Dec 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Purdue Northwest chancellor apologizes for "offensive" remark mocking Asian languages

Illustration of a cracked mortar board.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Purdue University Northwest's chancellor this week apologized for making what he says was an "offensive and insensitive" comment during a winter commencement ceremony in which he mocked East Asian languages.

Details: Chancellor Thomas Keon, in PNW's morning commencement ceremony on Saturday, made up "Asian" words to refer to a joke made by prior speaker James Dedelow.

  • Dedelow, a radio host, had just delivered a keynote speech, which included anecdotes about a "made-up language" he uses on the air, and he spoke a few lines of gibberish too.
  • When Keon stepped back up to the podium, he said: "Well all I can say is —" and uttered sounds that were intended to resemble an East Asian language, turning to Dedelow and others on stage while grinning.
  • Many in the audience laughed, and Keon continued by saying, "That's sort of my Asian version of his [speech]."

The apology: "I made a comment that was offensive and insensitive. I am truly sorry for my unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker, as my words have caused confusion, pain, and anger," Keon wrote in a letter posted Wednesday on the university's website.

  • Keon said he is now directing an "interdisciplinary team" to understand and address issues of importance to PNW's Asian American Pacific Islander community and offer ideas "to ensure that our campuses are places that welcome and value all."
  • He also plans to discuss with the Student Government Association how to best address students’ concerns.

Purdue University's Board of Trustees, which oversees all campuses in the Purdue system, "is aware of the comments made by Chancellor Keon during December 2022 commencement at Purdue Northwest and has accepted his apology," according to Purdue's Director of Media and Public Relations Tim Doty.

Yes, but: Keon's apology did not satisfy many members of the Asian community, with backlash across social media coming from academics, lawmakers and cultural leaders.

  • Richard Lee, a professor at the University of Minnesota who was among the first to share video of the speech, tweeted that the school's explanation of why Keon did what he did "shows [that] he made a racist comment and used a commencement speaker as a shield."
  • Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) tweeted "This is horribly upsetting & embarrassing for @PurdueNorthwest. This manufactured & fake apology for what he characterized as a 'mistake' is a farce. Further action should be taken."
  • Author Min Jin Lee, who often uses her platform to decry Asian-hate, tweeted, "This sort of racist anti-Asian linguistic mocking/mimicking is unacceptable in the playground, workplace, and at the academy. @PurdueNorthwest — You are injuring Asian and Asian American students, and attempting to humiliate their culture. You bring shame to your institution."

The intrigue: Purdue University Northwest was ranked in the top 20 Midwest regional universities for campus ethnic diversity by U.S. News & World Report for the 2022-2023 school year.

  • Keon received the Giving Back Award in 2016 for his “commitment to diversity and inclusion,” according to the magazine Insight Into Diversity, which gave him the accolade.

Hope's thought bubble: The chancellor’s "off-the-cuff response" to reach for a mocking trope of an East Asian language, the amount of laughter in the audience afterward and the school's continued response all show how meaningless diversity rankings are when the actions of those at the top reflect an instinctual perception that Asians are perpetual foreigners and easy targets for ridicule.

  • A recent study of top-grossing films from 2010 to 2019 showed that nearly half of all AAPI characters were the butt of jokes —  underscoring how pervasive and accepted it is to mock people of Asian descent.

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