Emil Guillermo: Purdue Northwest Chancellor's Asian slur and why it's still the AAPI story of the moment

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Thomas Keon, Chancellor of Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Indiana doesn’t speak Chinese, or any Asian language. He only speaks it for laughs. But he does not tell good jokes. Not for being the head of Purdue University’s regional campus south of Chicago. Despite his apology for not being funny, it sounds like a slur, because it really is. And that is why he is the Asian American story of the moment.

The AAPI story of the moment really should be Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, the AAPI face on the Jan. 6 Committee’s historic referral of Donald Trump to the Justice Department on four criminal charges, including insurrection.

That’s never happened ever.

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Never have we seen Congress investigate and find that a stern urging for indictment and prosecution was so clearly warranted for a former president of our country.

But then again, we’ve never had a president like Trump, who so readily used Asian slurs to scapegoat Asians for the pandemic and believed he was above the law.

But that’s not the AAPI story of the moment.

Purdue Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon is.

Like the Trump criminal referrals, Keon’s story is about accountability for actions and one’s fitness to lead–in this case, an academic institution.

As I write, Keon still remains the head of Purdue University Northwest, but who knows for how much longer.

He should have resigned yesterday.

This all started on Dec. 10 at the regional campus’s commencement exercises, when Keon tried to be clever and cool, like a comedian. Not fittingly dull and boring like a chancellor.

During the graduation event, a keynote speaker used a bit of gibberish language in his address, which oddly enough was on free speech.

That acted like a prompt for Keon, who came to the podium and responded with a line of nonsense all his own.

You can see it here:

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The keynote speaker, Jim Dedelow, is wrapping up to polite applause. Keon, in full regalia, comes to the podium and out of the blue, he delivers a seven-syllable piece of gibberish to match Dedelow’s nonsense.

But then Keon identified his slur and his intended targets.

“That’s sort of my Asian version of his, uh…” Keon said, trailing off and getting back on script. He didn’t specify “Chinese.” He said “Asian,” as in the target is no one race in particular, but every Asian you can think of.

It was generic in his mind, but from a hate slur perspective, it was all-inclusive.

And the response was disappointing.

People laughed.

There were no boos or hisses. No one in the crowd shouted him down to protest. People in the audience just went with the white chancellor’s joke. There were at least 3 seconds of laughter as soon as he broke into his Asian rap. And even as the laughs diminished, some people were still having a good time at our expense.

Behind Keon on stage, others sat in their caps and gowns, all smiles. Some laughed more than others. No one thought to tap the chancellor on the shoulder. They all acted as if nothing was wrong.

There is complicity in silence.

But every Asian American instantly knows the hurt of the inappropriate comic accent. Keon made us the joke in general.

Ha ha? No.

Keon apologized last Wednesday, and the Board of Trustees was quick to accept.

But that’s not good enough.

“The fact they [the Board of Trustees] accepted the apology is almost as bad as what he said in the first place,” Thomas Roach, chair of the faculty senate of Purdue University Northwest, told public radio station WFYI. “The Asian community has been saying for years that they are being discriminated against, and they’ve also been saying everybody tolerates discrimination against Asian Americans. Here we have this discriminatory remark and the Board of Trustees saying ‘no big deal.’”

Other reports say Roach personally met with Keon, asking him to resign by Monday or face a no-confidence vote from the school’s faculty.

All that on top of the more than 5,000 signatures on a petition demanding Keon resign.

But Keon isn’t budging. He’s apologized, right?

If you are wondering when and if Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana and the president of Purdue for the last ten years, will step in, he probably won’t.

That’s because Daniels is stepping down from the post and on Jan. 1, 2023, the new president will be Dr. Mung Chiang.

That’s right, Dr. Mung Chiang, a Chinese American, was appointed in June.

At age 40, Chiang has had a sterling academic career. Born in China, he attended secondary school in Hong Kong, and then made his way to Stanford to earn a B.S. in electrical engineering and math, and an M.S and Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Somewhere along the way he became a naturalized citizen, as his scientific career flourished at Princeton. In 2017, he was lured to Purdue to be dean of the College of Engineering. In 2019, he took a one-year leave to work in the Trump administration as science advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I wonder how Chiang felt about Trump’s xenophoblc view of China that suspected links between science and espionage and hounded Chinese researchers?

Chiang has since returned to Purdue and now in 2023, he is about to be the president of the entire university..

Was the Asian voice of Chancellor Keon (whose field is accounting and who apparently was passed over for promotion) his way of getting in a dig at the fast-rising new president?

Or knowing the treachery of academic politics, is Keon showing his willingness to be the new Asian American president’s first executive test case?

It would be easier if Keon just resigned. But remember, he thinks his apology is enough.

Of course, it’s not, but it may be for newbie president Chiang, who may not take any offense at all to Keon’s slur.

Hmm. Will science trump social justice at the white Midwest university that gives a lot of lip service to diversity and inclusion?

In the meantime, watch that video again, and see the slur and the reaction. It really happened. And, of course, it happened in Hammond, Indiana, home of Jean Shepherd. He’s the man who wrote “A Christmas Story,” a great holiday film except for the Chinese waiters singing “Deck the Halls,” which really should be edited out of the film.

The slurs have to stop.

When all we get is another empty apology, and nothing more substantial is done, the slurs are only normalized further.

So let’s see how long Keon denies our pain. Or if Chiang saves him or axes him in January.

How it all works out in Purdue suddenly becomes a test of where AAPIs stand right now in America.

We know what Trump’s “Kung Flu” got us. And after more than 11,000 hate instances nationwide in more than two years, the country still hasn’t learned much about #StopAAPIHate.

And that’s why Purdue Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon and his slur is the AAPI story of the moment.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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