When President Obama joked that Suey Park and Co’s hashtag CancelColbert worked, I grimaced. Not that I don’t like Stephen Colbert (I’ve been a fan since he and Carrell were on The Daily Show and watched the Report religiously) nor that I’m not happy about him replacing Letterman (I’m glad he outlasted Leno’s generic, bloated show). No, I squirmed in my seat because I realized that while so many mainstream liberals took #CancelColbert seriously – and boy did they ever – they did not understand its message. For CC wasn’t about getting Colbert removed, it was about asking why White people feel it is fine to mock one race or ethnicity for the sake of another, as if racism is a zero-sum game.
I find it necessary under this rubric to clarify some misconceptions about #CancelColbert. I should note that while I travel in many of the same circles as the organizers of this and other e-activism movements, I do not speak for them nor do I want it to appear as such. Here, I am a progressive speaking to other progressives about what I have witnessed.
So, on #CancelColbert:
About context of THE tweet. I knew the context of the original Colbert Report tweet – a joke that I’ve witnessed Colbert do a couple times previously and felt ill about – within seconds of seeing it on the fateful night. I knew it was directed to Human Scumbucket Dan Snyder – he whom loves to make a profit from the genocidal slur of Native Americans while claiming to “honor” them. I know that his mascot and team name do damage to First Nations people. But I also knew, as did Suey Park and many others, that Stephen Colbert mocked one racial minority to bring attention to another. He didn’t need to. Justice is not a zero-sum game. The organizers understood the context of the joke, but THE tweet made the injustice of the joke stand out.
On The Joke. Writing for comedy is hard precisely because you throw so much material away. As an educator and a writer, I toss out a lot of lines and ideas, but nowhere near as many as comedy writers for successful shows (I’m guessing that CBS sitcoms are the exception. They go for the easy jokes). I can guarantee that The Colbert Show writers spend a lot of time crafting their lines, graphics, and deliveries. But sometimes, you have to just say no. This “joke” is one of them. Colbert is brilliant and so is his staff; he attracts the best. Would it have been so hard to craft a bit mocking Snyder and his petty racism without victimizing other racial minorities to do so? Yes, they’d have to work a little bit harder for it – but I expect nothing less from TCR.
On the hashtag itself. I and a lot of people who saw these events unfold were hesitant about using the CancelColbert hashtag for a variety of reasons. Suey Park is a genius mobilizer who knows that she needs to be confrontational and even exaggerate in order to get movements trending on Twitter. That’s just the nature of the game. But in this case, I think she may have overextended it. The hashtag was never meant to be taken literally, so it was third-degree ironic to see White people explain that Colbert shouldn’t be fired and that his detractors don’t understand irony. In this case, the potency of the hashtag overtook the message, which is a shame, because the message needs to be heard still now.
About that message. I want to remind that I am speaking from my experience and what I took out of this ordeal. Others had other messages, but the prominent one I saw was simply this: Liberals and Leftists should stop assuming that just because we’re not conservatives that we don’t also practice racism and sexism. This message became clear in the aftermath of the popularity of the movement, when Ms. Park received racially-charged death and rape threats from White progressives and when a host on HuffPost Live said that she deserved and brought on the threats upon herself (this, my friends, is Rape Culture). Since White Supremacy and Male Supremacy are co-founders of the United States, it’s not just Republicans we need to worry about. It’s a part of our society and needs to be interrogated within our ranks.
About jokes. You know who says “Hey, lighten up; it was just a joke”? Bullies. Anti-Asian jokes in the US are nothing new, from jokes about eyes to jokes about their speech patterns and accents to the assumptions that every Eastern Asian is a martial arts expert – they have all heard them before. People know when a joke insults them. My daughter does, I do, you do. To tell someone that they shouldn’t be insulted because of intent is reminiscent of the school and workplace bullies we’ve all encountered (unless we were those bullies). As union activist Kenzo Shibata puts it, “[S]ometimes it’s hard to tell when someone is laughing at you or with you when the punchline is basically the same punchline an actual racist would tell.”
About satire. A number of white progressives defending Colbert said that what he was doing was satire, a special kind of joke immune from the status of regular jokes. In an effort to prove their point, some pointed to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Swift’s satire directed at British treatment of the Irish? Was there a section where he argued that the British should instead be focusing on oppressing India and followed that up with anti-Indian jokes? No. Swift kept the focus squarely on the murderous actions of the British Empire on Irish people. Keep the focus on Snyder and the satire would’ve worked as a weapon against those in power above. Focus it on those below and it ceases to be satire and now becomes taunting.
On the R*dsk*ns. The #CC crowd was and is fighting on the side of solidarity and intersectionality. When Ms. Park started the hashtag, she got the blessings of Native American activists she is in regular contact with. Park and crew are a diverse group of twitter organizers and supporters, mostly women, mostly of color, who hold some serious clinics on feminism and racism, on classism, appropriation, transphobia, queerphobia, gentrification, genocide, colonialism, prison culture, and street harassment. And while the rest of the mainstream media, which blew up and misapplied this movement, were out throwing Super Bowl parties, these feminists and womanists were holding Dan Snyder accountable for his bullshit. This includes Ms. Park, who lent her blessings and tweets to the #NotYourMascot hashtag, inspired by her own #NotYourAsianSidekick trend.
On progressive harassment. Again, Ms. Park got harassed. This happens when people from oppressed groups speak out about their mistreatment at the hands of the majority. It’s a tool to keep them in their proper place – something we expect from conservatives. Talk about how rape jokes are horrible or against Rape Culture or against religious persecution and then watch the right wingers (like Adam Baldwin and other reprobates from Breitbart.com) ferociously and dangerously prove the point. It’s to be expected for marginalized people groups when they confront those in power, but it’s not acceptable. Online threats are still threats. This shouldn’t be expected to come from progressives – but yet many of those throwing these racial and sexual violent insults at Ms. Park were White progressives. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. Last year while grieving over the Trayvon Martin verdict, my black friends were constantly reprimanded by white progressives who told them to get over it; that not all white people act like George Zimmerman; that it’s not about race, it’s about economics; that they should move on to more important topics.
White people, we grew up believing that it is our place to tell others how they should feel and that we should correct them. We rarely questioned this holdout from White Privilege and White Supremacy. We progressives need to give that Whitesplaining a quick kick in the head and remove it from our spaces. So when People of Color say they feel disrespected, threatened, or hurt by something aimed at (intentionally or not) their race or ethnicity, the least we can do is listen before we explain how they should or shouldn’t react.
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