By Arturo R. García
One of the arguments surrounding the #CancelColbert campaign has been that it has effectively given some white people “passes,” among them the target of the Stephen Colbert “Foundation” bit that inspired the tag in the first place, NFL owner Dan Snyder.
And that’s a fair point. But it’s also inaccurate to suggest that the campaign did not deal with “real racism.” Because, as we’ve seen over the past few days, a quite verifiable strain of hatred — at times veering into racism and misogyny toward activist Suey Park, as well as others discussing the issue — on the part of people who claim they’re not just defending Colbert, but comedy itself.
(Note: This post is image-heavy, with coarse and NSFW language under the cut.)
But for the sake of being through, let’s start with Snyder, and that widely-criticized foundation we wrote about last week. Not only is it a rather awkward public relations smokescreen, but the head of the group, Gary L. Edwards, presided over another group’s execution of a labor contract with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs that was cut off after one year for providing “unusable” results.
A 2012 report by the Department of the Interior found that Edwards and the National Native American Law Enforcement Association were supposed to provide the bureau with suitable Native American candidates for law enforcement positions based out of tribal communities. Instead, this happened, emphasis mine:
While rebuking the bureau for ignoring federal regulations and negotiating a flawed contract with Edwards’ group on its own, the report also said Edwards’ organization “took advantage of [the bureau's Office of Justice Services] and the contract defects to produce unusable contract deliverables.”
Both the [Washington] Post and USA Today reported that out of 748 job applications forwarded to Justice Service officials, none were of use.
The federal Inspector General’s office subsequently recommended the contract be terminated after finding that only 22 out of 514 applications reviewed came from people of Native American descent.
As Indian Country Today Media Network noted on Tuesday, protests against both Snyder and the foundation also have their own tag, #Not4Sale, which has been drowned out in the commotion. So let’s start by remembering that and encouraging you to check out the Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (#EONM) campaign.
As for Colbert’s bit itself, refresh_daemon broke down why it failed earlier this week:
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.
Pretty simple, right? Not to this person who tried to crash our comments section:
So here you have an Asian-American explaining why he found the joke problematic in detail, and out of good faith, only for someone to say his explanation “doesn’t hold much weight.” This comment’s second “point” also delves into many Colbert-backers’ biggest conceit: that it couldn’t possibly be them defending him using insulting language. It’s some Other people:
And that problem has plagued both The Colbert Report and its sister show, The Daily Show, for years: the notion that they constitute Liberal Passes for many of their fans and/or defenders. That, because the two shows mostly pick on conservative politicians or “The Media,” their viewers are progressive by default. No doubt some of these people are also quite happy to tell you these days that they Love Science because they watch Cosmos; after all, it even has a Black person in it!
As Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous puts it:
Where are these theoretical people who were racist until they watched “Colbert,” or “SNL,” or “Chelsea Lately,” or any other show that uses white racial satire, and had their racist minds changed? Do we really believe these people exist? Do we really believe there were hella people watching Colbert’s skit about Dan Snyder’s awful foundation who had their minds changed about it as soon as Asian slurs were thrown into the mix?
Thus, if Park is to be criticized for being supported in public by Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin, what does it say about Colbert that these are the types of sentiments expressed in his defense?
The comics industry also checked in with the amount of thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect:
Now, do these sound like people who are rushing to center Native American activism? Or who would be willing to consider that, as @BhaswatiChat and Your Moment Of Transmisogyny have pointed out, both the Report and the Daily Show have a history of using transphobia for a laugh?
But maybe the most egregious early response came from Huffington Post Live host Josh Zepps, who couldn’t get through his interview with Park last Friday without asking, “Do you understand the point of satire?” (spoilers: she does) while also calling her opinion “stupid,” and dismissing the entire concept of Orientalism as “a stupid, stupid word.”
Zepps followed that performance with this self-satisfied remark:
Amazingly, HuffPost Live felt this qualified Zepps to host another discussion around #CancelColbert, in which he stated that “victimization is not my primary way of interacting with the world,” while another guest, Joslyn Stevens, said of Park, “And then she was getting all these threats. I mean, she asked for it.”
And then, Zepps was tapped to host a discussion regarding the #transh4ck and #trans100 tags to mark the 2014 Trans 100 event. As John Weeks details in this timeline, when panel members cancelled their involvement because of Zepps, the show felt it was better to pull the entire segment rather than respect the guests’ concerns over the host. So, are we to take Zepps as the kind of ally communities of color should seek out?
Colbert himself — the person, not the character — had a chance to douse some of the fires he helped create with his much-anticipated response to the controversy on Monday. Instead, he blinked.
Whereas The Daily Show has expanded its on-air approach to include correspondents of color like Jessica Williams, Al Madrigal, Larry Wilmore and Aasif Mandvi — with each of them challenging host Jon Stewart’s privilege as well as other stereotypes in their own words — Colbert only saw fit to include BD Wong for a cameo in a dream sequence.
Colbert was also as guilty of erasing the Native community’s stake in the affair as anybody else; he referenced the Keep America Beautiful “crying Indian” commercial and wore the colors of Snyder’s NFL team without any comment from Wong; he did not discuss the #Not4Sale, #NotYourMascot, or #NotYourTigerLily campaigns; and he did not, as activist @jaythenerdkid suggested over the weekend, invite a Native American comedian on the show for their take on the matter.
Instead, he turned it into a standard-issue monologue about “dark forces” trying to cancel his show. He “satirically” played the victim, and his audience was not-very-satirically happy to indulge him. He also included a perfunctory, one-line request for people not to harass Park. But within seconds he was also “satirically” comparing himself to Jonathan Swift and Jesus Christ, so what reason do his fans to take that seriously?
Indeed, the man who famously faced down President George W. Bush at his own gala affair couldn’t muster the nerve to confront a fanbase that probably couldn’t tell Jonathan Swift from Jonathan Taylor Thomas before last week. He wasn’t just “accomodating the idiots,” he was appeasing them.
Colbert’s performance also undermined the oft-repeated claim that his original bit was invoking the spirit of Swift; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges actually shot that idea down in an October 2013 interview criticizing both Colbert and Stewart:
They will attack the excesses or the foibles of the system, but they are never going to expose the system itself because they are all millionaires, they’re commercially supported. You have very few people, George Carlin was one, who will stand up and do it. If you do that, it is tough to make a living. Carlin maybe being the exception. But if you really use satire the way Swift used satire, to expose the English barbarity in Ireland, you’re going to be very lonely. Because culture, like everything else in the society, has been completely corporatized.
Because of his position, it’s unlikely Colbert will face much in the way of serious recrimination for his side-step act Monday night. The more people just take it for granted that people with national platforms like his have no responsibility for the hate and privilege spewed in their name, the more that kind of thing will go on. But, disturbingly, that sense of resignation has also opened the door for hatred to worm its way into #BuildNotBurn, a tag designed to encourage stronger communication among activists of color:
What Hans there conveniently forgets, besides his infantilizing language, is the role “progressives” like him have played in muddying the waters around not just #CancelColbert, but #HowIMetYourRacism, or conversations concerning “rape jokes.” In these situations, many comedy fans often like to say something to the effect of, I wish people wouldn’t be so sensitive when they hear a joke. Myself, I wish people who weren’t white cis-het males could get to question comedians without being threatened — and that more of these “satirists” felt secure enough in their power to call their own fans out. Because hey, they can take a joke, too, right?