The racist slur of Chancellor Thomas Keon, the CEO of Purdue University Northwest, remains a cloud over Asian America, but it seems like many people want to pretend it doesn’t matter.
But it really does.
And the one person who can make it right, ironically, is Mung Chiang, an Asian American immigrant from Hong Kong, set to become the next president of all of Purdue University on Jan. 1.
This is an important moment in Asian American history.
If you’re still catching up with this developing story hidden during the holidays and seen as regional news at best, on Dec. 10 at the Purdue Northwest commencement, Keon, a white educated man in accounting, acted the dumb white insensitive male and used an accent that sounded like doggerel but in fact was Asian. We know because he admitted it while in the act. The astonishing self-awareness of a racist.
See the video here for full context, if you missed it. (A keynote speaker ends, then Keon walks up and delivers an anti-Asian slur.)
This situation potentially could have been a teaching moment for the entire nation about Asian Americans and social justice, had it been handled properly.
We are, after all, coming out of a three-year period where the organization #StopAAPIHate has recorded more than 11,000 hate instances against AAPIs. From minor to major transgressions, from verbal slights to aggressive assaults, sometimes resulting in death. This is the hate that’s emerged in American society since Donald Trump began scapegoating Asian Americans for what he called the “Kung Flu” and “China Virus.”
A slur is more than a slip.
And Keon’s slur shows us that both he and the nation still don’t get it. Keon should have stepped down immediately from his leadership role of an institution of higher learning.
It’s an example America needs to see.
Instead, Keon, the accounting guy, wasn’t held fully accountable for the harm his public speech caused. He simply tried to will it all away as if no one would notice. Asian Americans are just 3 percent of his campus, after all.
But when the matter didn’t go away, Keon finally issued a kind of bureaucratic apology for the files on Dec. 14, indicating the slur didn’t express his values or the university’s. The board of trustees, not wanting controversy, hastily accepted his story.
That’s when the faculty senate became enraged and voted to demand Keon’s resignation.
When Keon didn’t resign last week, a majority of Purdue Northwest’s tenure-track and clinical faculty, including department heads and deans, gave Keon a “no confidence” vote.
The vote was not close: 135 to 20.
Keon still didn’t resign, even though this was his second no confidence vote this year. Apparently, Keon is not highly regarded by faculty, but he stays on, amid a general sense of incompetence and now a very damning example of racism caught at no less than a graduation event that’s on YouTube.
And yet the attempts by the board to save Keon’s job have been extraordinary.
Most amusing is how everyone knows it’s racist, and yet, there is such a willingness to discount it as if there is no real infraction.
Even national writers have taken on the “Poor Keon” tone, acknowledging racism but saying that Keon shouldn’t lose his job or be forced into retirement.
It’s a kind of gaslighting 2.0.
It happened; we’re not going to pretend it didn’t happen.
But we’re going to treat the perpetrator like it didn’t happen.
Everyone thinks about poor Chancellor Keon.
No one thinks about people like Vicha Ratanapakdee, the 84-year-old Thai man who was killed in San Francisco on Jan. 28, 2021, after a man shoved him to the ground in a hate attack.
Or Filipino American Vilma Kari in midtown Manhattan, who was knocked to the ground and kicked in the face as she was walking to church in 2021.
Or another Filipino American, Noel Quintana, who was slashed with a knife across the face in a New York City subway.
Asian American hate? It begins with an accent that “others” us and makes AAPIs vulnerable.
That’s what Keon knows he did. Once in public should be enough, because you know he would harbor all those anti-Asian thoughts in private, waiting for the right time to unleash his “jokes.” But the Purdue Board of Trustees, though recognizing the racism, wants to see a pattern in Keon’s behavior before they go beyond reprimand.
AN AAPI FACULTY MEMBER SPEAKS
“There should be consequences for his behavior, and a reprimand is not the answer,” a tenured faculty member of PNW emailed me this morning. “His behavior is a trigger for many and is still disturbing. He should resign or be fired. I am still livid.”
I gave the faculty member anonymity to allow for full candor.
“I know many Asian faculty that have experienced micro-aggressions from students, faculty, and leadership,” my source told me. “This behavior triggered deep pain for my colleagues.”
And then the person admitted to experiencing micro-aggressions from a colleague. “I followed procedure [went to HR and reached out to my department chair]. The faculty member was tenured and nothing happened.”
If the board doesn’t act, then justice is up to the next president of Purdue, Dr. Mung Chiang.
He’s a young hot shot academic, a Hong Kong immigrant who went to Stanford, starred in engineering at Princeton, and was lured to head the engineering school at Purdue the last five years.
More revealing is his stint as science advisor to the xenophobic and racist Trump administration.
Will he or won’t he rock the boat now? Chiang’s response as president could turn Purdue’s failure to act in 2022 into a new sign of hope in 2023.
That would signal a real change in America. The first Asian American president fires the racist chancellor who told a bad Asian joke.
That’s almost too good to be true.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.