14 August 2009

What's in a Name? The Kim for Mayor Campaign

Ron Kim is the public safety commissioner of Saratoga Springs and the Democratic candidate for this year's mayoral election. He is half-Korean in his ancestry. The Saratoga newspaper reports today that Kim has asked for the removal of online reader comments on articles about his campaign "that are culturally biased and racist." Most such comments, apparently, are riffs on his last name, the Korean equivalent of "Smith" which he shares with the infamous ruling family of North Korea. The comments allegedly equate candidate Kim with Kim Jong Il, to an extent that the candidate found people telling him that the newspaper was calling him a dictator.

There are many ways to look at this. For starters, wordplay itself isn't inherently racist. If someone named Bush runs for office anywhere, he or she should expect to be compared or equated with the notorious presidential clan, even if only for the sake of jokes. Candidate Kim is compared to Dear Leader Kim because of the name, not because both men have Korean ancestry. If the candidate's name were Ron Cho and someone still equated him with the dictator (rather than the comedienne or the Virginia Tech amoklaufer), he might have a case for claiming racism. On the other hand, a person of any other race named Kim (most likely a first name in such cases) might also get compared to the Korean tyrant.

Meanwhile, the newspaper notes that its reader-comment pages have the usual "Report Abuse" feature that would have allowed the candidate or his supporters to flag the offending posters or petition to have them removed from the page. Candidate Kim apparently only heard of the posts from other people and had not seen them himself. Newspaper representatives claim that he ought to have followed the procedure offered to protest the posts, or at least met with the publisher before taking his complaint to the media at large. It's nice that a complaint process exists, but it probably irked Kim to see that either no one had availed themselves of it on his behalf or editors had ignored any complaints. He should grow a slightly thicker skin. As I stated above, the offending comments were based on his name first, not his ethnicity. It might be regrettable that people are tempted to make jokes or insinuations based on common names, and the practice may well be holding back many otherwise inoffensive Hitlers, Mussolinis and Maos out there. But the candidate shouldn't make more of it than is actually there. I think we might all recognize genuine anti-Korean racism when we see it, and unless Kim can show examples of that kind, he should save his invective for his real political opponents.

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