Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tipping My Hat to Jim Yong Kim

Dartmouth College made national news recently by selecting the first-ever Asian-American President of an Ivy League University -- Jim Yong Kim.

Unfortunately for the school, they made headlines again after a student sent a racist e-mail to over 1000 people at the college:

From the Boston Globe story:
The anonymous e-mail referred to Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-born Harvard medical school professor and global health pioneer, as a “Chinaman” and went on to bemoan the loss of another “hard-working American’s job” to "an immigrant willing to work in substandard conditions at near-subsistent wage.''

“Unless ‘Jim Yong Kim’ means ‘I love Freedom’ in Chinese, I don’t want anything to do with him,” the e-mail said. “Dartmouth is America, not Panda Garden Rice Village Restaurant."

Obviously, there's nothing funny, witty, or incisive about what this writer is saying. In addition to being extremely ignorant, it also conflates "Asian" with "Chinese," something that frankly surprises me to have come from any even borderline-educated/aware contemporary twentysomething.

But we all get it. I don't need to go into a long spiel here about why the comments are dumb, the amazing contributions that Asian-Americans have made and make to contemporary American culture, the sacrifices of Daniel Inouye's RCT in World War II, the internment crime, etc. We can all agree each other to death that the e-mail was stupid, racist, and inappropriate. Not much of a *learning point* or *talking point* there.

The learning point in this story, however, comes from Dr. Kim's response:

Also from the story:
Kim distributed his own message to the Dartmouth community, acknowledging the “unfortunate” e-mail. He said he hopes the incident will bring about “better understanding and greater compassion” for all segments of the community.

He then gave the offending writer a pass: “I also don’t want this lapse in judgment to limit his prospects for the future. Dartmouth students are very talented, but we all make mistakes – especially when we are young."

That's a phenomenal response. For all the cliches out there about the importance of "being the bigger man," that type of mentality is more honored in the breach than the observance. Dr. Kim, however, really showed himself to be magnanimous and gracious by staying entirely above the fray. He could have easily taken some kind of a drastic step and possibly jeopardized this kid's chance at earning a prestigious Bachelor's Degree.

But he didn't.

He didn't start a cycle of recriminations about what type of speech should or shouldn't be allowed on college campuses, he didn't start a crusade about the enduring acceptability of anti-Asian racism in some circles, the offensive way Asians are stereotyped in popular culture, or anything else of the sort.

Instead, with a figurative wave of the hand, he effectively dismissed the e-mail and its author by quickly recognizing it for what it was, and then moving on to the bigger and better challenges of heading up a nationally-renowned college.

It was particularly inspiring to see this story -- and Dr. Kim's response -- because I've been thinking a lot lately about whether and how to respond to real or perceived slights.

I think this is a really vexing question because there's never an easy answer. "Just letting things go" is often unsatisfying (and dangerous if the thing you're letting go calls your reputation into question, in which case you really should respond). However, you can't go around getting spun up or defensive every time someone cuts you with a verbal jab across the chin.

Somewhere, of course, a balance must be struck. I'm not sure what it is. But I also know that if you show me a person who says "I don't care what anyone else thinks of me," I can easily and quickly show you a liar. In fact, I think the people who say that the loudest, and who try the hardest to cultivate that devil-may-care persona, are often the quickest to get touchy when they go on the receiving end of some type of criticism, fair or not.

I will admit, however, that in the vast majority of cases, most digs and potshots really can be do otherwise is to make a tremendous time/energy expenditure for a possibly little or even negative gain. At the same time, however, reputation really does matter, so I could only advise anyone in good faith that if you think someone is sullying yours, you should try to nip it in the bud if you can.

But I guess the key is being able to distinguish something like that from a lone idiot throwing spitballs in the corner, which is easily ignorable. For Dr. Kim, that was probably particularly doable considering the e-mail writer made a broadside against an entire race -- not a truly personal attack on an individual's actions or his character.

And if there is a spitball thrower somewhere in the circle of the people you work or otherwise interact with, I would advise going easy on the fire and brimstone. When in doubt, heed this old adage from southern American politics: "It's better to have 'em inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in."


C R Krieger said...


Regards  --  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Glad you liked it...the example is definitely inspiring..