Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize it. Part 4: Colbert Gets Snarky, Dodges the Issue

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):

  1. I am playing a character.
  2. I was mocking Dan Snyder.
  3. The joke was repeated several times (reruns and social media) with no reaction.
  4. Somebody other than me sent the problem tweet.
  5. The tweet did not provide any context for the joke.
  6. The news media blew this out of proportion
  7. Michelle Malkin attacked me over this, and she is clearly worse than me.
  8. This took the attention off Dan Snyder and put it on me.
  9. 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.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved that #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part One: She Said What?!?

Way back on March 27 or so—an eternity in Twitter time—Suey Park, a 23-year-old writer, comedian, and activist, in response to a post from the Twitter account of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” (but not actually Stephen Colbert’s account), started a (Twitter-based) campaign: #CancelColbert. Park’s point (overly simplified): using racist jokes to mock racism isn’t really an effective way to combat racism, or particularly funny. The outcome: a bunch of (mostly) white (mostly) guys told her to shut up and learn how to take a joke.

Colbert’s original segment, which aired on Wednesday, March 26, mocked the racist name of the newly-established “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” in part, by claiming that Colbert (in the person of his mock-right-wing character) was establishing his own charity, named after an Asian character with a racist name, in support of “Orientals…or Whatever.”

Late on Thursday, March 27, “The Colbert Report” Twitter acccount posted a tweet announcing the establishment of the foundation for “Orientals…or Whatever,” which, due to a limited number of available characters, and a lack of forethought, made the use of the racist terminology that much more blatant.

It was at this point that Park entered the (Twitter) picture, calling for the cancellation of “The Colbert Report,” by pointing out that mocking racism with racism is still a form of encouraging people to laugh at racism and racist stereotypes. Park has since explained that she is a fan of Colbert, and did not literally mean that she believed Colbert’s show should be cancelled, but that she was using hyperbole as a means of calling attention to a particular idea. In other words, a Twitter campaign called #PleaseKindlyAskColbertNotToUseRacistJokesToMockRacism is much less attention-getting than #CancelColbert.

Never mind that Colbert had used hyperbole (involving racist stereotypes uttered by Colbert’s clueless commentator character) to make his original joke, Park’s hyperbole was, at first, dismissed as the misguided ire of somebody who was not aware of the context of the joke, and soon thereafter, dismissed as the ignorance of somebody who did not understand comedy, or, more specifically, satire.

The dismissal was accompanied by an insistence that if Park just recognized the context of the joke and/or was capable of comprehending the joke, she would recognize her mistake, demurely apologize, give a little giggle, and we could all feel good about our (her) little misunderstanding.  But to believe such an outcome is possible one has to assume that when Park started the campaign, she had no idea who Colbert is, or what his comedic persona involves.  To believe that Park misunderstood the joke because it was out of context, one has to believe that Park saw the ‘partial joke tweet’ and believed that the joke was not related to anything else, and was being presented as a self-contained idea.

Not surprisingly, all the people who insisted or implied that the joke was lost on Park because the Colbert Report tweet existed outside of the joke’s original context were, themselves, choosing to take Park’s criticism out of context. Rather than give Park credit for understanding the joke, and recognizing that Park was actually criticizing the joke, and with good reason, many Colbert supporters/Park detractors kept coming at her with a variation of, “It was a joke. Don’t you get it?” When that didn’t get the desired result, objections to Park slipped, unfortunately but all-too predictably, into the territory of personal attacks—refusing to hear Park and meet her ideas with careful consideration, because it was much easier to tear her down, in many cases by resorting to stereotypes of women, people of Asian descent, or women of Asian descent.

It didn’t help that virtually every news story, in almost every format, explained Park’s campaign as the result of a joke tweet that was made out of the context of the original segment that was aired on “The Colbert Report.” Rarely was any space given to explaining Park’s actual position, as it was much easier to state or imply that Park’s misunderstanding was the real problem.  After all, when a news organization devotes several small chunks of time, over the course of several days, to an entertainment-related news story, why bother to insert any challenging ideas into that story?

I recognize that there have been plenty of occasions of people taking Colbert’s (and others’) satire as a serious statement of position, and reacting out of that misunderstanding. But that is not what happened here. To continue to insist that Park was upset because she misunderstood a joke is to continue to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park.  Even worse, it is continuing to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park because that is much easier than considering the implications of what she is saying—that maybe by laughing at Colbert’s joke, people are complicit in supporting racist stereotypes.  In that light, misunderstanding Park serves a very important ego-defense mechanism for people who may not, at base, be so much in disagreement with Park as afraid to acknowledge that their own behavior might be a part of the problem.

Of course, it’s natural for people to become defensive when they feel they are being called out on something. But rather than taking a little time to try and take in a criticism and give it some consideration, a large number of people reacted swiftly and harshly to Park’s criticism.  And “it’s a joke, calm down,” quickly turned into something much more vicious.

To reiterate, Park was saying that to use racism to mock racism still encourages people to laugh at racism and stereotypes, when it would be preferable to just steer clear of racism and stereotypes altogether.

To state it another way, using racism as a punchline keeps racist stereotypes in common use as something to laugh about. It involves maintaining a low standard for how we choose to interact, and ensures ongoing marginalization of several groups.  For instance, it is easy to recognize that a skinhead with swastika tattoos extending his arm and barking “Heil Hitler!” is racist, and it is easy to avoid being racist in that same way.  It is also easy (although apparently not easy enough for Dan Snyder and many others) to recognize that naming an organization that allegedly supports an ethnic group by using a slur against that ethnic group in the name of the organization is a racist thing to do.  Park was urging people to consider a little higher standard–perhaps one where Snyder remains the punchline/butt of the joke, rather than people of Asian descent.

So, maybe rather than insisting that Park just needs to learn how to take a joke, or how to understand a joke, it would be better to do the work of learning how to listen to other viewpoints, rather than just reacting to them without even taking them in.  Hammering on somebody for their lack of understanding, while demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of that person’s viewpoint, would be funny if it weren’t so sad.