When University of Michigan law student Courtney Liss first sat down at the Robert B. Aikens Commons for orientation, she said she eagerly listened to the Dean of the Faculty’s presentation. of law Mark West, professor of Japanese law, to the incoming class.
While West officially welcomed Liss and her peers to one of prestigious law programs around the country, out of curiosity, Liss pulled out her phone and searched for the academic work published by West. Liss, who identifies as mixed Vietnamese, said she was shocked to see the covers of her books depicting sexually suggestive scenes. representations Asian women.
“Personally, I have been haunted by these book covers and this very visible example of racism since I came to the University of Michigan Law,” Liss said. “Literally, sitting in the orientation, I remember pulling out his work and looking at them and thinking, ‘What? How did I get here? ‘ “
Asian women have long been fetishized and hypersexualized in Western culture. The sexualization of Asian American women – and the anti-Asian racism inherent in these stereotypes – has won nationalism Warning last week, when eight people, including four women of Korean descent and two of Chinese descent, were kill in mass shootings at Asian-owned massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
Now in her third year at college, Liss said she privately contacted law school administrators throughout her three years about the covers while publicly advocating for West to take responsibility for them. So when West issued an emailed statement on March 17 on behalf of the law school condemning the Atlanta shooting, Liss decided to tweet about West’s book covers.
Liss’s tweets led to a pullback against West across the Michigan Law community. Three days after his tweet, West issued a formal apology for the book covers in an email sent to the Michigan legal community and obtained by The Daily.
“(The covers of the book) reinforce a view of women based on damaging stereotypes,” West wrote in her March 20 apology. “And although contributing to a damaging narrative was not my intention or my understanding at the time, I understand it now, and I understand that my intention neither excuses nor lessens the evil.”
Contacted to comment on West’s apology, university spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen sent The Daily university president Mark Schissel on March 17. declaration in response to the spa shooting as well as a declaration by Rob Sellers, Director of Diversity and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion.
In his March 20 apology, West admitted his work had hurt members of the college community. West announced the publisher of one of his books, “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle”, To deleted their website cover photo from March 20. West said he is actively working with his editors to modify the other covers as well.
In an email to The Daily, West said academic editors rarely make these kinds of edits to previously published work due to author requests.
“I’ve had many conversations about removing existing artwork and replacing it with new artwork,” West wrote. “I’m happy to share that two editors responded by changing the covers.”
In December 2020, West was appointed first dean of law David A. Breach after a $ 5 million donation from the Breach family created the post. While awaiting approval from the Board of Regents, West intends to work during the remainder of his deanery to support new racial justice initiatives at law school.
In his apology email, West said he “occupies a leadership position”, regretting not considering the detrimental effects the cover images could have on Asian-American communities. . West admitted to being questioned by students about the juxtaposition between his public denunciation of the Atlanta bombings and his book covers in the days between his two statements.
Liss said she emailed West on June 6, 2020 for a variety of reasons, including book covers.
“Over the past two years, I have mentioned that these book covers made me uncomfortable for (the Association of American Law Students of Asia and the Pacific), for (several deans of law), for many professors, tenured and non-tenured, “Liss wrote to West in her email, a copy of which was shared with The Daily. “A lot of them knew me and looked at me awkwardly and guiltily… a lot of them didn’t know and expressed honest shock.”
After Liss’s June email, West set up a Zoom meeting with Liss and two other Deans on June 10. At the meeting, Liss said that when challenging West about the book covers, he acknowledged that the photographic cover of “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle” could be considered offensive and apologize to her personally. Liss said West defended the other disputed covers and said they were reprints of famous Japanese art. West did not specifically comment on Liss’ description of the June 10 meeting when asked by the Daily.
On September 28, Liss followed up with West in an email about the meeting – West confirmed to The Daily that he received this email. Liss said West responded by saying he was working on changing the coverage of “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle.”.
“So he privately apologized to me and then I followed up like four months later and said, ‘Did you do something about it? Liss said. “(West) said he was trying to get the cover of his first book changed… but I should keep that private.”
In an email to The Daily, West confirmed that he had made Liss aware of his attempt to change the coverage of “Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle”. after Liss’s follow-up on September 28. West wrote that he had asked Liss to keep this information private for now as the change in coverage was early in what would likely be a long process.
“I requested that she keep the information confidential because the publisher had been slow to act and the cover art had not yet been edited, so a public announcement was premature,” West wrote.
Liss said she was somewhat hesitant to continue following up with West about the book covers after that, fearing that her continued activism would hurt her academic achievements or affect letters of recommendation and job prospects. However, on March 17, in light of the Atlanta bombings, Liss said she felt the need to send a final E-mail to West and other law school deans asking them to tackle book covers as well as anti-Asian racism on campus and across the country.
“A lot of people are asking, ‘Why are you bothering about book covers right now when there is this violence? ”, Said Liss. “I care because it says what kind of work we want to elevate and showcase, what kind of scholarship we think is valuable, and who can be (negatively affected) by that scholarship.”
When West’s original March 17 email statement condemning the Atlanta attacks did not allude to the covers of the books, countless law school organizations – Association of Women’s Law Students, the Michigan chapter of If / When / How: Lawyer for reproductive justice, National Security Law Society and Gender violence project– used the “Lawopen” mailing list to send out statements to the wider legal community specifically criticizing West’s book covers and calling on him to publicly apologize for them.
“Contrary to his post (March 17), Dean West chose to present his scholarship with covers that perpetuate these stereotypes about Asian women: Drunk japan, Japan in love, and Secrets, sex and spectacleNSLS wrote in a statement, a copy of which was sent to The Daily. “It is well documented that this type of hypersexualization of Asian women contributes to the discrimination and violence that Asian women face. NSLS calls on Dean West to explain how his choice of images in promoting his scholarship contributes to the racism he condemns. “
In his email to The Daily, West affirmed his commitment to improving the academic and social experience of all students through reflection and reform at the institutional level.
“Over the past year, the law school leadership team and I have focused our attention on issues of inclusion, social justice and becoming an anti-racist institution,” West wrote to The Daily. “I am especially grateful to our community for their support and I am delighted with the progress we are making, but there is also a lot of work to be done. “
When Liss first received West’s public email saying “I’m sorry,” Liss said she was happy to see the apology and concrete steps taken to change the covers during her last tenure at the University, three years after drawing attention to the problem.
“I hope the school will take this opportunity to remind you to consider other ways in which leadership can and should be accountable to students of color on campus,” Liss said.
Daily journalist Roni Kane can be contacted at [email protected].
Correction: A previous version of this story was called an If / When / How Law School Organization. The full name is If / When / Comment: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. The name has also been updated to reflect that the article is about the Michigan Chapterr More precisely.