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Was the Plattsburgh Cartoon Really Racist?

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Kevin Mercado: November 17, 2015


Let’s talk about race. At face value, it’s only a social construct. We created it. Now in the case of the SUNY Plattsburgh “racist” cartoon I ask, is the cartoon itself really all that racist?

I’d like to think that the cartoon depicts an actual visualization of successful inner-city school kids.

The picture, featured alongside the article “Minority Admission Rates Examined” showcases an African-American male graduate holding his diploma walking down a tattered street covered with graffiti and a beat up “stop” sign.

According to The Huffington Post, SUNY Plattsburgh’s president, John Ettling, issued a statement soon after the cover hit the stands “calling the cartoon ‘personally offensive.’”

Now, this picture in and of itself is not offensive. I say this because of my own experiences growing up in an inner-city neighborhood and graduating from a school in an area that looks very similar to the area depicted in the picture.

I have seen first hand, at least from high school, students who look just like this. The essential message I get is that of hope for a better future than the environment that the student is in. It is the very same idea that I had after my high school graduation.

The drawing itself shows a meaning bigger than the stereotypical poor African-American in the ghetto. And yes, while it depicts an African-American male in the run-down neighborhood, we cannot dispel that there are in fact African-Americans who live in impoverished city neighborhoods. It’s just the truth, or at least part of the truth. Of course, this isn’t the case for all African-Americans, but it is not just a mythical stereotype.

The picture was also questioned for is portrayal of the African-American male.

Felice Leon from The Daily Beast described the character “with bulging eyes and an exaggerated white mouth.” Apparently having big eyes and an oversized mouth equals African-American, which is ludicrous. It may just be the style of the cartoonist to depict the human form in this way. I’ve never really heard that big eyes denote African-Americans. Big lips are commonly referenced, but in this case the subject does not have lips at all.

The question of racism does not lie in the picture alone, as the picture is not racist. The context that the picture was displayed in is really what is racist.

Plattsburgh’s student newspaper Cardinal Points said in a statement, “It has come to our attention that the graphic in question not only has a disconnect to the article it was created to work with, but it also unintentionally features offensive and stereotypical elements that misrepresent African-American students,” according to The Huffington Post.

The accompanying article was about diversity and admission rates for minority students at Plattsburgh. The picture and the story had no correlation.

It also did not help that the artist of the picture, Jonny Zajac, wrote racial slurs in an Instagram post that featured the cover of the paper with his picture on it soon after it was published.

Zajac’s post was captioned, “My favorite person in Plattsburgh #niggers.”

So yes, in the context at which the picture was published, it is racist, but the picture itself is a reality for some African-American students. Had the photo been attached to a story about graduation rates for students in urban schools, the photo wouldn’t be as big of an issue.

Like the social construct of race, the notion of racism surrounding this cartoon is constructed due to the other elements attached to it.

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