Why Colbert’s Joke Failed #NotYourSafeComedyRace

By Guest Contributor refresh_daemon, cross-posted from Init_

Images via “The Colbert Report” Facebook page.

While writing my piece on the damaging effect of the #CancelColbert campaign, I have to admit that, like hashtag originator Suey ParkJenn at Reappropriate andAngryAsianMan, I too felt that something was wrong with the actual satire made by The Colbert Report in the segment, especially when you consider, like Jenn and AngryAsianMan noted, that the Stephen Colbert persona has a history of going to anti-Asian racist satire. Then I realized that while the structure of the satire is mechanically correct, the satire from The Colbert Report in the piece doesn’t work because it doesn’t realize that the audience won’t find it wrong or offensive. (Trigger warning: Ethnic slurs quoted or used demonstratively below)

Here’s the deal, as I mentioned in my previous post, the joke is mechanically correct. In order to satirize “Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” Colbert, the racist persona show host needed to say something that was just as racist and much more obvious in order to draw the parallel between Snyder’s naming and his own. So he went with this:

Folks, this move by Dan Snyder inspires me, because my show has frequently come under attack for having a so-called offensive mascot, my beloved character Ching Chong Ding Dong … Offensive or not — NOT — Ching Chong is part of the unique heritage of the Colbert Nation that cannot change. But I’m willing to show the Asian community that I care by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitive to Orientals or Whatever … .I owe all this sensitivity to Redskins owner Dan Snyder. So Asians, send your thank-you letters to him, not me.

As an Asian American, I know that what Colbert the persona is saying is racist. Therefore, it’s easy for me to draw the conclusion that because what Colbert is saying is racist, what Dan Synder is doing is also racist. And were Colbert’s whole audience composed principally of Asian Americans, this would have worked, because everybody is in on the joke.

However, where The Colbert Report‘s satire fails is that a significant portion of The Colbert Report‘s audience does not intuitively or instinctively believe in their guts that saying “Ching Chong Ding Dong” or using the term “Orientals” is necessarily racist. Not everybody who laughs at “Ching Chong Ding Dong” is laughing because Colbert the character is so stupidly racist, but they are laughing at Asians. I believe this to be the case because this kind of anti-Asian dialog is still common in our society and is not immediately countered by most of society for being racist. It only becomes a problem, like for Rosie O’Donnell and her ching-chonging on The View, when Asians and anti-racists mobilize and call the offender out on it.

In Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” he calls for the sale of Irish children as food for the wealthy in order to resolve poverty. It is unconscionable and undeniably wrong, No one could call for such a thing in society without immediate reaction and knowing that it is wrong.

In order to properly satirize Snyder, then Colbert would have to say something that is undeniably racist to the whole of his audience. However, as we know, offense against Asians isn’t undeniably racist to the public because the outrage against the use of the word “Ching Chong Ding Dong” nor the casting of Asians as “sensitive” does not come from the whole of the public, but primarily from Asian Americans and their allies in the anti-racist movement.

Because of the lack of recognition of the wholly racist nature of the phrase “Ching Chong Ding Dong,” it is then not necessarily going to translate wholly or completely to the The Colbert Report‘s audience that “redskin” is an ethnic slur. The use of “sensitive” is simply problematic on its own because that’s even harder to gauge as the racism of the Colbert persona nor does it really have any corollary in Snyder’s choice of naming for his foundation, so it ends up seeming like a freestanding statement.

This results in the satirical critique only partially working for a select audience of Asian Americans and highly astute patrons of satire, while the greater audience might vaguely recognize that it’s supposed to be something possibly racist, but, given the predominant but often dormant or subconscious prevalence of anti-Asian racism in society, some in the audience might also just instinctively laugh along with the Colbert persona, rather than at Snyder, who is the target.

Then the only way for Colbert’s satire to have truly worked is by actually using (and airing) a slur on television in the form of Snyder’s foundation. That is something like:

Stephen Colbert’s [insert slur here] Foundation for [insert name of ethnic group slur is referring to here]

The slur must be undeniably racist. Something that no one in good conscience would say in a a larger public forum, just as seriously suggesting the selling of children as food for the wealthy would simply be intolerable in public. And that is the only way that the satire would truly work.

However, The Colbert Report didn’t do that. It instead used a soft approach that the audience could take either way, and I don’t believe it can be argued that everyone in The Colbert Report‘s audience would fully absorb that satire as satire. Furthermore, like a lot of American comedians, The Colbert Report opted to use Asian Americans as the butt of the Colbert persona’s joke because there is a common belief that it’s safer to target Asian Americans because they are the model minority. It’s “almost like making fun of white people” because “Asians are almost as entitled as us”!

Unfortunately, because The Colbert Report went half-assed on the satire, possibly because it would be impossible for the show to actually air an ethnic slur without censure, the satire is a failure, especially because the choice of words used does happen to echo some of the prevailing sentiment in the mainstream. And while I can recognize that it certainly wasn’t The Colbert Report’s intent, because the satire failed due to some of the audience simply not knowing how wrong it is to characterize an Asian language or person as “Ching Chong Ding Dong” and “Oriental” or to imply that we are overly sensitive, it makes Asian Americans the unfortunate butt of a continuing racist joke.

And that is probably why Suey Park and company put the show in her cross hairs and what makes many Asian Americans, including those who dissent with Park’s approach, often wary of The Colbert Report, especially when the Colbert persona uses Asian Americans as the butt of his racist jokes.

So as much as I think that Park’s incendiary verbiage exacerbates the problem, I wholeheartedly agree with her and fellow Asian Americans in social media and the blogosphere that society often gives a free pass to dump on Asians and Asian Americans and that allied shows like The Colbert Report should be more aware of our position and how they might be contributing to the continuing racism by making us their go-to “safe race” for their fictional demagogues to demean.

Comedians: We are not your safe comedy race. Consider who your audience is laughing at and why, because if they are laughing at any race or ethnic group because of what you said, no matter what your intentions, the result reinforces racism against that race or ethnic group. So back off if it’s not wholly clear who the butt of the joke is. If you’re a satirist and you can’t be daringly clear, move onto something you can effectively satirize within the constraints of your format or courage. Go big or go home.

And though I do enjoy The Colbert Report, it failed at comedy in this instance as it has in previous instances with Asian Americans, and we have to ask it to make right and get right. We have to hold The Colbert Report and our allies accountable when they screw up, accept their sincere apologies and bring them back to the table so we can continue to fight for justice and reconciliation together.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • Not_so_Mellow

    Colbert’s satire doesn’t have to be as on-the-nose as Swift’s because Colbert is already established as a satirical character. So when he says “Ching Chong Ding Dong… Offensive or not — NOT”, he’s informing his audience that ching chong is offensive, if they didn’t already know.

    Even though I didn’t personally find the segment offensive, I was interested in listening to the conversation my fellow Asians were having on the subject. Instead we got a lot of name-calling and accusing people of being race-traitors and paternalistic white sympathizers and using racial slurs and threats and ugh. I think I’m going to step away from the whole APA Twitter scene for a bit.

  • Julia A

    I was recently wondering why satire is failing so hard recently. Interesting break down.

  • echoes212

    You’ve made a glaring omission here: during the bit Colbert showed criticism from Asian Media Watch of his previous use of Ching-Chong Ding-Dong which explained clearly that it was massively racist. So it should have been crystal clear to his audience that CCDD was racist which is why I think we didn’t see any negative reaction until the context-free tweet went out.

    • feloniousgrammar

      Funny that— the most common defense of his fail was that the people who found it offensive don’t understand satire and took the quote out of context, as if he hadn’t said that on his show; the context is that Asians were offended because it resembled the undeniably racist mocking that Asians hear from racists.

    • aboynamedart

      You’re right — it should have been. But judging from many of the responses on his behalf, a portion of that audience either didn’t gauge that, or just didn’t care.