A Texas Democratic candidate for Harris County Commissioners Court has apologized for altering a photo of her gay Asian-American opponent’s face in a series of negative ads that some critics have called racist.
Lesley Briones, a candidate for the Precinct 4 seat, which includes parts of Houston and its western suburbs, issued the apology to her opponent, Ben Chou, whom she faces in a May 24 runoff election for the Democratic nomination for a Republican-held seat on the court. On May 18, less than a week before the primary, Briones’ campaign launched several ads on social media featuring a black-and-white image of Chou that critics claimed altered his mouth and eyes and lightened his skin.
Chou denounced the ads for “leveraging racist stereotypes that have been used to attack Asian Americans for more than 150 years,” and called upon Briones to apologize, not only to his campaign, but to Asian Americans and Harris County voters overall. His campaign added that the altered image continues “a long history of docking images of people of color to make them look angry or menacing,” according to Houston Public Media.
In her apology, Briones cast blame on a graphic designer who used a Photoshop filter to remove Chou’s smile from a campaign photo and shade the photo using a black-and-white filter. She claimed not to have known about the alterations to Chou’s photo until hearing complaints and outrage from several community organizations.
“Our campaign posted an ad using a photo of my opponent. The graphic designer, without any direction from the campaign, used a photoshop filter to remove my opponent’s smile and apply a black-and-white filter,” Briones wrote in a Facebook post. “As soon as I was notified, I instructed my team to remove the ad; it was taken down within minutes. Good leaders take responsibility and demand accountability; that graphic designer no longer works for the campaign.
“I apologize to my opponent that this event occurred and to the Asian-American community for the pain it has caused,” she added.
However, Briones denied any accusations of racism, accusing Chou of attempting to capitalize on the controversy, reports the Houston Chronicle.
“As a woman of color who is raising three Mexican-American daughters, I reject his charges in the strongest of terms, she wrote in her statement. “My life’s work has been to empower underserved communities and to advance equal justice and opportunity in the classroom, the courtroom, and the nonprofit organizations I have helped to lead. I am running with the support of a broad and most diverse coalition, and I will not engage attempts to divide our communities. I will continue my lifelong work to eradicate discrimination and racism and to lift up all communities.”
Briones had previously accused Chou of lying about the ads and exploiting the incident to further his campaign, and to avoid being held accountable for past false statements he’s made on the campaign trail. She even claimed that Chou had darkened her skin in his campaign ads.
In a statement issued on Monday, Chou said Briones has not reached out to him personally and said blaming a filter for the alterations was a “poor excuse,” while denying her past charges that his ads darkened her skin color.
‘This was a deliberate attempt to manipulate my facial features (eyes, mouth, and skin color) and the end result was a racist ad, and when a campaign puts out racist material, the responsibility lies with the candidate,” Chou wrote. “Regardless of the intent behind Judge Briones’ racist ads, they negatively impacted me and people like me and are a reminder of the importance of electing diverse candidates to office.”
At least six local organizations, including advocates for the Black, Asian and LGBTQ communities, condemned the ads for altering Chou’s appearance, including the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, which has endorsed Briones.
“Recently, we saw an attack ad released from our endorsed candidate, Lesley Briones, that used an altered photo of her opponent, Ben Chou, that used racist, anti-Asian tropes,” the organization said in a statement. “Racism has no place in our society and therefore should not have a place in politics.”
LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization advocating for greater LGBTQ representation in public office that has endorsed Chou, also condemned the ads as a “racist attack,” calling them “disgusting and morally reprehensible.”
“At a time when the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is the target of an unprecedented surge in attacks, it is not only hateful, but dangerous,” the organization said in a statement. “Anyone who peddles in racism and bigotry is clearly unfit for office.”
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!