The following statement was issued by Gay Q. Yuen, Ph.D., board chair of Friends of the Chinese American Museum, in response to an incident in which Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon spoke in a caricature of an Asian language.
The Friends of the Chinese American Museum is disappointed in the subtle and underlying racism exhibited by the Purdue University Northwest’s Chancellor Thomas L. Keon on Saturday (Dec. 10) during one of the university’s commencement ceremonies. We hold our academic leadership, especially higher education leaders, to do better, and especially at a ceremony where young, educated leaders learn how to be citizens and people.
The apology he gave, that it was “offensive and insensitive,” does little to diminish over a century of anti-Asian bashing and violence that Asian Americans have faced in the United States and throughout the world. Instead of educating and modeling what global and educated citizenship can look like, he demonstrated that, at a moment when levity was merited, he resorted to racist caricatures.
As a learned man, Chancellor Keon demonstrated that even in the white halls of higher education, the persistence of anti-Asian sentiment is more than physical violence and outright overtures of racism, they are wrapped around “excusable” moments of jocularity. Much like blackface and yellowface, the ability to use humor as a bludgeoning tool, veiled by jokes and excused by “being funny,” illustrates why racism is still so persistent in America. His comments illustrate why Asian Americans are continually perceived as outsiders in their own country.
Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Dr. Thomas L. Keon has shown us the face of America, even in higher education. We must believe him. We must believe that America still has a long way to go in teaching our young people what equity should look like and sound like.
Chancellor L. Keon’s mockery merits more than just condemnation, it is a call to action for Purdue to establish ongoing education programs and training for their staff, faculty and management. The most educated must still learn and be accountable in facing their own racism, white supremacy, and the institutions that continue to perpetuate them.
Chancellor Keon would do well to face those who were affected by his racists remarks by visiting and knowing the very communities he mocked. The Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles is at the nexus of these conversations. The museum is situated in the birthplace of Los Angeles and where the Chinese Massacre of 1871 took place. The museum is dedicated to exposing historic racism and combating discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance facing us today. We are committed to unifying and uplifting the Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and Asian American communities of Los Angeles through our educational programs and artistic exhibitions.
Educational institutions must educate. To this end, it is incumbent upon Chancellor Keon to establish Asian American studies and ethnic studies at Purdue University Northwest. Only then can it fulfill its own mission of educational transformation.