Students not laughing at 'ebonics'
Two New York school publications draw fire over parodies
NEW YORK — The debate continues regarding the validity of ebonics, a term developed to describe a dialect of English used by some African Americans.
But along with the debate has come satire and parody — and some people are not laughing.
Two students staffers at Vassar College’s The Vassar Daily in Poughkeepsie resigned from their positions under pressure after printing a satirical article titled “BoBo’s Ebonics Pocket Dictionary” in the humor section of the March 26 issue.
The article gave dictionary definitions for words in ebonics and translations such as “Biotche n. An adult female human being,” and “Bootey n. The buttocks of a female human being.”
The piece also included a cartoon depiction of a black man saying, “Yo cuz! You best better check out my Ebonics Pocket Dictionary!”
Students in the college’s Black Student Union reacted to the article by calling for the resignation of editor in chief Will Rahilly and editor Jon Kuta.
The Vassar Student Association Council, which funds the publication, decided to freeze its funding for two weeks in order to allow for a change in the newspaper’s constitution. Rahilly said the new policy requires the editor in chief of the paper to review all of the contents before publication.
Rahilly resigned from his post amid the complaints from students, a move he said did not come only as a direct result of the backlash from the article. Kuta, who illustrated and wrote the article, also resigned.
Rahilly added that he did not actually see the article before it was published and did not like what he saw when it came out.
“Besides being unfunny, the article was offensive,” Rahilly wrote in an e-mail to the SPLC Report.
But while Rahilly did not agree with the article, he said that censorship of the student publications is not unusual on the Vassar campus.
“A supposedly super-liberal college accepts only what is acceptable to the majority,” he said. “How is that supposed to work? It’s liberal in that it upholds a typically liberal standpoint on today’s issues.”
Some students spoke out for the Vassar Daily’s free press rights in the wake of the article.
Former editor of the Vassar College Miscellany News Joe Goldman founded the campus’ Association of Organizations for Free Speech. The group includes members of student publications on campus, as well as members of on-campus drama and comedy troupes. Goldman said he stood by members of the Vassar Daily in fighting for their free press rights at a meeting of the Black Student Union, while the room was packed with students saying things he could not believe.
“It was a very scary experience,” Goldman said. “People standing up saying, ‘I believe in free speech, but not when it offends,’ or ‘If this means we can’t have free speech, well that’s fine.’”
Goldman said he helped convince the council to unfreeze the paper’s budget, and has spoken to the council about working to change the power the council has in cutting off funding by making an amendment to its constitution.
Meanwhile, student editors of the conservative Cornell university newspaper Cornell Review in Ithaca experienced a backlash of their own when they, too, wrote a humor article about ebonics.
The Review version, titled, “So You Be Wantin’ to Take Dis Class,” presented Africana Studies Department class listings for prospective students from Oakland, Calif., where the ebonics controversy began after the local school board voted to teach students using the dialect as a tool.
“We ain’t gots to axe da white man for nothin in dis class,” stated part of a description for the class, “AS&RC 280 Racism in American Society.”
Students upset with the article held a symbolic burning of a “handful” of copies of the paper, and some called for changes in university policy such as speech codes or racism sensitivity training, according to Cornell spokeswoman Linda Grace-Kobas. She added that neither of those ideas were ever considered by the administration.
Cornell President Hunter Rawlings responded to the article by calling for “civil discourse” on campus.
“Though individuals have the right in this country to say or write such things, they thereby do themselves discredit, they harm others and they create a climate of hostility for all,” Rawlings said in a statement released after the incident.
Grace-Kobas said no action against the Review is planned.
Fall 1997, reports