Observations On The La Jolla High Cartoon Controversy

I was going to make this an Ethics Quiz, but category that  can’t quite encompass the issues involved, and the more I considered it, the more certain I became of what should have happened. Here is the story:

A student-drawn cartoon was  published last month in the La Jolla High School’s “Hi-Tide” newspaper. It depicted eight ethnic groups in a blatantly stereotypical manner ( which is to say, it was a cartoon), with each figure pictured wearing T-shirts with messages  reinforcing the stereotypes. The cartoonist’s purpose was to lampoon the controversial H&M ad that caused the company to pull the ad and apologize:

Here was the student’s cartoon…

The requisite number of sensitive students and /or their sensitive parents complained about the cartoon to compel the school principal to grovel an apology, saying that the decision to publish the cartoon was an “error in judgment and a breach of all the values we hold dear at La Jolla High School,” since the cartoon depicted multiple ethnic groups as “ugly racial stereotypes.”


1 The cartoon, in context, is intelligent satire and makes a valid point about the T-shirt as and how it would appear for other ethnic groups to see a representative wearing a shirt with a message that referred to or appeared to refer to a denigrating stereotype of their groups.

2. In that context, there is nothing offensive about it, except in the same sense that the Princeton professor was deemed offensive in the episode covered by this post. It falls underf the Niggardly Principles: something that is not intended to offend nor done with offensive motives is found offensive by individuals who either misunderstand the actual message or deliberately looking to be offended.

3. Perhaps I need to add “The Jehovah Paradox” to Ethics Alarms concepts: when one must clearly or graphically reference something offensive in order to explain why it is offensive (or not), thereby risking being accused of the same offense that one is trying to analyze.

4. If the cartoon was not accompanied by a caption that explained the context, it was botched. That’s OK: it’s a school paper, the cartoonist is a kid. Nonetheless, that’s one reason why the drawing didn’t work. (I suspect it would have been attacked anyway.) Where was the faculty supervisor for the paper? That was his or her job: to protect the student and the paper.

5. Should such an edgy cartoon be deemed appropriate fare in a school paper? Sure, in a sane culture with competent educators…in other words, no.

6. Is it an edgy cartoon? How different is that drawing of stereotypes from these, from the longest running comedy on television?

Well, those are drawn a little better, but the intent is benign in both cases, and the message is the same: everyone’s ethnic group, or group of any kind, can be spoofed…and I hold with the attitudes of vaudevillians and comic past—should be spoofed. You know, my mother found the old SNL skits about the Greek diner funny.

7. It is terrible—cowardly, unfair, irresponsible and wrong— that the school principal tarred a kid with breaching the school’s values when at worst, the fault lay with his faculty.

8. The episode could have and should have been used as a teaching opportunity, clarifying the cartoonist’s message , exploring the complex issues the drawing raised, discussing  satire and its uses, and  reaching  beyond knee-jerk “I’m offended!” complaints.

But that would have required bold and competent educators with courage and imagination.


Pointer: Andrew Myette


44 thoughts on “Observations On The La Jolla High Cartoon Controversy

  1. Schools never seem to fail to take advantage of teachable moments. It is easier to give in than teach.
    I think a number of the complainers thought that the Niger reference was a misspelling. See what they want to see.

  2. Jack given the way you write about the state of education and those who preside over it, is it any wonder this went over their collective heads and tarred the kid as a result?

    • Nope. Completely predictable.

      My wife and I were having an argument with our son regarding his repeated run ins with various rules and standards, and my wife said, in a moment of frustration, “I feel like we failed you as parents.” And he said, “You didn’t fail me. You taught me to be suspicious of authority and the crowd, and to think for myself. So I do.”

      And, you know, he’s right. I hope that cartoonist gets the right lessons from this.

        • From Kant about Frederick the Great: “argue as much as you want, but obey!”

          The perfect balance between authoritarianism and freedom of thought.


          • I’d love to know Ampersand’s take on this one. He won’t take a suggestion from me…I’m too mean. Any guesses? I assume he’d back the fellow cartoonist, but I haven’t kept track of how much being “woke” has eaten away at his brain…

            • I think I had the same flash of thought. The sad thing is: his caricatures often strike me as straw men. I do not recall him ever satirizing the left. That is what is great about this cartoon: it. An take all the stereotypes AND be clever. The Jewish one might be the most clever, but Niger might be a close second. I am not sure I have seen Amp satirize something he agrees with.

              • I liked this part of the his analysis because it explains what I thought about the cartoon:

                Barry Makes Comics patreon.com/barry
                ‏ @barrydeutsch
                55m55 minutes ago

                5. The cartoon is really unclear. Someone who didn’t already know about the H&M monkey sweatshirt story would not be able to get that from what’s shown in the cartoon, and without that context, the cartoon can easily be read as pro-racism or at least pro-racist-humor.
                2 replies 0 retweets 3 likes

                I thought the cartoon itself, even without the reference to the H&M ad, was clever and timely. I figured it would generate a ton of negative feedback but I thought the artist/cartoonist did a good job messing with stereotypes to show that stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. I did not see anything pernicious or malignant about the drawing. My 13 year old son understood the message quite clearly.

                The context, when pointed out, made the message clearer. I saw the H and M in the drawing but thought it was a reference to the cartoonist(s) and not the clothing line. Additionally, I was not aware of, or forgot about the controversy over, the ad, so that message was lost on me. I just figured a high school kid was taking artistic liberty with stereotypes to make a point,


  3. I would have added the “monkey” sweatshirt kid from the original ad TO this cartoon to contextualize this. I think that would have made it much clearer. But that is a question of execution, and a young cartoonist will make mistakes like that.

    As far as it being run in the school paper… I was known for having out-there ideas in my school papers when I did cartoons, and I think they would have pruned this one before it crossed the desk. And I doubt I could have disagreed TOO hard on that one.

  4. 4. If the cartoon was not accompanied by a caption that explained the context, it was botched. That’s OK: it’s a school paper, the cartoonist is a kid. Nonetheless, that’s one reason why the drawing didn’t work. (I suspect it would have been attacked anyway.) Where was the faculty supervisor for the paper? That was his or her job: to protect the student and the paper.

    This is my main takeaway. I’ve heard of the H&M controversy, but had forgotten it, and wouldn’t have realized what the cartoon was referencing without your explanation. It’s likely many of the readers of this cartoon weren’t aware of it at all. The cartoon shouldn’t have been published without that being made clear, but that’s on the adults in charge of the paper, not the kid who created it.

    The principal’s response was terrible. The cartoon doesn’t breach the school’s values, unless those values are “We will deliberately misunderstand satire.”

    As a kid I drew political cartoons for the school paper and did a few that offended students and teachers alike at my school, though I don’t think I ever really tackled the subject of race. Had I gotten this type of reaction I think it would have made me reluctant to ever do satire again. This kid clearly has talent and it’s a shame that he may be discouraged from realizing it because of this overreaction.

    • Chris wrote:

      “The principal’s response was terrible. The cartoon doesn’t breach the school’s values, unless those values are ‘We will deliberately misunderstand satire.’”

      You took the words right out of my keyboard. I was thinking the exact same thing. School administrators and crisis managers mus take the courses. In virtually every controversy, some representative declares (probably before rending a garment) that “____________ does not represent our core values” or “___________ [was an] error in judgment and a breach of all the values we hold dear at La Jolla High School,” Usually, it is a tempest in a teapot and escalates because said representative does not have the intestinal fortitude to tell everyone to grow up and stop caving in at the very first hints of trouble. I mean, could you imagine what the Boston Tea Party would look like today?

      Parliament: “We need to restore the East India Company’s tea refund.”

      King George: “My George (that would be me), you’re right. Pass the Tea Act!”
      Parliament: “Right. Done! Now, send those ships to the Colonies.”

      (Ships Arriving in Boston)

      Sons of Liberty: “What?! Taxation without representation! We won’t stand for it!”

      Ship Captain: “What ho! What’er’ya’doin’ with them boxes?”

      SOL: “We resist! Taxation without representation! So, we are gonna dump them in the bay!”

      Ship Captain: “Oh, no, you’re not! It would be bad, could pollute the water, and hurt King George’s feelings.”

      SOL: “Uh. What? He would feel bad? Oh. Never mind. Carry on. Let’s have a spot of tea and forget the whole thing.”


  5. To the young artist’s credit, it does say “H and M” right there in the middle.
    What more context do you need?


    • I would need more: The brand name means nothing to me. I recalled the controversy, but not the company. I recalled the ad and the T-shirt, but didn’t make the connection with student’s cartoon.

      • Yeah, I think the cartoon is missing just one ingredient that makes it clear to *everyone* that the target is a company using racial stereotypes, rather than the different racial groups depicted. But that’s because it was done by a beginner, not because it was done by a racist.

          • Had I been the journalism teacher, I would have asked the kid to revise the cartoon until it was crystal clear what exactly it was satirizing, even to people who’d never heard of the H&M ordeal. It shouldn’t have been published in its current form, at least not in a high school newspaper; something like this happening was too predictable.

            Had I been the principal, my statement would have been this:

            “Recently our school has received complaints about a cartoon published in the school newspaper that some believed promoted racial stereotypes. After speaking to the student, it is clear to me that the intent of the cartoon was not to denigrate any racial group, but to satirically mock a company—H&M—that recently used such stereotypes in their advertising by demonstrating the ridiculousness of such stereotypes. All of us—our talented cartoonist, his journalism teacher, and myself—deeply regret that the intended message, that racism has no place in advertising, was not clearly conveyed to all students and readers of the paper.

            I hope that readers will take a second look at the cartoon with that in mind. I also hope that rather than distracting from the learning environment, this cartoon will provoke a productive, intelligent dialogue about racism, respect and satire on this campus. At this school we challenge our students to think deeply about these and other issues which have and will continue to affect their lives and the world around them, and I believe that if we keep our minds open, controversies such as these can serve as teachable moments for us all.”

        • I won’t argue that this needs clarity, obviously… But can we all take a step back and look at this for a second?

          Let’s say that we didn’t know the cartoon was satire. What is it then? A collection of stereotypes? Ok. Who does it depict? White people, Pirates(?), Asians, Brits, Mexicans, the Irish, Jews, Arabs and Black people.

          There are so many directions that this could have gone. Just off the top of my head, as a stand alone piece, once could argue that it shows that everyone has something they can be stereotyped with. But I suppose even that argument requires clarity.

          Where it has a harder time going is obvious racism. Racist against who? How do you reconcile that with the rest of the drawing? Is this a white supremacist who makes fun of white people, Brits and the Irish? How warped do you have to be to have that be the first place your mind goes?

          • Remember that the primary audience for this cartoon was supposed to be high school students. In which case, their minds may not be “warped” when it comes to the subject of racism–they may just have no conception of what is and isn’t racist at all. I teach middle school, and my kids have no fucking clue. Some think it’s racist to mention someone else’s race. Some don’t even know that the “N” word was originally racist. They are clueless. I’d expect high school kids to be a little more aware, but most of them are probably pretty clueless as well. That’s why more context was needed. If this were published in an adult newspaper, I’d think it wouldn’t need any more context at all.

            • Now there’s a neat question…. Should that cluelessness be cultivated, or weeded out? I think kids are amazing, even if they’ll lie through their teeth when they think they’re in trouble, the fundamental honesty with which they approach topics like this is amazing. Those kids have no conception under God what racism is…. That’s so cool, even if part of me knows they’ll have to be taught to function in a world with the rest of us.

                • I consider “racist” to be an intent, where you consider it to be a state of being. The main difference being that my definition is more focused to overt, purposeful acts, where yours includes subliminalities. Although I understand where it comes from, I don’t find your definition particularly useful, if for no reason other than it’s really hard to work on subconscious ticks when faced with the reality of real overt racial hostility, and if I had to choose one to work on or care about I’ll pick macroagressions every time. (I understand that dichotomy is mostly false, but I question the priorities of people more concerned with the micro.)

                  Might these kids say something with racial overtones that comes off as being volatile to people trained or inclined to hear it? Sure. But the fact is that there is no intent to feed those utterances, and that’s cool.

                  • I consider “racist” to be an intent, where you consider it to be a state of being. The main difference being that my definition is more focused to overt, purposeful acts, where yours includes subliminalities.

                    How does defining racism as an “intent” make it more focused on acts? People do certain things all the time without intending to do them.

                    And I’m not talking about subliminalities. I have had in the past two years two students who said, respectively, “Why doesn’t she just take that rag off her head” in response to a story about a Muslim woman who was discriminated against, and “They should just stop being Jewish” in response to The Diary of Anne Frank. In the former case, the student absolutely was intending to get a rise out of people by being a jerk, and that student had previously called me a racist for directing the class’s attention to “the black woman in this picture.” Again, being uneducated about racism doesn’t make people less racist, and you can’t assume that just because people don’t know what does and doesn’t constitute racism means they have no racist intent. There are many active white nationalists who insist they aren’t racist. Alizia insists the word itself is meaningless, and she believes we should go back to segregation times and gas chambers didn’t exist.

                    On the flipside, lots of kids have no racist intent at all and might see racism in the cartoon because they don’t know how to distinguish racism from satire mocking racism. Being educated about satire would help, but to get satire, you also need to know a little bit about the topic being satirized. To know this cartoon isn’t racist, you’d have to know something about racism.

                    • You need to read and understand more and get less outraged.

                      “How does defining racism as an “intent” make it more focused on acts?”

                      I didn’t say that. You skipped over “overt” and “purposeful” to get to “acts”. My definition is per se more focused on overt, purposeful acts, because your definition encompasses my entire definition, and then adds acts that were not intended to be racist, but others would perceive them as such.

                      The reason I make my distinction is because there’s a material difference between someone who 1) draws distinctions between people based on physical characteristics, then 2) deems one group superior or inferior to others, and someone who sings “Turkey In The Straw” without knowing the historical context of the song. One is the literal dictionary definition of a racist, one is a guy that did something dumb.

                      “People do certain things all the time without intending to do them.”

                      And what’s it called when someone does something without realizing it? Oh. That’s right “subliminal”.

                      I’m not responding on this topic anymore. It’s a stupid argument, and while that’s never stopped me before, I just don’t have it in me right now.

  6. Seems as though folks today have no clue what humor is. They remind me of a lady I know who came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico after marring an American soldier stationed there. Altough she has lived in America for over sixty years she stills has some language problems. For instance, she was trying to tell her husband that he was a sour puss instead she told him he had pussy on his face. A lot of people are going around these days with the same condition.

  7. I am a student in high school, and I believe that this comic was made for a good cause. The artist wanted to get his opinion out into the school news paper by using stereotypical views to emphasize the H&M controversy. Yes, the kid should have had some amount of context in this comic, but they are not racist. I believe that this is a great example of satire. This comic should not be looked at as racist, but something shocking enough to spark talk on the H&M controversy.

      • Hm. Maybe you should (and the rest of us in the commentariat) should *actively* dig for stories specifically about students being wronged by the school system and maybe a once or twice weekly focus on such stories becomes a regular column here. With any luck you’ll draw a lot of new readers, participators, learners and *spreaders* among the upcoming generation.

        • I believe that high school students should have some amount of experience to a topic like this. At some point in my life and other students life there will be a controversy or issue where they can use their voice and experience from this topic to respectfully present their opinion, and work together to find a solution. Would you agree?

  8. You know, this cartoon wasn’t meant to be public outside of La Jolla High, but apparently the apology message that was only supposed to come out of that school only, resulted in a glitch where the message being sent out to the entire school district and made headlines news locally as a result. So this cartoon has been the talk of the town not only a La Jolla, but other schools in that district as well.(keep in mind, this school is in a very large school district, so it was big news than what others might thought to be) Hell, even my A.P. Gov teacher literally spent the whole one hour period talking about this cartoon, in how even he thought this incident should be taking as a learning opportunity.

    • Also, in that discussion, we talked about one of my classmates talked about his friend(who goes to La Jolla High) said that the publication for the newspaper has to be approved by three staff members, with one of them being the principal of that school. Apparently the principal approved the publishing, with seeing the cartoon but not at a very good glance. Needless to day, the principal could also be blamed for this occurring incident.

      • No kidding. The cartoon was approved by the Principal, and he throws the student under the bus? Coward, weasel. He should be forced to resign. The students should insist on it, and make it clear why.

  9. I am a high school student and I think this student may be misunderstood in his intentions. I don’t believe the student is racist and I don’t believe they wanted to cause an uproar, but I do think they just simply wanted to bring attention to the H&M ad. This satirical cartoon could have been utilized in a smarter way by providing a caption with the cartoon to explain the purpose of the drawing. Although the delivery of the cartoon wasn’t the best, I think the idea behind it was smart, but was just misunderstood.

    • I too am thrilled by seeing so many involved students here. I suspect a high school teacher somewhere assigned this topic, but the quality of the comments from the students has been top notch.

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