I’ve had to keep off the net for the most part over the last few days, because of the unfortunate #CancelColbert trend on Twitter. It has struck a nerve that continues to nag me. I should say from the outset that you would be hard pressed to find a fella who feels more guilty about being born a middle-class Anglo Saxon protestant male, so I generally avoid engaging in this sort of discussion. I acknowledge that my privilege skews my perspective, and when I do talk about race it is almost always apologetically. By the way, I’m consciously not including links in this post so as not to drag you down the shamed, depressed rabbit hole with me.
At this point you’re probably all familiar with what went down. Stephen Colbert did a subpar bit on his show calling out Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his response to critiques of the team name by founding an organization for the celebration/advancement of Native Americans. This gesture was of course patronizing and wrong-headed. It doesn’t matter how much money Snyder throws at Native Americans, the Redskins moniker is still overtly racially insensitive. To lampoon this PR face-palm maneuver, Colbert called back a bit from the archives where he insensitively mocked Asian Americans with a character named Ching Chong Ding Dong. In order to appease critics, for what was and is a hammy character full of racial stereotypes (for the record harkening back ironically to a not so bygone era in Hollywood where whites posed as boilerplate “orientals”), Stephen founded the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”. The idea of the bit was to run the racist tropes into the ground, to point out the insensitivity in Snyder’s actions, while also sheepishly acknowledging Colbert is not above reproach. Later, Comedy Central posted a tweet referencing the fake foundations’ name with no context. The twitterverse erupted and the #CancelColbert hashtag was born, thanks to twitter activist Suey Park.
The argument that Asians are an easy racial target because they lack the political power of African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays is largely correct. However, to say that Colbert Report’s piece would have been more effective if Colbert came out in blackface is wrong headed from a satirical standpoint. The vulnerability of the Asian community and the similarity between their and Native Americans lack of power is precisely why they were chosen for the piece. By driving the insensitivities of those stereotypes into the ground the show was creating an effective parallel. Had they chosen a more obvious meme, one that had already been universally shunned, the bit would have been seen as hyperbolic. It’s ridiculous to say in a case where the firebrand’s name is such a childish stereotype, but usually the less aggressive option is the more effective example.
That said, again, I think Colbert’s bit was pretty poor. However, it makes me uneasy when the culture starts to attack comedians. Humor acts as a mirror for society, and should remain in the open. Unfortunately comics are flawed people so that reflection is sometimes distorted as if in a funhouse. In this case, perhaps Colbert could have gone in a different direction. He could have started the Cracker McWhitey Foundation for the Compassionate Understanding of Caucasian Men, since that’s both self-deprecating, and plays on the right’s desire to uphold the current power structure. The name also points out that there is no white equivalent for the words that minorities find offensive. Just a suggestion.
What has me the most befuddled is, from what I gather from interviews, Ms. Park’s argument that white men have no experience with repression or racism, therefore can’t possibly empathize with the experiences of minorities, and therefore should not speak about race, period. I acknowledge that I am among the historical repressors so I prefer to stay above the fray, but even when white men are no longer the top of the sociopolitical/economic/cultural heap, they will still be members of the world. If you want change to occur, why turn away those who sincerely agree with you, or at least want to come to the table and understand? When you tell someone their opinion is not valid, or that they cannot possibly understand–especially a group as arrogant and accustomed to deference as white men–you’re likely only going to continue to alienate them. I get that activism draws on hyperbole to fire up the masses, but it has been my experience that meaningful change comes most often on the heels of diplomacy and compassion, not on rage. Of course that goes both ways.
This story is indicative of the behavior I see on the internet that leaves me disappointed and dejected. It’s as if compassion, understanding, and irony all went right out the window when we were given this mode of communication that should unite, but instead divides. The small screen seems to obscure the big picture. One last thing, as someone who has struggled with sincerity most of his life, I ask nicely, please don’t take the funny away! At least not self-deprecating humor, it’s one of the few ways I can pull away my mask of arrogance and privilege and show you I’m a real person underneath. I want to like you, but if I can’t at least get a smirk out of you, how will I know you want to like me?