Let’s talk about #CancelColbert

Colbert’s satire is based in a smug ironic whiteness. It doesn't mean I have to like it or can't feel it's problematic or alienating as a person of color.

Image: Neil Kandalgaonkar. Via Flickr CC.

This week’s internet controversy over Stephen Colbert’s ‘satirical’ take on Washington 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.’

  • BTW, 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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