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A smiling Asian woman in a tweet is not insulting to anyone but insecure professors

Those of us whose professional lives require social media often live in fear that we will post something that unintentionally riles up a digital mob.

Given the heavy representation of women in social-media roles, the backlash is often misogynistic in its effects, if not its intent, as documented in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

I don’t know who was responsible for a rather benign image tweeted out by the American Political Science Association last week, but it clearly could have been a male, female, transgender or gender nonconforming person.

Inside Higher Ed has the story: The organization for poli sci academics was promoting a new journal article on international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). The tweet for the article used a Getty image of a smiling Asian woman in what could be a sundress.

All hell broke loose:

One of the authors of the piece is Asian, and on Saturday she shared her feelings about how APSA illustrated the description of her article.

asian-offensive.American_Political_Science_Association.Twitter“It’s pretty obvious to me why this is offensive, but let me spell it out,” wrote Wendy Wong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and director of the university’s Trudeau Center for Peace, Conflict and Justice, in a post on the political science blog Duck of Minerva. …

“What does the Getty image ‘Portrait of a young woman smiling’ have to do with INGOs? Or authority? Or politics?” Wong wrote. “[…] Has all of my work on INGOs boiled down to some irrelevant stock image? Is it that hard to Google ‘NGO’ for images related to the work being advertised? Yeah, ‘all Asians look alike,’ but really?!”

Wong goes on to disparage the model in the Getty image, saying she was “obviously nonacademic” (grad students don’t wear sundresses on hot days?), and make the tweet all about her, a deeply insecure SoCal native with Asian ancestry.

Because abject apology is the default response to eye-rolling gripes these days, APSA immediately apologized and deleted the tweet – the only way to get rid of the deeply offensive image from its Twitter feed. Wong apparently doesn’t know how Twitter works, because she even savaged APSA for removing the tweet, saying it was trying to hide its culpability.

Don’t worry, Wendy – everybody knows it now because of you.

Check your privilege

I had some immediate thoughts about this tempest in a tweet.

First, why in the world would Wong think this tweet is a reflection on her? Trying to find good photo art for an article on “INGOs” is almost certainly a pain in the ass. Here’s what came up first when I searched our subscription stock-image library for “NGO.” It all sucks.

ngo-stock-image-search.Shutterstock

A smiling Asian woman wouldn’t have been my first choice for the article, but perhaps this luckless APSA staffer was in a hurry and correctly recognized that a pretty woman’s face is a good way to get people to click your boring-ass INGO article.

Wong’s picture on her website isn’t bad, but it’s vertically oriented, she’s far from the camera and her “smile” suggests she doesn’t want to be smiling, if not constipated.

Second, it’s both racist and sexist to say that a pretty, smiling Asian woman couldn’t possibly be an academic. My wife is a second-generation Chinese American, born and raised in New York City, quite beautiful in a punky indie-rock way, and many of her friends from the doctoral program are good-looking Asian Americans too.

We saw some of them this weekend at an alumni reception. They (gasp) smiled and looked nice!

Third, I’d ask Wong to check her privilege and recognize that casually throwing accusations of racism and stereotyping at someone in a lower position than her is oppressive. She runs a research center at the University of Toronto, she was a varsity basketball player and she has a Ph.D.

The APSA staffer who tweeted this infinitely offensive photo to accompany Wong’s paradigm-shifting article on INGOs might have a master’s degree but is probably earning relatively little in an expensive city with a Metro system that is barely working. APSA’s office is in tony Dupont Circle, so lunch is going to be expensive anywhere nearby (except for the Krispy Kreme, which is a good lunch alternative).

You’ve succeeded in riling up the digital mob – a bunch of well-off academics who profit off the slave labor of their TAs – to take on someone weaker and less advantaged than you, Wendy. You have shamed an organization that was trying to get people to read your own work.

You enjoy feeling like a big woman, don’t you? (Pun realized belatedly. I would have liked to see your skills on the court.)

RELATED: Columbia arts journal fires female editor for defending its use of white men as contest judges

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” Previously he led media and public relations at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, a free-market think tank. Greg is developing a Web series about a college newspaper, COPY, whose pilot episode was a semifinalist in the TV category for the Scriptapalooza competition in 2012. He graduated in 2001 with a B.A. from Seattle Pacific University, where he co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon.

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