A series of comics recently published in the Campus Times caused controversy at UR and in the Rochester community. The cartoons in question, drawn by juniors Chuck Zhang and Brendan Woodcock, have led to accusations of racism.
“I can see the KKK running [the cartoon by Woodcock] but not a normal newspaper,” stock service worker Rich Learn said.
The CT published an installment of Zhang’s regular comic “Undersexed” on Oct. 31 that incited a series of commentaries as well as rebuttal cartoons. This eventually created a debate among UR students regarding the tradition of freedom of the press for the CT and the intentions of Zhang and Woodcock.
The debate caught the attention of local media, leading to a story from Rochester’s News 10, a broadcast from 103.9 FM on their morning show, the Water Cooler, and an article in the Democrat and Chronicle.
President Thomas Jackson is also concerned by the comics. “The Campus Times’ rights of uncensored press are important, and also carry with it important responsibilities to the community,” he said.
The first cartoon, drawn by Zhang, was preceded by the words “this almost happened” and depicted a white man and black man preparing for Halloween. The black man appears wearing a costume with the word “igger” on it.
The white character responds by asking “Whats an igger?” The black character then proceeds to beat up the white character, in response to the implied racial term, calling him a “damn crackah.”
“[The cartoon] was a personal story,” Zhang said. “I didn’t think people would be so hyper-sensitive.” Zhang defends his comic, saying that it was based on a personal experience and that he was playing a word game, not attempting to create a stereotype.
The Black Students’ Union disagreed. “We, the Black Students’ Union, felt that this comic was offensive because it seemed to convey the message that black people put themselves in the position to be called racial slurs and when called one they respond in unintelligent, violent ways,” the Executive Board of BSU said in an official statement.
Former Executive Comics Editor and senior Joan Knihnicki said she did not see the potential for problems when she first read the comic.
“To be honest, I didn’t see [Zhang’s cartoon] as racially offensive. It didn’t set off any red flags,” Knihnicki said.
Woodcock wrote to the CT in response to Zhang’s cartoon. He felt the stereotypes were implied and that an apology written by Zhang, which was published in the Nov. 7 edition, was not sufficient. “The apology wasn’t talking to the issue, not to the subtle racism,” Woodcock said. “We have a problem that we ignore subtle racism.”
Woodcock responded to Zhang’s original cartoon by creating his own cartoon, entitled “When Comics Aren’t Funny.”
Woodcock’s cartoon shows a black man entering a store and asking the white store owner about all the “crackers,” in reference to the boxes of crackers drawn behind the counter of the store. In the next section, the white man is shown saying, “Damn N!**?#s need to learn some respect,” as a black man hangs from a tree in the background.
Jackson thinks the response comic was an effort by the CT to adhere to the obligations that come with freedom of the press.
“I believe the CT was attempting to fulfill those responsibilities here, but the method was far, far too opaque and difficult to discern,” Jackson said.
“It was wrong what [Woodcock] said,” Hutchison Cart service worker Ebony Leeflore said. “I know [Woodcock]. I know he’s not a racist.”
BSU is also supportive of Woodcock. “A member of the Executive Board [of BSU] was aware ahead of time of the author’s actions and completely understood his intentions,” BSU said in an official statement.
Woodcock did not foresee the current debate. “I didn’t think I would get this reaction,” he said.
Although he stands firm that what he said was necessary, Woodcock conceded that the presentation could have been altered.
“I could have talked about contemporary issues. [I could] work on the clarity of interpretation,” he said.
Knihnicki was hesitant to run Woodcock’s response. “I though [Woodcock’s cartoon] was exacerbating the issue. I was offended by it and did not want to put it in,” she said.
After its publication, Jackson also saw that the comic was potentially offensive. “Unless one studied [Woodcock’s cartoon] carefully – not just the comic strip but its title and the link at the bottom of the page to an editorial on a different page, and the reference to yet another comic strip from two weeks earlier,” he continued, “it was all too easy to view this strip as tasteless, or worse, offensive, rather than an effort to positively contribute to the understanding of the problems of hurtful speech on campus.”
The campus community has also questioned the decision to run the cartoon. “When I saw the hanging it made me mad,” Simon School service worker Ramona Gray said. “For somebody to print a cartoon, they should have thought first.”
“[Woodcock’s cartoon] is supposed to be a commentary on racism,” freshman Charly Beller said. “I don’t think it should be a major issue.”
General Secretary and Vice President Paul Burgett views the publication of the comics as representing a larger issue.
“This incident is unfortunate because it demonstrates how otherwise well-intended plans can go awry,” he said.
“One lesson in all of this, it seems to me, is the importance of considering unintended consequences that can result from such ill-considered efforts, especially when dealing with very serious and important issues such as race,” he added.
Ultimately, the decision to run an article or comic rests with the Editor-In-Chief, according to Knihnicki.
Though some CT staff members were opposed to running the comic, former Editor-in-Chief and senior Todd Hildebrandt made the final decision to include it in the paper.
Hildebrandt said he takes responsibility for this decision. “I think it would have been more questionable not to run it,” Hildebrandt said.
“It wasn’t a racist message,” he said. He said he thinks the writer’s intent is key. “I think freedom of speech does have its limits. If the point was to be negative towards a race, a line would be drawn,” he said.
Hildebrandt also felt that the News 10 coverage, which fueled much of the controversy, was unfair. “I was disappointed with News 10 coverage,” Hildebrandt said. “They made no attempt to contact [the CT].”
News 10’s News Director Bill Seitzler explained the decision to run the piece. “[The comic] was a legitimate news story,” he said.
Director of Student Activities and Wilson Commons Anne-Marie Algier suggests that concerned students voice their opinions. “[Students] can talk to the student government. This is their paper,” Algier said.
“The best way to change is from the inside,” she said.
Chair of the Diversity Roundtable Norm Burnett believes that dialogue is a viable solution. “I think it is always healthy to have dialogue, so long as it is constructive and is well facilitated.”
Jackson agrees. “I believe all those involved had the best of intentions, but straightforward clarity is oftentimes more important than cleverness,” Jackson said.
Tanner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.