many, sometimes overtly. Those are the lurid instances when people go out of their way to confront someone they think is of Asian descent and tell them to “go home.” In the worst cases, people deemed Asian are outright physically assaulted. His warning? All of this is not as rare as you would hope.
More likely, however, the racism is more subtle and tacit. In the case of the Villager, it came as a “joke.”
“Asian hate is real,” Victoria Lam said in comment to the Villager’s Facebook page. “People are getting hurt, and there is nothing funny about that.”
Budisidharta and others say that tropes and derisions incorporated as “humor” make people feel like they have license and justification for their hateful and racist behavior.
After being named in the satire, Cherry Creek schools Superintendent Scott Siegfried said he couldn’t just look the other way at the assault.
“The racist and xenophobic language used in this article is harmful to the Asian American community and it is offensive to all of us,” the district said in a statement sent to all families in the school district. “It is incumbent on all of us to stand up and say something when we see discrimination or racism in our community. I call on The Villager to reflect on its article and issue an apology to the community for printing it.”
Why that hasn’t happened is a mystery. Villager staff aren’t saying, and they haven’t returned requests from The Sentinel for comment.
In a tweet, they defended the piece as humor and said they never intended it to be offensive.
I grew up in a world where, “it was just a joke” was a regular defense for racist comments and slurs. These things aren’t funny to people who understand the “humor” comes not from keen observation of behavior and our common humanity, but as intentionally hurtful things called out because the innuendo is that the butt of the joke is inferior in some way.
The root of this is those who fear and lash out at people different than themselves, rather than marvel at the differences and appreciate the similarities.
I’ve yet to meet anyone of another race or culture who doesn’t want their kids to be safe and do well in school, live in a safe, comfortable and secure home, have a car that doesn’t break down all the time and have a place to buy the groceries you like and complain to each other about the prices. If you’re upset about the always-rising cost of fresh basil, decent tomatoes and crisp apples, meet me in the produce department and we’ll make a scene.
One of the important lessons to learn here is that racist humor isn’t funny. If you think it is, it’s because you think the race being “funned” is somehow beneath you, and a worthy target.
The other lesson is, own the mistake and apologize.
That hasn’t happened.
One staffer at the Villager made it even worse by posting all over a local Asian magazine Facebook page, where readers were incensed by the failed Villager satire.
“…have you ever read the entire paper over our 39 year span?,” Villager ad sales rep Susan Lanam said in a post to Asian Avenue magazine’s Facebook page. She’s part of the Bob and Gerri Sweeney family that has long owned and run the paper. “I would welcome you to read the goodness that we share!”
She pointed out that Villager was not a party to racism or bigotry, in part because they had actually featured an Asian couple in a recent story.
Pro tip: “Some of my best friends are Asian,” is as deficient a defense against accusations of racism as is, “It was only a joke.”
It begs the question, do your Asian friends think this is funny? If not, would you apologize to them? Would you keep telling the same jokes?
Pro tip No. 2: Don’t apologize just to those who found the racism offensive. Apologize for creating an offensive piece that was racist. Apologize for what at best is a debilitating blind spot or what could be a personal problem that needs attention.
The Denver Post reports that the lauded Asian couple, Jimmy and Linda Yip, have also condemned the hurtful satire, and asked the Villager to apologize and not use their previous story in defense of the incident.
“The Nathan Yip Foundation is no way complicit in The Villager’s actions and does not condone the use of the foundation’s materials and its good works in The Villager’s attempt to mask its errors. While the intent may have been satirical, the actual impact of the article on AAPI people, who have historically suffered severe bigotry in our country, is incalculable harm,” the Yips said in a statement.
A growing number are stepping forward to call out the issue.
Props to Budisidharta, Cherry Creek schools and others who called out the satire, allowing others to understand, this is the not-funny stuff that legitimizes people being physically and verbally abused — for eating vegetables? Coming from Wuhan? Speaking Mandarin?
Budisidharta and others say the time for a boycott against the Villager through its advertisers is now.
I have mixed feelings about boycotts. Budisidharta’s extensive, digital “boycott kit,” is complete with background of the Villager satire, a list of recent advertisers, a way to contact them and even a sample letter of how to explain to advertisers like Denver Academy, why they should drop their ad in the Villager.
“Ask yourself – Do you want your brand to be associated with a newspaper like this?” the sample letter asks. “Do you value your Asian American clients and believe that they do not deserve to be dehumanized and made to be the target of a racist joke? Take a stand against racism and support the Asian American community by showing your allyship. Please contact The Villager and ask them to remove your ads.”
I’m among the obviously-too-few who refuse to set foot inside a Hobby Lobby, a company I find repugnant for diminishing the rights of women. Hobby Lobby owners became notorious by fighting for the right to keep health insurance companies from providing birth control benefits to female employees. They justify it with honoring Hobby Lobby owner religious convictions. The same for Chick-fil-A, outed for its donations to notorious anti-LGTBQ organizations like Focus on the Family. Chagrined, Chick-fil-A owners never said, “sorry, that was stupid.” After rivers of bad ink, they said they’ll donate to other organizations. We’ll see.
So I get the “money talks” thing here. But I work for a newspaper. We stand strong and proud behind our solid, defensible stories, often in the thick of provocative issues. And we proudly feature opinion pieces and comment from across the political spectrum.
In the more than 30 years of doing this, I lost count early on of readers and advertisers who “hate” what we’ve done or published enough to pull their ads, cancel their subscriptions and tell anyone they could to do the same.
And I would be a liar to say we’ve never made big mistakes before, although, nothing ever like the Villager debacle. I am fortunate to be among journalists who readily admit how imperfect our craft and calling is. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t work to correct a problem or wish I hadn’t made the mistake to begin with.
If Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A were to publicly admit they were wrong, and quit abusing female employees and empowering gay-bashers, I’d go back.
But without a clear and heartfelt apology, revealing that the mistake was recognized and owning it, I’m with Budisidharta and others on this one.
The lives of Asians, Blacks, gays, Mexicans, Muslims and all the others who deserve every right and extension of dignity are too important to keep looking the other way when they’re undermined with “just a joke.”
I’m in the business of defending everyone’s expressed opinion, but not racism couched as humor. If all of us don’t regularly push back hard against racism, now, it’ll never end.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]