By Sean Krause and Nancy Averett
A Miami University senior quickly shut down a Twitter account last week that he created to parody the school’s growing Asian student population after he was confronted on Twitter by students and faculty members.
Sam Kornau, who is majoring in strategic communications and is a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, had been writing the tweets for his Twitter account, OxfordAsians, for at least six months and had nearly 1,000 followers before he abruptly closed it Friday.
A photograph that accompanied the account depicted what appears to be an Asian gangster with jet-black hair, worn in a mullet-style, and thin black mustache. The graphics in the background showed sushi rolls. The description of the account read: “Must bring great good glory and honor to twitter.”
When Nicolyn Woodcock, a graduate student in English, learned of the account, she took action. “I decided that I’m not going to keep quiet about this,” she said. “I emailed my professors and reported it to the Office of Equity and Equal Opportunity.” “This speech needed to be challenged,” she said. “Some one had to say it’s not O.K.”
Ronald Scott, vice president for institutional diversity at Miami, said the OEEO staff began to investigate after receiving the student complaint. “When there is a case of discrimination and harassment, that office is responsible for doing an investigation,” he said. The Twitter account was shut down before the investigation was completed.
The number of international students — mostly Asian and especially Chinese students — has grown rapidly at Miami, by about 480 percent, in the past 5 years. Some faculty members believe more needs to be done to help those students and the traditional student body better understand one another.
“I think Miami students are not savvy about global dynamics and engaging with cultural difference. They tend to be relatively insulated and insular,” said Ron Becker, associate professor of communications.
He added: “I think there are many who do work hard to get beyond their own corner of the world. Of course, figuring out how widespread this issue is across campus is never easy. I think this should be viewed as a red flag that compels the administration, faculty, and students to redouble their efforts at promoting a culture of inclusion at Miami by all means necessary.”
Jason Palmeri, a Miami English professor, also contacted administrators. Before Kornau’s twitter feed was removed, Palmeri tweeted to @OxfordAsians: Your twitter feed is not funny; it is profoundly racist, offensive, and hurtful.
Palmeri voiced particular concern that OxfordAsians had nearly 1,000 followers on Twitter. “It was important for me as a member of the Oxford community that these racist, offensive messages did not represent the Miami community – at least not the Miami community that I want to be part of.”
The student behind the tweets.
When contacted, Kornau at first denied that he was the author behind the OxfordAsians site. “How did you know it was me?” he asked. But when questioned further, he admitted responsibility and defended his tweets. “The [OxfordAsians] account was meant to be a parody site,” he said. “It was not meant to be malicious or racist in any way.”
He added: “Once I found out that some professors and graduate students were upset. I immediately took down the site.”
Kornau promised the Townie to respond to written questions, but later refused to do so. He also refused to meet with a Townie reporter after earlier suggesting the idea himself. Instead, he issued a written statement defending his tweets as not racist but merely satire. “As you know satire is meant to bring to light social issues (and, in this instance, stereotypes) in a witty way in the hope that it will promote self examination and constructive dialogue about the issues presented.”
However, a handful of graduate students and professors see these tweets as anything but an attempt at constructive dialogue. “This was a discrimination act,” said Woodcock. “The speech was targeted to a specific group. 1,000 people were complicit in this,” she said.
The OxfordAsians’ tweets tapped into various stereotypes about Asians in general, and at Miami, in particular, from Chinese students eating squirrels, dogs and cats, to an Asian students’ obsession over getting “A” grades, to wealthy Asian students with fancy cars, to their difficulty fitting in the Miami classroom.
Some examples include:
Gave blood today. They told me my blood was B-. Why not it A+????
Found the cutest cat outside of Thompson. I named him lunch box special.
Found out my girlfriend has B cups. Dumped her because they not A
Father say key to success in USA is drive fancy car even if I can’t drive good
A majority of tweets, however, appeared to mock the Asian students for their perceived poor grasp of spoken English.
My favorite music? Wok and woll.
Deck da halls wif bells of hawry fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra
I reary saw some stiff competition in de erection ternight.
Included in his Twitter account was this photograph of a gang of shirtless, armed, and menacing Chinese youths on the steps of a dorm-like setting.
Kornau’s statement continues: “It is not intention [sic] to offend anyone with this account. Any other interpretation of the account concerns me.”
Miami’s Asian population reacts.
When presented with the web-cached tweets from OxfordAsians, international students at Miami expressed a variety of emotions, from anger to shock to hurt. All of the Chinese students interviewed refused to give their names for the record.
One Chinese student responded to the tweets, saying: “This is stupid and ignorant. It’s pretty normal for Miami.” The student added, “Sometime’s when I’m walking down the street, white students scream at me from their car.” Asked what they yelled, the Chinese student shrugged and said, “I don’t know what. I think they are trying to scream something in my language.”
Chisato Sugiyama, a junior international student from Japan, reacted most strongly to the jokes about Asian students’ accents. “We cannot speak like Americans,” she said. “Even if we try to make progress in our English, they still make fun of our pronunciation. It will make us speak less than we do now.” Her friend and lunch partner, Ashley McGuire, a senior from Hamilton, expressed outrage over the OxfordAsians site. “Miami is a place where everyone is supposed to be equal,” she said. “This person has destroyed that image.”
“President Hodge,” McGuire said, “should send out an email saying that any more behavior like this, online of offline, will be dealt with quickly.”
An Asian-American student who was born in Arizona but whose father was from Beijing, shook his head when he saw the tweets. “It takes guts to come here from Asia,” said the student who did not want to be named. “The Chinese students have no idea what to expect when they arrive. Of course they come here with a sense of fear.”
“There’s always racist people out there,” he added. “But I try not to get mad. There’s no point to it.”
An easy target.
Anita Mannur, an English professor and faculty member of the Asian-American studies program, said Kornau was not the first to use Twitter to parody the growing number of Asians that are coming to American college campuses.
“I’ve seen similar Twitter feeds from Ohio State,” Mannur said. “It’s this idea of, ‘Let’s make fun of the Asian students,’ who they see as an easy scapegoat because they think they won’t complain in the way that other minorities will.”
She said the incident fits into a larger pattern of anti-Asian sentiment that she has observed on Miami’s campus. “It’s the perception that Asians are taking over (the university) even though they’re still a small percentage of the overall student body….I find it disturbing.”
The number of international students at Miami has, in fact, risen dramatically in recent years. In 2007, international students accounted for just 1% of the Miami student population. By 2012, that number had grown to 5.5 percent, an increase of more than 480 percent. According to the Institute for International Education, the State of Ohio has seen the greatest percentage increase, 10.5 percent, in international students. Miami’s international student enrollment at 1,075 is nowhere near OSU’s 6,082.
In the last two years, the number of Chinese applicants to Miami has increased 43 percent, according to university officials. The Chinese student population, in particular, has outpaced all others, accounting for 68 percent of international undergraduate enrollment at Miami. As of Fall 2012, Chinese students numbered 646, Indian 25, South Korean 16, and Japanese 11. Miami’s undergraduate enrollment for 2012 was 15,073. While this foreign born population has grown since 2007, the percentage of white students has decreased nearly 8 percent in the same time period, according to the Miami Office of Institutional Research.
“A conversation that needs to happen.”
In light of this demographic shift in the Miami student body, questions have been raised if Miami, a university that has struggled to recruit minority students in the past, can add these numbers of international students, and in particular Chinese students, without risking tensions on campus, or worse, a backlash from its overwhelming white student population. Sam Kornau’s Twitter feed was not alone in mocking Miami’s Asian population. Many copycat tweets emerged shortly after OxfordAsians captivated the Miami Twittersphere. Hundreds of students shared and favorited Kornau’s tweets.
Scott said he doesn’t believe the majority of Miami students have ill will toward the growing number of Asian students on campus. “My sense is there isn’t a groundswell,” he said. But he added that the university is planning a campaign that will occur in the next few weeks to talk to faculty, staff and students about Miami’s values. “We have a system that says everyone has a right to be here, to thrive here, to learn here,” he said.
Becker added that the university needs to provide faculty, staff and students with more resources for helping Asians students to integrate better on Miami’s campus. “I think everybody could do a better job,” he said, adding: “Given the specific characteristics of the university—its size, location, relatively homogenous student body— a constant emphasis is required, especially when the University is trying to increase the enrollment of International students. Bringing people who are different to Oxford is only the first step in promoting an inclusive culture.”
For his part, Palmeri, the English professor, believes Miami has not done enough to address the specific incident. “The university should condemn the speech,” said Palmeri. He would like to use this incident as a catalyst to for a university-wide discussion about racial stereotyping.
“Until there is a broader university response,” he said, “This story is likely to continue.”