With Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling grabbing the headlines for their overt, easily-condemned racism, I really should have cranked out these Park/Colbert-related posts a lot quicker. After all, in the U.S.A. we can’t go all that long without another disturbing, race-related story coming to light. And so long as we have people like Bundy and Sterling saying such outrageous things, we can go along ignoring more subtle examples of racism, which really aren’t that subtle at all, as we pat ourselves on the back for not being as bad as those guys.
Still, when I started these posts calling #CancelColbert necessary, the underlying idea wasn’t that it was necessary to cancel “The Colbert Show,” but that the discussion that arose out of the #CancelColbert campaign was necessary, especially given the rather harsh, negative reaction to the campaign, not by the usual hard-right, proud racists, or even the Fox News fan base of racism deniers, but by a large group of people who count themselves among Colbert’s enlightened fans, those people largely being liberals or progressives. The necessity for the discussion was furthered by the severe freak-out aimed at Suey Park, the person behind the #CancelColbert campaign, and the avoidance of actually talking about whether it is okay for white people to use racist language targeting one group in order to criticize/satirize white racism against another group.
“It was a joke,” or “It was satire,” is simply not an adequate answer. It is exactly the kind of thing that Rush Limbaugh fans say anytime anybody criticizes him for his vulgarity and stupidity—“It’s just a joke. Get over it. Why are you so sensitive?”
The underlying debate is, arguably, another version of whether it is okay for white people to use “the n-word,” in any of its variations, and if they can expect that people will take it in the way they intend—or if it’s just plain offensive regardless. If you want to get down to finer points, it is possible to argue that Colbert’s language wasn’t specifically a racial slur against people of Asian descent, in the same way that “the n-word” is a slur against people of African descent. (Of course, maybe “people of African descent” isn’t the best description, since that includes everybody on the planet–but I think you take my meaning). Still, the language Colbert used was not innocuous.
Consider it: “The Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Just imagine you heard this language, or more specifically, the “Ching Chong” or “Orientals” part, coming out of the mouth of a white person in a restaurant, or a bank, or pretty much any other public setting. Would it strike you as odd? Offensive? Would it seem perfectly okay? If one of your white friends used this language, would you call them on it? Ignore it? Analyze the context to determine if it was an acceptable use of those words?
My guess is that, unless you’re cool with racist digs at people of Asian descent, it might seem more than a little ‘off.’
Yet, despite the clearly offensive (sorry if I’m making assumptions) nature of the language, when Park called Colbert on the use of this language, a bunch of people attacked Park as lacking a sense of humor and failing to understand the context of the joke. Rather than an exchange of reasonable viewpoints, the ugliest garbage the Internet can produce came flooding out—including targeting Park with unquestionably racist and sexist language, rape threats, and death threats. There was an all-out effort to tear Park down, without ever giving any real consideration to whether the language is, at base, offensive.
Several people, including Park, have noted that Colbert chose to craft the joke with offensive language targeting Asian people rather than other ethnic groups, exactly because it was accepted that the “Ching Chong” language would be seen as an obvious joke, whereas other racially-charged language wouldn’t be so readily viewed as ‘satire’—one underlying message being that Asian people are in on the (white people) joke, and cool enough not to get all freaked out about white people saying racist things in service of satire. Such a belief falls into ideas of Asians as the “model minority”—willing to go along to get along. When Park raised an issue by objecting to the language, fans of Colbert immediately shifted the issue away from Colbert using the language, and on to Asian people who “can’t take a joke.”
Now, I get that Colbert is arguably painted into a corner in that the character he plays on “The Colbert Report,” and the kind of person that character represents, would never issue an apology or acknowledge any kind of mistake or wrongdoing. And given that he is playing a character, it is more than difficult to say anything that would be taken sincerely, or really understood as him breaking character. Still, Colbert’s response, which notably did not refer to Suey Park by name even once despite showing a picture of her, was sadly lacking. It never once addressed the use of the particular language, or why it might be offensive, and instead, chose to repeat the language multiple times, while saying “not my fault” and “don’t take jokes out of context.”
You can watch the whole piece here: Colbert’s Dodgy Response
Colbert’s response can be summed up in the following points (now drained of humor, sorry):
- I am playing a character.
- I was mocking Dan Snyder.
- The joke was repeated several times (reruns and social media) with no reaction.
- Somebody other than me sent the problem tweet.
- The tweet did not provide any context for the joke.
- The news media blew this out of proportion
- Michelle Malkin attacked me over this, and she is clearly worse than me.
- This took the attention off Dan Snyder and put it on me.
- I’ve done a number of other pieces involving race issues that would seem really bad out of context.
So much of this response seems as if it were crafted by handlers following social media reaction, who then ran it by a focus group just to make sure it would resonate with Colbert’s adoring public. It was a joke/satire—check. You’re taking it out of context—check. Don’t you get it?—check. Why now?/Why this?—check. Snyder is the issue here—check. This was blown out of proportion—check. Michelle Malkin sucks—check.
Colbert’s response, by failing to name Park, implies that Michelle Malkin—someone many Colbert fans despise—is the person most associated with the #CancelColbert campaign. It also has this creepy mythological undertone of refusing to name one’s enemy—“She Who Must Not be Named” in Harry Potter Parlance. Or, if you want to go into a history of racial issues involving naming and claiming, Columbus declaring, well, everything for Spain while refusing to acknowledge or accurately identify those he was claiming it from, or even concern himself with whether they were speaking the same language…
Okay, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic, but why couldn’t Colbert say who started the campaign, or even identify what she said was the underlying point? Don’t want to add any more to her (as every hack has written) 15 minutes of fame? Sorry, I don’t think Park is going away that soon, unless it is by her own choice. (And, btw, you don’t get to claim somebody and her particular form of communication is insignificant while also blaming her/it for allegedly derailing an important national conversation. Calling attention to a joke, thereby creating a national conversation is not the same thing as derailing a conversation that was already taking place). Don’t want to direct any attention toward her because then people might see that she has already engaged the same kinds of “hashtivist” campaigns in service against racist mascots? I guess it really doesn’t serve your attempt to tag someone as ‘anti-First-Nations’ if she’s shown support for First Nations people. Don’t want to answer the question regarding the use of particular forms of language? That sounds more like it.
I’d have at least a little more faith that Colbert’s audience is laughing at the sophisticated satire and context of the joke if they didn’t all giggle each time he used the “Ching Chong” language, as if they were toddlers hearing someone say “poopy.”
I’ll concede that Colbert isn’t the poster boy for racist comedy. He’s been a voice for progressive causes, and has called out hypocrisy in politics, religion, and the media for a good long while. Still, if someone questions something he does, it doesn’t speak highly of his audience if they are going to react with anger and hate–regardless of who is asking the question. If someone asks whether Colbert’s language was racist, supporters of Colbert replying with name-calling, particularly grossly racist name-calling, doesn’t really lead to the conclusion that they are enlightened consumers of sophisticated comedy.
And when those supporters, and Colbert himself, dodge the actual question that was raised, they don’t appear to have some amazing sense of humor that the questioners lack. They just look like they’re afraid of the question.
I’m still not sure why it was so impossible for (white, liberal) people to have this conversation in particular. I’m still not sure why Park had to be attacked by Colbert fans who were unable to accept the idea that maybe this kind of language should be dropped. After all, when Rush Limbaugh mocked Chinese President Hu Jintao with a ridiculous verbal stream of mock-Chinese “ching chong” talk, plenty of people rightfully criticized him.
Some have said the use of the language comes down to intent—that Limbaugh was talking in ignorance, while Colbert was talking with satire in mind. And, sure, there’s a difference there. But isn’t that just a way of saying that we are laughing with Colbert, and laughing at Limbaugh? Or that Limbaugh was laughing at Asian people, while Colbert was laughing with Asian people? But, then, where does that leave you when you find out that not all of the Asian people are laughing with you? Or at you? Or at all?
At base, it’s the same language. It’s the same stupid joke. Whether someone is laughing at or with somebody, they’re still laughing at the idea that all that “ching chong” talk is the basis of a good joke.
And when Colbert fans start decrying the people who questioned the use of the language in the first place, and acusing them of being anti-white, they sound an awful lot like those racism-denying Fox News fans—you know, the ones who think that the real race issue in America is that non-white people dared to admit that they aren’t all that happy with the way white people treat them—or talk about them.