A new postcard put out by the Republican State Committee against his challenger Andy Kim in the race for Congress in NJ’s 3rd District has raised a lot of eyebrows around one particular topic, namely: is it or is it not racist? This issue arises after several recent incidents involving racist mailings in Edison and Hoboken, but it bears noting that while those were sent anonymously, this mailer has the return address of the New Jersey Republican State Committee. An organization that would sign their name to a mailer couldn’t possible be sending out a blatantly racist info….. right?
So without further ado, here’s a very quick visual analysis of the flyer, along with my verdict.
Overall look and feel
If we just look at the mailer as a whole, it is pretty easy to dismiss as a regular old political mailer. Smiling candidate on the front, talking to constituents; the back is the “negative” side about his competitor, so the imagery is dark and grim. That’s not so different from just about any mailer attacking an opponent in any race. The issue of Kim’s property tax history is highlighted, to negative effect. This seems like a fair thing to criticize an opponent about.
Is This Racist? Verdict: No. Overall, this mailer’s first impression may strike the average viewer as fine.
Ok, this is the most contentious part of the mailing. Is an image of a series of fish, laid out as if in a fish market, in itself racist? It seems like sort of an absurd thing to even wonder about – what, is a picture of a bowl of fruit or some pieces of cheese racist, too? Any culture formed around a body of water inevitably has fish as part of its diet, so why is this such a big deal in this case?
Here’s the thing: assuming the fish have nothing to do with the identity of the candidate the mailer is criticizing, why on earth is it there? Is this an election that deals with maritime issues, or those of interest to fishermen? Do Kim or MacArthur enjoy fishing? Have fish played a significant role in this election at all? Does the flipside of the mailer show the candidate doing something – anything – fish-related?
No. So this means the choice of four fish, laid out on ice, is a little weird to put it mildly. Imagine if that was a big hunk of cheese or a bowl of fruit, we’d probably be really concerned about the sanity of MacArthur’s graphic designer – it would be laughable to include either of those food items (and don’t tell me that they chose fish because fish stinks – a big hunk of blue cheese can stink too, but they chose fish). Why would you include random food when discussing a candidate? Seems like a weird choice all around.
Is This Racist? Verdict: Ugh. This is so walking a line it makes me uncomfortable any way I look at it. To call an image of a fish racist seems a little much; to dismiss the image as totally random stock photography doesn’t seem right either. A decision was made along the way to pair this particular candidate with this image, out of the millions of other images that could have been chosen. Are fish racist? No. Fish, in and of themselves, are not racist.
But then, here’s the thing: check out the use of the phrase “Something is real fishy about Andy Kim.” Real fishy – not “really fishy,” but “real” – almost as if the person speaking the phrase doesn’t have a command of the English language. Almost like they’re not a native speaker. Almost like they’re foreign.
Am I reaching? Maybe. Maybe it’s meant as “real fishy” like – some down-home, all-American redneck boy, using the colloquial slang of his other working class peers. Maybe it’s not actual race-baiting, but a simple shot straight to the heart of the #MAGA crowd, Trump’s base. That makes sense in a district that Trump won. Maybe.
But oh yeah, then there’s the font.
Red text with strange font:
The font jumps out of you on this mailing – it’s so strange and not like the surrounding text. Much like there are millions of stock images that could have been chosen other than fish at a market, there are literally hundreds of thousands of fonts available to a designer – why this one?
Oh wait, this is why:
The font is called either Wonton or Chop Suey, depending on what version you use, and it’s essentially the same font that has been used to depict Asians since at least the time of the Yellow Peril. It’s a simplification of the Western understanding of Chinese writing that’s been used and criticized many, many times.
Here’s an actual image from the Yellow Peril days, in case you don’t believe me. Note, of course, the font:
The inappropriate use of this font to connote “Orientalness” has been noted by the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle in discussing t-shirts recalled by Abercrombie & Fitch (see above for images), and the Asian Food Fest in Austin, TX came under fire for their logo using a similar font. That’s just to pull a few examples from the first page of Google hits I got when looking for stories; there are many more out there. So this kind of controversy is not new at all; this is a discussion that has taken place in the design world for some time, and the general understanding is: be on the safe side and avoid this font.
Again, if the identity of the candidate wasn’t what it is, why would this font be used? Simply put, it wouldn’t be. In terms of simply highlighting the candidate’s name, simply switching to red or bold while keeping the same font as the rest of the writing would easily do. Unless, of course, you wanted to underscore how “foreign” the candidate is. For that, you’d need to switch to a different font, one that looks like it belongs on the side of a Southern California Chinese restaurant.
(Oh, and if you’re going to argue with me, “But how can it be racist if Chinese people are using it to sell Chinese food?” – that’s capitalism, baby. That’s actual, bonafide Chinese people selling white people Americanized-Chinese food by pretending it’s so Chinese, even the font they use is so Chinese. Except it’s not. Because if it were really, actually Chinese, it would be fucking written in Chinese, which you know, is its own language with its own fonts and so forth. But no, this is selling to white people fake Chinese writing promoting American-influenced Chinese food. Chinese food in America is not Chinese food; it is American-Chinese food. They are selling to us our own preconceptions of what Asian people are like, and what we think we know about Chinese people. It is not fucking “authentic.” God.)
Is This Racist? Verdict: Oh god, yes – absolutely. This is a horrifying use of a font to exoticize and Orientalize an Asian candidate.
So, look – this mailer is terrible. Which is really a shame, because – as is the case with just about any candidate running for public office – there’s plenty of other things his competitor could have pointed out which would have provided valid, non-racist reasons to not vote for the guy. But no, we had to go into the gutter and find the crappiest reason to rally against him. Annoying.
One last thing: suppose for a moment the mailer isn’t racist and this is all a horrible misunderstanding. In some ways, that would almost make everything about it worse. As much as I’d hate to have a bigot (or someone playing to the bigoted crowd for votes) elected to represent NJ in congress, at least the use of the fish imagery and the font would show a level of sophistication-via-deception that would be somewhat impressive. At least the mailer would be impressively racist. If it’s not racist at all, it’s just absolutely stupid and naïve and insensitive and tone-deaf to the experiences of Asian-Americans. So the choice we’re faced with is: is MacArthur a smart bigot, or a clueless idiot? I’m not sure which one is better and which one worse.