AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Let’s talk about #cancelColbert
T.J. Tallie | March 30th, 2014

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This week’s internet controversy over Stephen Colbert’s ‘satirical’ take on Redskin’s owner Dan Snyder’s incredibly disingenuous move to curry favor while resolutely investing in settler racism has left me more irritated than usual.

Snyder, who has consistently doubled-down on his continued investment in the “Redskins” nickname, has set up the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” a ridiculous sop to indigenous peoples while still using their name and racist imagery.  Colbert’s send-up involved referencing a 2005 racially-offensive comment he made about Asian-Americans and then offering smarmily to start a charity to the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Following that up, the Colbert Report (from the show’s account) tweeted about the new charitable foundation, which quite understandably pissed the hell out of some Asian-American readers on twitter, most notably Suey Park, one of the founders behind the #notyourasiansidekick campaign.  Thus, the #cancelColbert hashtag was born.

I think Colbert’s stunt itself was incredibly annoying especially as his satire is often based in a smug ironic whiteness–and yes, smug people, I get that it’s a character and that’s how it’s being presented. This doesn’t mean that as a person of color I have to like it or that I can’t feel that it’s problematic or alienating.

Regarding the #cancelcolbert campaign I have felt that much of the Asian-American critique of the racism managed to completely ignore Native Americans and original context which was frustrating and disappointing. That said, I’ve read a lot of conversations over social media from white men in effect telling people of color (POC) how to react to racist discourse.  These conversations have predominantly been smug lectures that tell people ‘offended’ by ‘racism’ to get over it or to lighten up or get that it’s satire.

The most egregious and entitled of these came from Tommy Craggs and Kyle Wagner over at Deadspin with their ever-so-cleverly  titled “Gooks Don’t Get Redskins Joke.”  Craggs and Wagner summed up Park and others as having “riled up the perpetually riled-up segment of Twitter, and the #CancelColbert hashtag was soon flooded with a mind-warping mix of left-wingers and Asian activists refusing to understand satire.”  While Craggs and Wagner did point out how the #CancelColbert campaign actually erased the original critique of anti-Native American racism—and indeed dropped out Native Americans all together—they continued a larger conversation of explaining to people of color how to understand comedy which presumes that the people of color responding to this are ‘ignorant’ or incapable of understanding how ‘satire’ works. Really, it’s actually white people not understanding the multiple levels that POC can experience these racist images.*

Part of what really frustrates me about this is the white privilege that structures it. To say that there is only one way to view Colbert–as satire–presumes that one can see racist imagery and not at all feel hurt by the racism but instead it must be seen only in one context. But what about POC, particularly Asian Americans, who are tired of seeing such stereotypes even if they’re being mobilized in theoretical pursuit of critiquing the Redskins racism?

Ultimately, I think that the #cancelcolbert campaign was hasty and also a problem–because it decontextualized the imagery and it completely dropped out the original conversation Colbert was intending about anti-Native American racism. However, I also understand that deploying racist images of you/your people is going to sting and is not going to be okay or simply laughed off or told to be understood just as a form of satire. I agreed in principle with what you’re arguing–that the campaign is misguided in that it focuses not on the intent of the joke, but I deeply resent the phrasing of it I have read on multiple social media outlets–telling POC “to get a grip” or understand satire is fucked up. As if humor–and particularly Colbert’s–isn’t informed by a structural white supremacy where to totally ‘get’ the joke you have to be removed from ever seeing yourself in racist imagery, and instead should just take it as cool in pursuit of the comic’s larger ‘point.’

* Deadspin: While the authors of the Deadspin piece identify as Asian American, that doesn’t excuse or justify either the substitution of a racial slur for another, nor does it change the main issue of telling people of color how to respond to satire.

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T.J. Tallie

PhD student, historian, activist, friend, lover of gin and silliness.

11 thoughts on “Let’s talk about #cancelColbert

      • That actually does makes absolutely perfect sense. Colbert is satire and is pointed at white, conservative pundits. His smugness is a send-up and the tweet, though unfortunate in how it was received, was to point out the absurdity of Dan Snyder’s letter.

        Of Colbert’s smugness, the author says, “This doesn’t mean that as a person of color I have to like it or that I can’t feel that it’s problematic or alienating.” True and that’s you’re right. You can also not watch it or participate it. Free will is a wonderful gift.

        As for Dan Snyder, as a DC-area resident and someone who grew up on a reservation in the 1970s, I think Snyder and his intent are what really deserves a closer look by the media and our society. Too bad people are focused on Colbert’s dumb tweet and not the real issue at hand.

  1. Thanks, T. J., for this thoughtful piece. The fact is that Colbert could have skewered Snyder in funnier and more complex ways. A thing as stupid as the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” opens itself to a lot of jokes, most of them not as ham-handed and offensive as the one that finally got aired. (Of course, the writers on the show probably knew all of that, and went with the joke that was “edgiest”… because, y’know, ratings).

    And it’s true that white people love Colbert, so the problem of audience is real. When white people laughed at Colbert’s joke, what did that laughter mean? I’m sure many were laughing about the inanity of Snyder’s move, laughing through the pain of the bullshit racism it so obviously exemplifies. I’m also sure that many were laughing just because, “heh… Ching Chong Ding Dong.” I’m also sure that many people were laughing at both, without knowing exactly why. That’s what the joke does: it lets people indulge in a comic stereotype, whilst putting another coat of shine on that good-liberal halo.

    I think a lot of the backlash against Park has come from people who sense a bit of hypocrisy in a response that blends outrage and self-promotion. That heady mix of earnest piety and amoral concern for one’s personal brand is the lifeblood of talking heads and pundits across the political spectrum. I’m not trying to attack Park ad hominem: her motives are beyond my ken, and I suspect that this is just a part of what happens when you combine “Twitter” and “activist.” But it’s not a huge surprise that people responded negatively: the two biggest winners seem to be Park and Snyder.

    It’s a weird world out there.

    • The effective part of the joke to me is that he used old racist terms that we all know are inappropriate, it makes you cringe a little when he says it even though you know its a character. But when people say redskins, its such a heavily used part of the vernacular people don’t see what the problem is. White people don’t cringe when they hear “redskin” but if you put it next to something we all would universally see as inappropriate, it makes you realize it’s the same thing. It also lampoons people like limbaugh who use that kind of language as old and out of touch for their backwards beliefs.

  2. “he himself is not smug. he is imitating white privileged smugness.” –> I feel like this is exactly what’s problematic though. Can racist commentary/imagery be Ok-ed if it’s “imitation?” I love Colbert but I’ve always found myself questioning exactly that aspect of his satire and I feel like often enough he gets a pass for commentary that would otherwise be unacceptable because it’s “an imitation,” mimicry for the purpose of criticism and… I guess I am not sure how effective that is.

  3. I’ve also wondered if Colbert’s satire has lost is subversive context. First as tragedy, then as farce… then once again as tragedy, or so it seems.

  4. I’m sorry – I’m Asian, a person of color, and am not offended at all. I thought it was hilarious. Some people just don’t get satire

    Satire (noun): The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

    Colbert is exposing what Snyder/Redskins are doing by way of exaggeration. He is doing so incredibly well.

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