Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid
It’s a pretty long trek from “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s worth considering,” to “Your opinion is stupid.” It is, however, just a small step from conducting an interview with the subtext “I don’t have to listen to you,” to actually coming out and saying, “Your opinion is stupid,” which is exactly what Josh Zepps did in his “HuffPost Live” interview with Suey Park on March 31st.
Park made an appearance on Zepps’ show, via webcam from her home, to discuss the #CancelColbert campaign (related to a segment on “The Colbert Report” where Colbert used racist terms for people of Asian descent in order to mock Dan Snyder’s use of the racist Redskins football team name in the name of an organization created with the alleged goal of supporting First Nations people). Channeling Ron Burgundy, Zepps spent the bulk of the interview pushing Park to acknowledge that the Colbert segment that led to Park’s campaign was just a joke, and to chuckle along with him.
Zepps’ preparation for the interview seems to have involved little more than getting a couple of screen grabs off of Twitter, watching the Colbert segment, and coming up with different ways of saying, ‘Come on, it’s a joke. Get over it,’ while smugly smirking and chuckling. It’s unclear if he actually prepared himself to follow the indignant, defensive white male playbook, or if that just came naturally to him.
Apparently incapable of hearing anything Park said, Zepps stooped to asking her if she even knew what satire was, explained the definition of satire, and made multiple attempts to tell her why Colbert’s joke was funny/not offensive, as well as trying to tell her she shouldn’t be upset about racist language if it’s used in a satirical fashion.
Oddly enough, despite his attempt to educate Parks on the meaning of various words and concepts, Zepps didn’t seem to recognize at least one word Park used: “Orientalism.” Zepps failed to distinguish between Colbert’s use of the word “Orientals” (a derogatory term for a huge swath of people from Northern Africa, throughout all of Asia) and Park’s use of the word “Orientalism” (which I will loosely define as the practice of viewing/referring to the region previously mentioned, and the people from that region as exotic, strange, and “other”). Park took Colbert to task for engaging in Orientalism–in this case, making a joke that relied on viewing people of Asian descent as “other” and making them the punchline of a joke allegedly aimed at white racists–not just using the word “Orientals,” although using that word didn’t help anything.
Apparently, realizing he was not going to get any traction with Park on the point of how funny the Colbert segment was, Zepps tried to pull his fellow commentator, Jason Linkins, in on the debate by addressing him directly, saying, “Jason, a part of the whole gag here is the use of the term Orientalism which is such a weird, old, loaded (laugh) like, it’s just a stupid, stupid word. But to get upset about the use of that word when it’s in a satirical context strikes me as misguided.” Yes, that’s right. Zepps attempted to enlist the support of his fellow white guy in an effort to tell Park that having a negative reaction to the use of racist terms that are aimed at people of Asian descent (as Park is) is misguided—y’know, because it was a joke. Or, to put it more bluntly, Zepps asserted the right of white people to tell people of Asian descent how they should react to a joke using racist terms for Asian people. (In an even more ludicrous exchange Zepps and Linkins spent a short time after the Park interview bemoaning the fact that, as white men, Park was denying them the ability to express, or even have, opinions–this coming from two guys who are paid to sit around and give their opinions on issues on a high-traffic website).
Park responded to Zepps insistence that the use of the racist terms was okay because it was satirical by saying that “satire caters to the audience that you’re speaking to,” and is an indication of “what the audience finds humorous or acceptable.” In other words, Park said that Colbert’s audience was willing to laugh at a joke wherein, to mock a racist, people of Asian descent were used as a punchline. The language Colbert used is still degrading, and the history behind those words is such that it can still provoke some rather powerful responses. But that idea was ignored, or perhaps not even considered. To put it more concisely, Park explained that “white liberals feel like they are less racist because they can joke about people that are more explicitly racist.” But in that equation, the joke still involved the use of racist terms and the joke was still built on the idea that racism is funny.
To further his argument that Park (and, by extension, anybody who had a problem with the Colbert joke) was simply wrong, Zepps suggested Park would better spend her time actually “attacking Dan Snyder’s racism” rather than attacking “a satirical attack on Snyder’s racism.” Again, Zepps tell’s Park what her reaction should be, and what the appropriate issue is, as well as what the appropriate course of action (for Park) should be.
Park’s response to this challenge contained a number of intertwined and somewhat complicated points, all of which Zepps ignored. First of all, Park argued against ‘individualizing’ the issues regarding racism by breaking them down into issues particular to separate ethnic groups, especially when her critique was, at base, against racism, and the use of racism to mock racism. Park also pointed out that she has been involved in the campaign against racist mascots like the Redskins (see the above point regarding Zepps’ failure to prepare for the interview), and that regardless of the specific issue raised with regard to racism, the response—backlash against the person pointing out the racism, rather than focus on the actual racism—tends to be the same. Park further explains that, even as Zepps tells her she should be directing her attention at Snyder’s racism, he (and many others) choose to spend their energy coming to the defense of Colbert and a joke, while attacking Park, rather than doing anything about the racist mascot that Zepps tells Park to address.
Park made the rather biting comment that for “white liberals” and other supporters of Colbert, “it’s not really about whether or not the Redskins exist or whether or not racism is over, it’s really about feeling like they can’t have fun anymore and feeling entitled to be able to laugh at things that aren’t really funny.” If there’s any doubt about this point, one need only look at how Park has had much more ire directed at her for raising a question about Colbert’s joke than has been directed at Dan Snyder or the Redskins organization, despite decades of people attempting to focus attention on the issue of racist mascots, and a complete refusal by those with the power to do so to change the name of the Redskins. There has been movement on the issue with regard to mascots at the high school and college levels. But, as Park points out, Zepps is directing his efforts at defending a joke that used racist terms, while telling Park what her reaction should be to hearing racist terms used against people of Asian descent, and where she should direct her attention and political activism.
But none of Park’s arguments sunk in with Zepps. What did sink in was when Park criticized Zepps more directly, saying it was “incredibly patronizing for you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man.” Park attempted to actually have a discussion about the issues she was trying to raise with the #CancelColbert campaign, while Zepps repeatedly defaulted to the idea of “it was a joke” or “it was satire” and insisted that Park was merely misunderstanding Colbert’s intent, and did not know what satire is.
Park went on to say that she didn’t expect Zepps “to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying.” Zepps, and many others, took this to be a completely unfair argument, even racist on Park’s part (Oh no! She said that white people don’t listen to people of color–and in a context where a white guy was clearly not listening to a person of color!). But, throughout the entire interview, Zepps did not once acknowledge anything that Park said, or give any credence to the idea that anybody of Asian descent might be offended by the use of the “Ching Chong” and “Orientals” language that Colbert used. Zepps simply insisted it was a joke, so Park should not be offended. In other words, Zepps didn’t listen to Park at all—and she pointed out that he wasn’t listening to her at all.
So, this resulted in Zepps engaging in a little defensive tantrum, wherein he said that being white does not “prevent me from being able to think and doesn’t prevent me from being able to have thoughts…reasoned perspectives on things.” Note, first, that Park did not say that being a white person prevented Zepps from thinking, she said it was getting in the way of his ability/willingness to listen to what she was saying. He wanted to argue a particular point. She was trying to explain that she had a different perspective. Zepps simply continued to assert that his perspective was the right perspective, without acknowledging that he had any understanding whatsoever of Park’s point of view.
If there’s any question about Zepps’ intent, or Zepps’ belief in his own rightness, when Park pointed out that he was minimalizing her experience and minimalizing her opinion, read: he wasn’t listening at all, and denied that anything she said was valid—which is exactly what he did—Zepps said he was not doing any such thing, then said, “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Let that sink in. Zepps said that he was not minimalizing Park’s experience or opinion, but then called her opinion “stupid”—a word that could not more clearly demonstrate that Zepps had no intent of considering anything Park said, because her arguments did not fit in with Zepps’ overriding premise that Park had a “misunderstanding of what satire is…a misunderstanding of what irony is.”
Perhaps Zepps can understand this little bit of irony, though. Early on in the interview, Zepps said, in defense of Colbert’s use of slurs against people of Asian descent, “isn’t his point that there are lots of stupid racist people who, even in their attempt to be conciliatory on race end up putting their foot in it, and saying something dumb?” Yes, Mr. Zepps, that was Colbert’s point, delivered in a way that some found objectionable. Still, thanks for providing another example of just that point.