It seemed like any other day in the world of Twitter. A comedian made a racially tinged joke that offended someone, and they responded with a campaign for the comedian’s firing.
#CancelColbert may have been stupid. But it was no stupider than any other Twitter campaign.
But this one ended somewhat differently. Instead of advertisers jumping ship and the comedian issuing a half-hearted apology, the responses were mostly to dismiss the Korean-American activist Suey Park and her campaign to “#CancelColbert.” Stupid Asians (“Gooks” was the term prefered by the headline of a Deadspin article) don’t get humor.
Anthony Tao, a blogger for Beijing Cream, called the #CancelColbert campaign “stupid”, reeking of “faux outrage and willful ignorance.” Tao added that he thought Asian-Americans “feigned anger at Jimmy Kimmel” over the infamous “kill Chinese people” comments made by a kid on Kimmel’s “Kid’s Table” segment.
Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that so many people are casually dismissing the overheated grievances of a few who are too easily offended. Most of the time when a silly boycott or a shaming campaign starts on Twitter, it elicits more outrage. Or maybe its just proof of Park’s original point.
It’s not Asian-Americans who are too thin-skinned. All Americans are.
The outrage directed at Colbert stemmed from both Colbert’s use of racially-charged language and the fact that his show’s Twitter account tweeted the joke out-of-context. But out-of-context or not, Americans often attack comedians and political personalities for “offensive” statements. It’s the standard operating procedure in American discourse, not an outlier.
When Sarah O’Holla started a Tumblr account to review her music nerd husband’s collection of vinyl records, music critic Annie Zaleski wrote, “It just reinforces the stereotype that women can’t be discerning music fans in the same way men are.” Or it could just mock the obsessiveness of her husband, and, more broadly, of the music nerd community of which Zaleski is included.
Daniel Tosh was attacked for allegedly making a rape joke after being heckled. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” Tosh allegedly said, after a woman allegedly interrupted him, according to the woman’s original account, and that was enough to subject him to attacks in social media.
“I should probably add that having to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophic room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening,” the woman wrote, apparently taking Tosh’s comments literally, not as the off the cuff response to an impolite person who had just interrupted him, similar to how some Asian-American activists appear to have taken the Kimmel kid’s comments about killing the Chinese in order to avoid having to repay our debts to them a little bit too literally.
In fact, the woman making the allegation may have taken the comments even further out of context than even her post suggests. According to Tosh and the owner of the Laugh Factory, the woman fabricated the quote in the first place. “It sounds like she’s been raped by five guys,” Tosh said, in his account, after she said, “Rape is painful, don’t talk about it.” “all the out of context misquotes aside,” Tosh tweeted, “i’d like to sincerely apologize[.]”
Natasha Leggero, in response to a controversial tweet made by Spaghetti-O’s on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, said, “It sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew,” resulting in calls for an apology.
Comedy sucks when comedians can’t even safely joke about the fact that people sometimes have to use dentures when they get old.
But Colbert isn’t just a comedian. He’s also a political commentator, and the propensity for Americans to get twisted out of shape by comments that are exaggerated or twisted out of context in the political sphere cannot be surpassed. There are whole organizations that thrive on calling for political commentators or columnists to be fired.
The comments ascribed to Colbert were actually satirizing Washington ********’s owner Dan Snyder’s creation of the Original Americans Foundation, in an attempt to defend his team’s name from the people who think it should be changed because it is too offensive. The meaning of Colbert’s joke is that the owner of the Redskins creating an organization to help American Indians is offensive, in the same way that it would be offensive for someone to create an organization called the “the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” (Colbert’s show already has a character named Ching Chong Ding Dong, named in reference to the stereotypical sounds that comedians who can’t speak Chinese make when pretending to speak Chinese.)
The Washington football team’s team name is so offensive that some media outlets, such as Slate, the New Republic, and the Kansas City Star, won’t publish it. Deadspin, while still publishing the name, has decried the name as racist multiple times. Greg Howard wrote at Deadspin, “We know it’s racist, and you know it’s racist, and most importantly, owner Dan Snyder knows it’s racist, because actual Native Americans have come forward and said it’s racist.”
Because Snyder doesn’t even care what Native Americans have to say about a slur toward Native Americans, one potential way that this is going to get sorted out and the Washington Redskins are going to stop embarrassing themselves is if the players—current ones like RG3 and past greats like Darrell Green and Art Monk—come together and condemn the Redskins name.
And it felt like that’s kind of what happened, because in a WTOP interview, Monk came out and said, “If Native Americans feel like Redskins or the Chiefs or [another] name is offensive to them, then who are we to say to them ‘No, it’s not’?”
And it felt like Green kind of cosigned. “It deserves and warrants conversation because somebody is saying, ‘Hey, this offends me,'” he said.
This raises the question: Does Deadspin (or anyone else) care when Asian-Americans say they feel offended?
Of course, Park is just one person, and an ethnic group is made up of multiple people. Her view doesn’t necessarily prove that a significant amount of Asian-Americans find Colbert’s joke offensive. But Deadspin has reported as a fact that the Redskins team name is racist and that American Indians feel offended by it.
Indeed, a full 9 percent of Indians feel offended by the name, according to a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey (pdf).
These are two arguments at work: Is something offensive and do people think something is offensive? People can get offended by things that, to a reasonable person, shouldn’t be offensive. Whether or not something is actually offensive is more of an opinion then a fact. Nonetheless, most of the defenses of Colbert have focused on disproving the claim that his joke was offensive while ignoring the question of how many people were offended by it.
If I were to analyze the reaction on a societal level–like the aggrieved parties in the above mentioned jokes did–I could point out that this represents a long-standing tradition of Americans targeting Asians and Asian-Americans and not giving a damn about their opinions. I could point out that Asian-American studies scholars have noted that people of Asian ancestry are often depicted as being quiet and submissive and are thus have often been made targets of racially tinged comedy. I could wonder aloud (or in pixels) whether Colbert would be as comfortable creating a stereotypical African character whose name was based on a low-brow joke about Africans speaking by making tongue click sounds. That kind of hypothetical would be impossible to answer, but it would get thoughts going. I could write about how Asians are often exoticized, and their customs are made to look strange, as with portrayal of the sound of the Chinese language. With that being said, I could even point out how Asians make up a lot of different ethnic groups, yet Chinese people are often used as a proxy for Asians, as in the usual portrayal of Asian languages. I could point out all of those things, but they would be irrelevant, because I am talking about a joke.
If I did go into that analysis, I wouldn’t be the only one to do so. Anthony Tao took the occasion to ask, “How do Asians fit within the scheme of liberal / white privilege? Are Asians and white Americans so intricately linked, socially and economically, that one could adopt the joke of the other without crossing the red line of race?”
Asians and white people (or caucasians, or whatever) are of course different races with different histories in the world and in America. Does the fact that Asians, on average, earn a high amount of money somehow make them the same as white people or make their views on racism irrelevant? No, it doesn’t change their history and culture as a peoples. If one were to answer yes to Tao’s question about whether whites and Asians are “intricately linked”, that would seem to be pushing to so-called “model minority myth.” Asians are so well off, the thinking behind a yes answer appears to go, that we shouldn’t care whether or not we offend them, as if 1.) Asians are don’t face any ethnic issues and 2.) we shouldn’t afford people who are well off the same respect that we afford any other human.
Asian-Americans, anyway, are again, made up of multiple ethnic groups, and not all of the group averages are as high as they are for Chinese-, Korean-, and Japanese- Americans. To fit all Asians ethnic groups together is to commit the same mistake as to use the Chinese language as a proxy for Asian identity and to ignore the unique problems facing different ethnic groups.
As for those ethnic groups that are the most well off, they themselves face separate and different problems than other groups–certainly different problems than whites. Asian-Americans, unlike whites, actually suffer from affirmative action in college admissions.
This kind of analysis has a place in our discourse, but it shouldn’t be used to destroy a comedian, entertainer, or pundit’s reputation. Jokes ultimately are for making people laugh.
But jokes can also be used to make social and political points. That is how Colbert uses his program. Political speech ought to be protected just as vigorously as comedy, if not more so. While a joke can be dismissed as meaningless, political speech at its best is meant to influence policies that impact our lives and freedoms. That makes it more important to not take political speech out of context or intimidate people into silence.
We should abide by those principles whether we are talking about Asian-Americans or any other race.
A question to the author… would it be acceptable for Colbert to use the N word and go on stage in black face as a comedic routine?
@Mitch Blatt: This is so well articulated that I don’t feel compelled to add anything to the discussion. It’s quite a grounded view of the subject.
@whiteprivilege: No. That is no longer acceptably offensive to audiences. Nor would “Chink,” which he also didn’t use. However, audiences have found his use of the names “Bubba” and “Shanequa” to be acceptable in the past, which would be a more fairly drawn parallel FYI.
@morosirus: So “Bubba” and “Shanequa” which are actual names, are parallel to “ching chong?” I suppose some Chinese people have been “named” “ching chong” by others, so you make a good case.
However I’m not sure if “Bubba” or “Shanequa” are typically used preceding a physical assault. Normally the N word would be reserved for those situations.
Just another case of…
@whiteprivilege Being from the Midwest Bible Belt region I assure you that they are indeed used as stereotypical slurs and have been used preceding physical attacks. However, I wanted to emphasize that there is such a thing as being acceptably offensive in comedy. As times change, the line is redrawn. What was acceptably offensive at the time is now a taboo. What’s acceptable today will be a sin tomorrow. It will come all the sooner if we have coherent and rational dialogue to bring awareness to the people.
In Canada we don’t see the Chinese as a race but Arabs and Indians are, the blacks are the mother of all races in North America.
Everything is chink chong and chop chop like we would say to all Asians.
“Chongqing” (重庆), pronounced “chong ching” is actually the name of a major city in China…
Racism rears its ugly head. Look at that Sterling guy in the US.
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