For those of you who were lucky enough to miss the shitstorm in Twitter in the last two days, here is some background:
On Wednesday night, Stephen Colbert was speaking of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who responded to those who criticized the name "Redskins" as a racial slur by founding a non-profit organization called Original Americans Foundation. Then a 2005 episode of the show replayed, in which Colbert, in character as a satirical conservative talk-show blowhard, was "caught" making racist jokes about Asians. After the callback, Colbert, in character, said he would atone for his racism by establishing the "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."
The butt of the joke here is very clear: it is Dan Snyder. Snyder thinks founding a non-profit organization would let him continue having a racial slur in his team's name. To mock Snyder, Colbert assumed the same posture as Snyder, only in a more ridiculous way so as to make Snyder's folly more obvious.
After the show, the official Colbert Report Twitter account repeated the joke on a tweet: "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Then came the outrage. Suey Park, who recently rose to prominence due to a series of Twitter hashtag campaigns, most notably #NotYourAsianAmericanSidekick, began yet another hashtag campaign: #CancelColbert.
I believe Ms. Park's efforts are dumb and damaging. Here is why.
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"The father of my ex-girlfriend was a rare breed -- a real deal racist. I'm not talking about someone who has a lapse in judgment and says the wrong thing from time to time. He genuinely believed that black people were inferior to white people. But whenever a black person happened to cross him, he would never yell, "you damn n-----!" Instead, he would yell: "You damn Democrat!" That way, nobody would accuse him of being racist."
This anecdote is interesting because it reveals the true nature of racism. Racism does not reside in the words; it resides in the mind that utter the words. Regardless of the precise word uttered--either "n-----" or "Democrat"--the man described in the Korean's friend's story remains just as virulently racist in his heart. Using the word "Democrat" instead of "n-----" does not mitigate the racist man's sincerely held belief that African Americans were inferior to whites. This shows the vacuity of what I call the "magic word racism," which may be defined as an attempt to detect racism by the presence or absence of certain words or phrases.
If we cannot rely on the presence or absence of words alone, how are we to know what makes something racist? Recall where racism truly lies: it is in the person's mind, her intent. What makes something racist? It is the racist intent that makes something racist. For the man in the story above, the words "n-----" and "Democrat" serve the same function: to express his racist disdain toward African Americans. The precise vehicle by which the man delivered the racist intent does not matter. What matters is the intent delivered in those vehicles.
(More after the jump.)
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By this measure, was Colbert's joke racist? The clear answer is no. From the way the joke is structured, we can easily see that Colbert's intent is not racist. As discussed earlier, the target of the joke is obviously Redskins' owner Dan Snyder, and not Asian Americans. Colbert assumed the personality of a buffoon, and made him look more laughable by making the buffoon's racism more obvious.
The best case one can make in favor of finding Colbert guilty of racism is to say that the post-show tweet lacked the context to let the audience know that a satire was being delivered. But this is not convincing. For Americans (and many non-Americans,) one has to live under a rock to not know that Stephen Colbert engages in a kind of method-acting, playing the role of a racist, arch-conservative pundit. The Colbert Report's twitter account is always in the same character. The fact that the joke was delivered via the Colbert Report's twitter account provided sufficient context to understand the intent behind the joke.
Let me make this clear: this is not a dismissive, hand-waving defense of a racist joke by re-labeling it as "satire." Just as much as magic word racism is fallacious, so is the magic word attempt to ward off charges of racism. This is a sincere analysis of the intent behind the joke, which is made plain from the way in which the joke was structured, packaged and delivered. Given the nature of racism, there is no other way to figure out what is truly racist, and what is not.
This brings us to the first reason why Ms. Park's hashtag warfare was dumb: she made charges of racism where there is none. Second reason why it was dumb: her call to action was wildly disproportionate to Colbert's (supposed) offense. Ms. Park did not call for apologies or retraction; she called for the cancellation of the entire show. Her call to action was untenable: she was advocating for extreme measures in response to no crime.
In fact, it appears that Ms. Park knew herself that her position was untenable. Appearing HuffPost Live, Ms. Park first received this question: "Why cancel Colbert? What did you hope to achieve with that?” Ms. Park's response? Characterizing it as "a loaded question." But how is that question loaded? Ms. Park was the one who began the campaign to cancel the Colbert Report. It is eminently fair to be asked why she wanted to do that, and what she hoped to achieve with that. Ms. Park evaded those questions, because answering them directly would make her look foolish.
Here is a thing about making an outrageous claim: they bring about outrageous reactions. HuffPost Live host Josh Zepps reacted to Ms. Park with condescension, calling her opinion "stupid." (True to form, Ms. Park started another hashtag campaign, #CancelZepps.) Ms. Park also received a heap of severely negative reactions, many of which included legitimate racism against Ms. Park. Ms. Park, in turn, used those reaction as prima facie evidence that Colbert's joke was racist. In her submission to the Time magazine, titled We Want to #CancelColbert, Ms. Park asks: "But if the joke isn’t actually racist, then why have so many racist slurs been hurled at those of us promoting #CancelColbert?"
Simple answer: it's the Internet. The Korean regularly receives death threats because he strongly defends Koreans' consumption of dog meat, from those who supposedly love all living things. Be visible long enough on the Internet, and one is virtually guaranteed to run into crazies and knuckleheads. This maxim cannot possibly be lost on Ms. Park. But she must retreat to this line of argument, because there is no plausible way for her to address the substance of the joke and find racism there.
Rather than staying in her retreat, however, she doubles down later in her article: "If the only people who 'get' your satire are racists--might we suggest some soul searching on your end?"
This is nuts. It is most certainly not just racists who "got" Colbert's satire. Here are just some of the people who understood Colbert's joke the first time, and disagreed with Ms. Park's position:
Steven Yeun (actor, Walking Dead)
Alex Hwang (musician, Run River North)
Jeff Yang (journalist, Wall Street Journal)
Jay Caspian Kang (sports writer, ESPN/Grantland)
Danny Chun (executive producer, The Office)
Phil Yu (blogger, Angry Asian Man)
The list reads like who's who of Asian Americans in media and pop culture. You can also visit my Facebook page, in which numerous Asian Americans (who have lower profiles than those above) are expressing the same sentiment. Does Ms. Park seriously think that they are all racists also? If she does, Ms. Park's issue runs deeper than the inability to understand satire; she is unable to (or unwilling to) take an accurate stock of the Asian Americana, the community that she claims to represent through her hashtag campaigns. She is a false prophet of what Asian Americans are supposed to feel about what they see in the media. In doing so, Suey Park does the opposite of her stated goal of creating Asian American solidarity.
This is what happens when one picks a dumb battle to fight. Setting aside all the shit that Asian Americans take in the media (not to mention the shit that Native Americans are currently taking from Dan Snyder's team,) Suey Park chose this, a non-issue. Please, do not compare this hashtag campaign to other media-related campaigns against, for example, the racist fake names of the crashed Asiana flight or the outpour of racism following Nina Davuluri's crowning of Miss America. Run the "racist intent" analysis one more time for each of those cases. They were motivated by an actual racist intent, which makes them racist beyond any doubt. Those battles were worth fighting; this one was not. By getting into an unworthy battle, Suey Park debased worthy battles against true racism by making a mockery out of the entire effort. It was a dumb thing to do.
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