Last Friday, a University of Michigan student made her way into the spotlight after the Miss World America organization stripped her of her Miss Michigan title on account of two tweets deemed “offensive, insensitive and inappropriate content.” Zhu was named to the Women For Trump advisory board on Thursday.
MWA’s concern spurred from two tweets from their former titleholder LSA senior Kathy Zhu, vice chair of the College Republicans at the University. The first tweet was from October 2017 condemning Black Americans for violence within their own communities, and the other was from February 2018 equating the use of a hijab to the oppression of women under Islam.
The latter tweet was Zhu’s response to a ‘try a hijab on’ booth at the University of Central Florida campus where she was formerly a student. The booth was hosted by the school’s Muslim Student Association in celebration of World Hijab Day.
Zhu’s tweet garnered thousands of replies, including some which called for her expulsion. UCF issued a response on Twitter, stating Zhu’s actions did not violate the school’s Rules of Conduct.
Zhu transferred to the University of Michigan the following semester. Her tweet on the experience has since been taken down, but the Orlando Sentinel published a screengrab when they covered the story in 2018. Despite its deletion, Zhu told Fox News on Monday she still “stands by” her tweets.
Upon the revocation of her title, Zhu tweeted screenshots of her conversation with Laurie DeJack, former acting state director for MWA Michigan, when the organization was first made aware of the controversial posts. She also tweeted the email MWA leadership sent to her, officially revoking her title.
Though MWA’s national headquarters did not respond to a request for comment, DeJack’s personal counsel Keith Kecskes said DeJack “never viewed the contest as a platform for promoting or expressing any political views whatever they may be,” as is consistent with the goals of MWA.
“Ms. DeJack viewed the contest as a safe harbor from political controversy and the sniping that has coarsened our society,” Kecskes wrote. “Ms. DeJack was not aware of Ms. Zhu’s previous statements which have garnered so much recent attention at the time of her selection. Ms. DeJack does not believe that anyone looks like a winner from this controversy. Ms. DeJack wishes only the best for Ms. Zhu and the Miss World organization in their future endeavors.”
DeJack’s relationship was never formalized with the Miss World organization, and she has since resigned “in large measure due the controversy surrounding Ms. Zhu and the threats that have been made to Ms. DeJack and her family,” Kecskes wrote.
Zhu did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Zhu has continued to use her social media since the fallout, adding tens of thousands of followers to her Internet presence, which had already been substantial at 10.6k followers on Instagram and 58.4k followers on Twitter. Zhu’s Twitter following more than doubled and her Instagram following more than tripled following the incident.
Zhu has always been vocal about her politics on social media, particularly since the 2016 election. A supporter of President Donald Trump, Zhu showcases Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” frequently in her posts and serves as Communications Director for the Chinese Americans for Trump organization. CAFT did not respond to a request for comment, but David Wang, CAFT founder and director, tweeted Friday about the controversy, saying the situation was “not fair” to Zhu.
Zhu explained to Fox News though many have taken to scolding her on her accounts, she has received enough support to drown out the negativity.
“When conservative media first took the story, there were a lot of positive responses, but ever since the liberal media took everything and basically smeared my name there was negative backlash,” Zhu told Fox News. “But that is minor to all the positive feedback I’ve gotten.”
Campus community has varying views
The mixed responses Zhu described to Fox News carried over into her classmates at the University.
Photos posted in a University-related Facebook group displayed alleged tweets from Zhu which could not be found on her page. The screengrabs showed what critics call anti-semetic, transphobic, anti-black and Islamophobic rhetoric.
The same screengrab was circulating Twitter when Zhu responded, confirming they were photoshopped. However, some remain skeptical of Zhu’s explanation, citing the 140 tweets deleted from Zhu’s account since Friday in their responses on Twitter.
Zhu’s peers in College Republicans wrote in an email to The Daily they “fully stand behind” their vice chair. LSA senior Maria Muzaurieta wrote on behalf of the College Republicans, saying MWA’s decision and subsequent behavior was “outrageous.”
“Although (MWA is) within their rights to do this as a private organization, we believe that this decision shows incredible bias against unextraordinary right wing opinion, which we expect will come back to hurt the organization,” Muzaurieta wrote.
In contrast, Public Policy junior Camille Mancuso, College Democrats communications director, wrote in an email to The Daily the College Democrats “condemn” Zhu’s statements on account of their “racism,” though they agree the statements are in line with many other right-wing opinions.
“It is clear that the statements expressed by College Republicans Vice President Kathy Zhu are racist,” Mancuso wrote. “Miss World America did not strip Zhu of her title because she was ‘conservative,’ or because of a ‘liberal agenda,’ but because Zhu's words were hateful, ignorant, and harmful to marginalized communities. This sort of racist rhetoric is common in the national Republican party, and it is unacceptable that these views are being reflected on our own campus.”
Zhu defended her statements over social media, stating her tweet on Black American crime rates was based in statistics and posting a video in which she said much of the public response to her controversy has undermined “the value and the trust of the word, ‘racism.’” Zhu told Fox News she believes her identity as a woman of color is confusing to many of her critics.
“I think (my nationality is) a big factor, only because I feel the left has a hard time understanding that minorities can be conservatives, too," Zhu said. "And I feel like that was a big trigger for them, especially going through my accounts and seeing me wearing the MAGA hat — I feel like that’s what really upset them."
The University’s Black Student Union said it was unable to comment by press time.
University alum Emily Sioma was formerly Miss Michigan with the Miss America Organization, an organization separate from Miss World America of which Zhu formerly received her title. In an email to The Daily, Sioma said title holders in MAO are held to the expectation that they will be representing something much larger than themselves and are not allowed to officially sponsor or back a political candidate, but there are no rules against sharing opinions and engaging in respectful and thoughtful dialogue.
“I think with the media’s reaction to the entire situation, we’re losing the opportunity to have dialogue about the substance of Ms. Zhu’s tweets,” Sioma wrote. “I believe we should be empowering women to voice their opinions, but in the same breath, we must also address and combat the perpetuation of misinformation and damaging stereotypes -especially by those who have the privilege of a platform to speak from.”
The executive board of the University’s United Asian American Organization disagrees. In an email to The Daily, they wrote they believe Zhu’s responses show “a serious misunderstanding of race, religious, and social relations.”
“Free speech and freedom to express one’s beliefs are paramount to an open society, but not when those beliefs hurt another human being and misrepresent an entire group of people,” the email read. “UAAO stands for solidarity with other groups of color and we hope Miss Zhu learns from this incident."
The University’s Muslim Student Association also voiced their disagreement with Zhu’s comments. LSA junior Basil AlSubee, MSA vice president of internal programming, told The Daily that MSA is “ambivalent” toward Zhu’s political views and believes her statements are damaging, regardless of their partisanship.
“Our main concern is that she is propagating very hurtful rhetoric towards Muslims on this campus who may already feel marginalized … particularly in the aftermath of last year where there was a shooter scare which was perceived to be in light of the vigil, and in light of grander events happening around the world with attitudes towards Muslims,” AlSubee said.
In March of this year, an MSA-hosted vigil in honor of the New Zealand mosque shooting was interrupted by a false active shooter alert. Following the events, some of the University’s Muslim students explained in the moment, they believed they were being targeted for their religion based on other experiences they had on campus where that part of their identity felt like a “soft target.”
AlSubee said he believes Zhu’s tweet regarding the “try a hijab on” booth exhibits a “misunderstanding of Islam” and a “hurtful” opinion which disrespects all University students who wear a hijab.
“Regardless of context, her words that she had to say towards the hijab and towards Islam were unacceptable and very Islamophobic, and that is not something we shy away from saying,” AlSubee said.
Claire Hao contributed reporting to this article.