An Open Letter to Maya Peterson: On the Politics of Humor

Maya Peterson
Maya Peterson © instagram—© instagram

The first black woman president of The Harvard Lampoon addresses The Lawrenceville School's first black woman student body president—who recently resigned amid controversy

Hi Maya,

You don’t know me, but my name’s Alexis.

I recently heard you were forced to resign from your position as the first black, female student body president at Lawrenceville School—the most expensive private boarding school in the country—because you made fun of the typical “Lawrenceville boi” on Instagram by posting a photo of yourself in a Yale sweatshirt holding a hockey stick, adding hashtags such as “#confederate” and “#peakedinhighschool.”

Of course, it was meant to be a joke. It was meant to parody the sort of privileged, conservative, prep school boy who embodies the reason Lawrenceville did not admit black students until 10 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and didn’t get around to women until 1987. It was you taking a satirical stand against the kind of people who apparently tormented you because of your race and sexuality, opposed your candidacy from the start, and called for the voting tally to be released just to be absolutely sure you had actually won that election.

I got the joke. I understand your context. As the first black female president of a historically white male institution, I knew exactly where you were coming from. Comedy, particularly in black communities, has always been a way of making fun of a system carefully rigged from its foundation to create success for some and failure for everybody else. Jokes at their best are both funny and enlightening, and that’s what makes them powerful. They can take the edge off and cut deep at the same time.

Your offended constituents, however, do not want to be cut deep—or cut at all. They do not want to be reminded of their context, your context. They want their “uber-diverse” President—but hold the controversy, hold the humor directed at their expense, and, please, eighty-six any real critique of the racist system that created this situation in the first place. Instead of lavishing praise on them for being “open-minded” enough to elect you, you showed them a reflection of themselves, and they were repulsed. How fitting that an Instagram was the tipping point because there is nothing more disturbing than holding up a mirror and not liking or recognizing the image that you see.

It is a harsh reality that the people who ushered you in are often the same ones who will revile you the moment you toe the line, the second you fail to reward them with enough politically correct Scooby Snax, the instant you remind them that racism and sexism and homophobia aren’t over just because you’re in charge.

To me, it is that power dynamic that made your Instagram post comical and harmless. And it is that power dynamic that allowed you to be stripped of your position for it. Because, as much as you are “in charge,” it is the people you mocked who have the capacity to remove that power, not the other way around.

So, from one black person who occasionally makes fun of white people to another, the system is rigged and I am sorry. I only hope that you do not let the persistent mechanisms of disenfranchisement make you ashamed, or fearful, or any less confident in your ability to make real change. In the words of Jesse Jackson, “Keep hope alive.” In the words of Mark Twain, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made School Boards.” In the words of Lily Tomlin, “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.”

That last one isn’t super pertinent. But it’s pretty funny.

All my best,


Alexis Wilkinson is a rising senior at Harvard College pursuing a degree in economics and psychology. She is the current president of the Harvard Lampoon.

TIME Football

This Powerful Anti-Redskins Ad Will Play During the NBA Finals

The California tribe Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation paid to run the minute-long commercial during the NBA Finals

Sports fans will see more than ads for fast food, cars and beer during commercial breaks in Tuesday night’s NBA Finals. An anti-Washington Redskins ad will run during the game’s halftime, in the hope that the NFL will force the team to change its name from what many consider a racial slur.

The California tribe Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation paid to run the minute-long ad, an edited version of the commercial above, which was created by the National Congress of American Indians. Adweek reports that a 30-second ad slot cost advertisers $460,000 in the 2013 NBA Finals.

The ad, called “Proud to be,” highlights tribes across the country. The final voiceover says, “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t…” before flashing to an image of a Redskins helmet.

While the Redskins name and logo has been a source of controversy for decades, it received particular bad press after Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life after his racist rant was leaked to the public. NFL player Richard Sherman told TIME’s Sean Gregory that he didn’t think the NFL would have the same response.

“Because we have an NFL team called the Redskins,” Sherman said. “I don’t think the NFL really is as concerned as they show. The NFL is more of a bottom line league. If it doesn’t affect their bottom line, they’re not as concerned.”

The Redskins is preparing for a political fight over its name, hiring a lobbying firm in May after 50 Democratic senators sent the NFL a letter asking for a name change.

The National Congress of American Indians praised the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation for airing the ad during the NBA finals, and said it would send a “loud and clear” message to the league and the team.

“Contrary to the team’s absurd claims, this dictionary-defined racial epithet does not honor our heritage. The Change the Mascot campaign continues to gather strength every time that people are educated about the origin of the R-word and its damaging impact on Native peoples,” NCAI Executive Director Jackie Pata and Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said in a statement. “By airing this ad during the NBA Championships, the message will be brought into the living rooms of millions of American all across the country.”


Europe’s Problem With Politically Correct Fashion

Pharrell wears a headdress on Elle U.K. cover
Pharrell wears a headdress on Elle U.K. cover Elle U.K.

It's not a coincidence that Pharrell's fashion faux-pas happened in a European publication—recent history shows a trend

Since moving from New York City to London six months ago, I’ve realized that fashion on this side of the pond is a different beast. On the street, there’s a more natural, less labored personal style—utilitarianism rules, and that American fondness for flash is nearly invisible. On the other hand, fashion is culturally held in much higher regard here; Dior, McQueen and Ghesquière score mention in the same conversation as Koons, Picasso or Michelangelo. Families with no ties to the fashion industry are just as likely to take in the Isabella Blow or Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibits as they might the new Matisse, all of which are given equally prominent advertising in subway stations, and critical attention in the arts sections of newspapers. And yet, for all the seeming cultural awareness, incidents like this latest one involving ELLE UK, Pharrell, and a Native American headdress seem to happen far more frequently in European publications than in American ones.

Only halfway over, 2014 has already been a banner year for European fashion editors’ bad judgment. In January, Dasha Zhukova, founder and editor of Garage (based in London) was featured in the magazine Buro 24/7 (an online Russian fashion publication) sitting on topless black mannequin so lifelike that upon looking at the image, it’s almost impossible to tell that the Bjarne Melgaard-designed “chair” isn’t a black model conforming to the pretty white lady’s tush. Buro’s editor was quick to issue an apology, explaining that Melgaard’s work was a “commentary on racial politics.” That the editorial had been released on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day hardly matters—King was American, so it’s not a memorial holiday over here. But that is part of the problem; if a society doesn’t take note of its mistakes, its horrors, it’s all too easy to forget how wrong things can go.

A couple of months after the Buro debacle,Vogue Italia, which has a long and complicated relationship with race, published “Abracadabra,”a multi-page fashion story featuring white model Saskia De Brauw in tribal paint, posing semi-nude, gape-mouthed with safari animals. Not surprisingly, the feature did not go over well internationally. When interviewed by The Cut about Vogue Italia’s repeat bouts of racism, longtime editor in chief Franca Sozzani was far from apologetic: “You can just take pictures like in a catalog so you will never be controversial, but that’s not my choice of life.”

Misguided as Sozzani may have been, at mainstream American fashion magazines, photo shoots are rarely if ever used as commentary on a serious subject like race or misogyny or religion. And there are plenty of reasons why. First, magazines live and die by advertising pages; the more advertisers you have, the more editorial content you can include. Today, advertising in print is a hard sell, so once you’ve clinched that deal editors, why do anything to jeopardize the relationship? In Europe, the major fashion magazines function more or less as art books, and are supported and embraced by an art-hungry culture. Second, the American fashion magazine audience primarily reads for aspirational fantasy and commerce. Does that mean the former is more willing to take a risk making a statement—the risk occasionally resulting in disaster? Maybe. A generalization to be sure, but having lived in both cultures and witnessed a marked difference between the content, I think it stands.

The Pharrell incident, in the grand scheme of fashion offenses, seems more a case of irresponsible styling than a political statement gone wrong. Karl Lagerfeld came under similar fire for placing headdresses on models at his Chanel metiers d’arts show in Dallas this spring. Again, Europeans do not have an intimate understanding of the atrocities committed against Native Americans. But the lesson learned is clear: next time, just don’t.

Johanna Cox is a writer living in London.

TIME celebrities

Justin Bieber’s Racist Joke Apology Actually Gets It Right

Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber performs on March 23, 2013, in Bologna, Italy Roberto Serra / Iguana Press / Redferns via Getty Images

The pop singer's mea culpa hit all the right notes

Over the weekend, when video footage surfaced of Justin Bieber telling a racist joke, the cycle of celebrity scandal kicked into high gear. The video was posted by TMZ in the morning; by the evening, the Associated Press had an apology out of him.

The only thing unexpected about the order of events? Even though the joke is awful — and in some ways made worse by the fact that he was unconcerned enough about it to say it in front of a camera crew — the apology itself is solid.

As TIME’s Katy Steinmetz reported last month, when Donald Sterling was the celebrity-apology story of the moment, there are a few points that experts look for when assessing whether an apology is forgiveness-worthy, a no-go or just plain weird. You can read Bieber’s whole statement over at The Hollywood Reporter, but here are the points that make it pass muster:

  1. Bieber states what he did wrong and admits that it’s wrong: “I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance.”
  2. He says he’s sorry and owns the mistake, rather than using cop-outs like refusing to take responsibility (“mistakes were made”) or placing blame for being offended on those who are (“sorry if you’re offended”): “I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake.”
  3. He explains why the error is not one that he’ll make again, along with his hopes that his apology will help others do a better job of not making the same mistakes: “I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again. Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future.”

His only potential misstep comes with mentions of his age at the time, which can get a little close to making excuses or implying that the mistake was less bad than it seems. But, as a bonus, Bieber’s apology manages to fold in a nod to the deeper problem at hand, “the power of certain words and how they can hurt.” There’s no “I didn’t mean anything by it,” and he acknowledges that, even if he doesn’t think his joke was expressing a real racist sentiment, he was still participating in a larger history of racism. Even though he characterizes telling the joke as a “mistake,” he’s not saying that he accidentally spoke words he didn’t mean to say but that he didn’t understand what the words he said on purpose really meant.

So, kudos to Justin Bieber, or at least to whichever member of his entourage crafted the statement. But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: it was less than two months ago that he got some practice, apologizing for visiting a contentious shrine to Japan’s war dead.


Donald Sterling Visits Black Church In Los Angeles

The disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner joined the service after receiving an invitation from a pastor two weeks earlier

Two days after filing a $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA, disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attended a service in a predominantly black church in south Los Angeles.

Sterling, accompanied by his staff, attended the Sunday worship that emphasized forgiveness and said it was “fabulous.”

“I’m here to support this wonderful group,” Sterling said of Praises of Zion Baptist Church, NBC4 reports. The owner, whose team the NBA is trying to force him to sell, has been under fire ever since a recording emerged of him making racist comments about African-Americans.

Senior pastor J. Benjamin Hardwick told Sterling during the service, “I want my friend to know, we’re praying for you.”

Hardwick added that he did not believe Sterling was a racist.



A Legal and Moral Basis for Reparations

Unjust enrichment, and its counterpart, unjust impoverishment, give rise to the idea of restitution.

As recently as 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution belatedly apologizing for this country’s oppression of African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Sadly, these mostly white senators added a disclaimer explicitly barring African Americans from seeking reparations for the role of the government in this officially recognized oppression. Reparations is an issue that arises sporadically because of the three-plus centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on which this country is founded, and one that Ta-Nehisi Coates revives in this month’s Atlantic Monthly.

One rationale for reparations lies in the reality of the stolen labor and millions of African Americans enslaved until 1865, legally segregated from the 1870s to the 1960s, and who face much discrimination today. This theft of labor and lives was carried out for centuries by whites as individuals and by local, state and federal institutions backed by law.

A legal basis for reparations could rest in the concept of unjust enrichment, an idea traditionally associated with relationships between individuals. Unjust enrichment involves circumstances that “give rise to the obligation of restitution, that is, the receiving and retention of property, money, or benefits which in justice and equity belong to another,” according to Ballentine’s Law Dictionary. One can extend the idea of restitution for unjust enrichment to the conditions of large-scale group oppression.

Implicit in the idea of unjust enrichment is the counterpart idea of unjust impoverishment, the condition of those suffering at the hands of those unfairly enriched. From the 1700s to the mid-1800s, white families and communities were enriched directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, by slave plantations and related economic enterprises. Economist James Marketti once estimated that the labor stolen from enslaved African Americans from 1790 to 1860 was worth in the range of $2.1 to $4.7 trillion (in 1983 dollars), after taking into account lost interest.

Those who have attacked the idea of owing back wages to African Americans, arguing those are too-distant debts, ignore the huge damages done to African Americans during the century of near-slavery during Jim Crow segregation. Millions alive today suffered severe losses under Jim Crow and can actually name who did much of that discrimination and unjust impoverishing. The current worth of all black labor stolen by whites through the means of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination (plus interest) is estimated by some economists in the range of $6 to $24 trillion. And this figure doesn’t include compensation for great physical and mental suffering and millions of untimely deaths.

Most whites whose families have lived in the U.S. for generations benefit from significant racial advantages their ancestors gained under slavery, Jim Crow or post-1968 discrimination. An examination of generational histories of white families and families of color by sociologist Jennifer Mueller found huge differences in the acquisition and transfer of economic assets: compared to families of color, white families had “more than six times as many transfers of monetary assets across generations.”

Large-scale homestead acts operating from the 1860s and federal housing and veterans programs after World War II also mean that many white families have benefited and secured significant assets from “white affirmative action.” The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 246 million acres of productive land, and wealth, for 1.5 million families over seven decades. Depending on calculations for things like marriage and childbearing, social scientist Trina Williams estimates that 20 to 93 million Americans, overwhelmingly white, are current beneficiaries of this one asset-generating program. In Mueller’s family histories, whites reported five times as many instances of garnering such government-derived assets over multiple generations than did families of color. Not surprisingly, the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances found huge racial differentials in family wealth. White families’ median wealth is about eight times that of black families, and this gap has grown in recent decades.

Most whites consider reparations for damages suffered by African Americans to be too radical, but white politicians, judges and ordinary citizens have accepted the principle of reparations for certain past damages. U.S. courts have required corporations to compensate deformed children of mothers who took drugs during pregnancies without knowing of harmful side effects. That those decisionmakers were long gone didn’t let the corporations off the hook. Significantly, the U.S. government has actively pressured the German government since World War II to make large-scale reparations to victims of the Holocaust, although those making the reparations were not part of Nazi governments.

The moral principle here is similar to that asserted in arguments for reparations for contemporary African Americans, whose socioeconomic conditions reflect damage done by past and present generations of whites. Additionally, federal appellate Justice John Minor Wisdom has argued that the anti-slavery amendments to the U.S. Constitution set a constitutional principle for government remedial action: “When a present discriminatory effect upon blacks as a class can be linked with a discriminatory practice against blacks as a race under the slavery system, the present effect may be eradicated under the auspices of the thirteenth amendment.”

Contemporary reparations might take several forms. One would be the gradual transfer of compensating wealth from unjustly enriched white communities to unjustly impoverished black communities, a government transfer linked to explicit restorative goals. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America has sought $400 million for both individual compensation and asset-generating programs enabling impoverished black communities to prosper. Substantial reparations would include providing well-funded government programs, over generations, at local and state levels for upgrading education, job training, housing and incomes for African Americans – as individuals, families and communities.

Many argue there is no money for such moral and constitutional action. Yet, the U.S. government found more than a trillion dollars to bail out private institutions in the Great Recession—and trillions for recent irresponsible military actions. A U.S. government that was heavily involved in sustaining slavery and Jim Crow, and is implicated in contemporary discrimination, can find the substantial amounts needed to meet this country’s moral and restorative obligations to long-oppressed African Americans.

Joe Feagin is Ella C. McFadden Professor in sociology at Texas A & M University, and author of Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (3rd ed., Routledge, 2014).

TIME Music

Macklemore Apologizes for Costume Deemed Anti-Semitic

The "Thrift Shop" rapper posted an apology to his website after stirring accusations of racial insensitivity for performing while dressed in a prosthetic nose, fake beard and black wig

Not long after Macklemore donned a costume consisting of a dark wig, fake beard and a large prosthetic nose for a secret performance in Seattle on Friday, critics began accusing the rapper of anti-semitism.

The “Thrift Shop” rapper was a surprise guest at an exhibit opening at the Experience Music Project museum in his hometown, where guests had been invited to “dress as your favorite music icon or video character.” But for many who saw the pictures of the rapper performing, his costume of choice seemed intended to portray a stereotypical Jewish caricature — not a musical icon.

Macklemore initially issued a Twitter defense of his costume, claiming it was nothing other than “random”:

Yet as the images and story spread, Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, must have realized that he needed more than 140 characters to adequately address the situation, so he took to his blog on Monday night and posted a longer explanation of his costume:

The character I dressed up as on Friday had no intended cultural identity or background. I wasn’t attempting to mimic any culture, nor resemble one. A “Jewish stereotype” never crossed my mind.

My intention was to dress up and surprise the people at the show with a random costume and nothing more. Thus, it was surprising and disappointing that the images of a disguise were sensationalized leading to the immediate assertion that my costume was anti-Semetic [sic]. I acknowledge how the costume could, within a context of stereotyping, be ascribed to a Jewish caricature. I am here to say that it was absolutely not my intention, and unfortunately at the time I did not foresee the costume to be viewed in such regard.

He also — wisely — issued a blanket apology, writing: “I truly apologize to anybody that I may have offended.”

TIME society

Study: Drug Testing Boosts African-American Employment

A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that because African-Americans are perceived to use more drugs, drug testing enables them to objectively prove to employers that they don’t

It’s no secret that America’s war on drugs hasn’t gone well, at least in economic and racial terms. Labor economist Abigail Wozniak investigated the relationship between race, drug testing, and employment, publishing a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research with her findings. Surprisingly, she found that the rise of drug testing actually boosts African-American employment by a significant percentage: In states with a high prevalence of drug testing, African-American employment increased between 7% and 30%, while wages increased between 1.4 and 13%.

“A common assumption is that the rise of drug testing must have had negative consequences for black employment,” she writes. “However, the rise of employer drug testing may have benefited African-Americans by enabling non-using blacks to prove their status to employers.”

In case you missed it: She’s saying that, because African-Americans are perceived to use more drugs, drug testing enables them to objectively prove to employers that they don’t, which therefore results in increased employment. Here’s Quartz:

Without the testing, employers went by their gut biases. But when testing became common and showed that black applicants were not actually using drugs, hiring rates for black applicants went up. Wozniak concludes that this is evidence of discrimination against black workers before testing, driven by some combination of racialized belief and ignorance.


TIME Basketball

Sources: Donald Sterling Refuses to Pay NBA Fine, Threatens Litigation

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on Dec. 22, 2008.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on Dec. 22, 2008. Landov

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has reportedly hired prominent antitrust litigator Maxwell Blecher, who has written a letter to the NBA's general counsel about denying any wrongdoing and rejecting the league's fine, following Sterling's leaked racist comments

Sports Illustrated is reporting that L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is poised to unleash renowned antitrust litigator Maxwell Blecher in order to avoid being reprimanded by the NBA.

The 80-year-old property tycoon has been slapped with a $2.5 million fine and ordered to sell the team — eliminated from the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday — after his racist rant was leaked to the media.

Sources told SI.com that Blecher filed a letter on Sterling’s behalf to NBA executive vice president and general counsel Rick Buchanan. The missive denies any wrongdoing, argues “no punishment is warranted” and warns that the controversy “will be adjudicated,” suggesting a lengthy legal battle could lie ahead.

“We reject your demand for payment,” the letter tells Buchanan, basing its assertions on two key points: first, that Sterling has not violated any article of the NBA constitution, and second, that his “due-process rights” have not been met.

Read more from the Sports Illustrated story here.

TIME Religion

One in Four People Harbor Anti-Semitic Beliefs, Study Says

The leader of "Debout Les Belges!," far-right lawmaker Laurent Louis (C) perform the 'quenelle' gesture ahead of the anti-Semitic congress, "First European Conference of Dissidence", organised by Chamber member Laurent Louis in Anderlecht, outside Brussels, on May 4, 2014. NICOLAS MAETERLINCK—AFP/Getty Images

The Anti-Defamation League's first global survey of sentiment towards Jews finds that anti-Semitism is "pervasive and persistent" worldwide, the group's national director says

The Anti-Defamation League’s first ever global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes has found that one-quarter of its survey’s respondents, representing 4.1 billion adults around the world, harbor negative stereotypes about Jews.

The ADL surveyed 53,100 adults in 102 countries, presenting them with a list of 11 Jewish stereotypes, ranging from fear of Jewish control over banks, media and world affairs to theories of group psychology. One in four adults responded “probably true” to at least 6 of the 11 stereotypes.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said of the findings, “For the first time we have a real sense of how pervasive and persistent anti-Semitism is today around the world.”

The survey found widespread regional variations, with 74% of respondents in Middle East and North African countries agreeing with a majority of the stereotypes, compared with 19% of respondents in the Americas, and 14% in the islands of the Pacific Ocean (Oceania).

Respondents often proved to be ignorant about Jewish culture and history. Nearly half had never heard of the Holocaust, and the trend was rising among young adults.

But the surveyors highlighted one bright spot among the findings: more than a quarter of respondents did not assent to a single one of the stereotypical statements, slightly outnumbering those who had embraced them.


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