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No Evidence Columbia Called Jane Austen Brainwashing Racist Bigot

Suzy Woltmann Suzy Woltmann
14th June 2021
No Evidence Columbia Called Jane Austen Brainwashing Racist Bigot
Park's claims seem unsubstantiated (Getty Images).

The Claim

Columbia University staff told North Korea defector Yeonmi Park that writers like Jane Austen “had a colonial mindset… were racists and bigots and are subconsciously brainwashing you.”

Emerging story

On June 14, 2021, Fox News published an article titled “North Korean defector says ‘even North Korea was not this nuts’ after attending Ivy League School.”

Claims made in the article, particularly that Columbia staff criticized writer Jane Austen, soon took off on social media. Many social media users decried the alleged criticism as being a signifier of woke culture going too far.

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Misbar’s Analysis

In the Fox News article, Teny Sahakian writes that Yeonmi Park, who defected from North Korea in 2007, was “deeply disturbed by what she found” after transferring to Columbia University in 2016. Park was ostensibly “scolded by a university staff member for admitting she enjoyed classic literature such as Jane Austen,” since writers like Austen “had a colonial mindset… were racists and bigots and are subconsciously brainwashing you.”

Sahakian’s article responds to an interview between Park and Jordan Peterson called “Tyranny, Slavery, and Columbia U” posted on May 31, 2021. 

Park published a tell-all about her escape from North Korea, In Order to Live, while still a student at Columbia University. The book does not mention the school besides in a brief bio. She was an economics major at Columbia in the General Studies program, enrolling in Professor Sunil Gulati’s Principles of Economics in her first semester. Orientation for the 2016 GS program introduced students to fellow classmates, school resources, and deans; very few faculty attended.

We reached out to several faculty at Columbia; each said that they do not believe any of their fellow faculty members would say what Park claims they did about Austen. Although it's possible that that non-faculty staff spoke to Park about Austen, this also seems improbable. Nobody else we talked to who attended the 2016 GS orientation could recall such an incident.

Columbia is known for its incorporation of Austen in research, education, and social programs. Several Columbia professors write positively about Austen; for example, Dr. Jenny Davidson published a chapter on Austen’s exploration of the condition of knowledge through narration. 

GS students at Columbia are required to take HUMA GS1001, Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy. The course description includes “Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, Vergil, St. Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Austen, and Woolf.”

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It seems extremely unlikely that faculty teaching a course meant to demonstrate Austen’s significance in the literary canon would say that she was a racist or bigot. Austen’s writings are also part of Columbia’s core curriculum, and there is an active Jane Austen Society at Columbia.

Austen’s alleged ties to racism and colonial apologism have been denounced by most prominent scholars. Orientalism author Edward Said claims in “Jane Austen and Empire” that Mansfield Park demonstrates colonial ideologies. However, he does not say that Austen’s work promotes colonialism; rather, he contends, it demonstrates a relationship to empire steeped in geographical considerations. Since Said died in 2003, there is no possibility that he and Park crossed paths.

Like many canonical texts, Austen’s works have been accused of perpetuating whiteness in literature and literary analysis. Austen herself is thought to have benefited from the slave trade due to Regency-era colonialism. 

However, it seems unlikely that any faculty or staff at Columbia University would call Austen a racist bigot whose writing subconsciously brainwashes readers such as Park. Literature professors are trained for years to appreciate the complexities of literary texts, and even Said’s nuanced take on Austen is seen as somewhat extreme in academic circles.

Misbar's investigation found that are several inconsistencies in Park's narrative. For example, in the podcast, Park says: “There’s no romantic love in North Korea. It never occurred to my mom to tell me that she loved me… there is no word for love.” Other North Korean scholars and defectors say that there is love, and a word for love (sarang), in North Korea; former President Donald Trump famously said that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.”

Mary Ann Jolley, who worked with Park on a film about her life called Celebrity Defector, writes that there is a “sharp contrast” between Park’s actual childhood and the story she tells about her experiences. However, since victims and survivors often change their story due to trauma and stress, Misbar does not want to question every time Park has changed her narrative; interested readers can discover more at The Diplomat (an article by Jiyoung Song contends that there are often inconsistencies in narratives of North Korea defectors because “cash payments in return for interviews with North Korean refugees have been standard practice in the field for years”).

Misbar would like to reassert that we are not questioning Park’s overall narrative or experiences as a survivor. However, given the several discrepancies in her story; that Park was a economics student, not a literature one; that no literature faculty are believed to have attended the 2016 GS orientation; that Austen’s writings are part of Columbia’s core curriculum and GS’s required Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy course; and that it seems highly unlikely that even if they did attend orientation, any faculty or staff would say the alleged quote about Austen, we rate this claim as suspicious.

Misbar’s Classification


Misbar’s Sources

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