Mar 31, 2014
Who Gets to Make Racist Jokes?: On the Twitter Movement to Cancel Colbert and the Questionable Efficacy of Hashtag Activism
It was Friday morning when I first noticed that #CancelColbert was trending on Twitter. Assuming that it was some sort of conservative outrage-fueled hashtag (and surprised that people on the far right were actually perceptive enough to see through Colbert’s satire for once), I clicked on the link. Instead of seeing a slew of grammatically compromised tweets by Twitter users whose account backgrounds are full of images of American flags and eagles and guns and gun-holding eagles flying over American flags, I saw mostly rational (though outraged) tweet after tweet addressing a joke sent by The Colbert Report‘s official account on Thursday night. The joke in question (“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”) was related to a just-aired episode of Colbert, in which the host satirized Washington Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder’s newly formed Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation by announcing the formation of his own foundation—the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation (a name which is itself a reference to Rush Limbaugh’s past imitation of the Chinese language). And so, in typical Colbert fashion, a blowhard public figure was parodied with the understanding that the target of the joke was the blowhard. Point Colbert, right? Screw the racists like Snyder! Score one for liberals! Right? Um, right?
As it turns out, wrong. Taken out of the context of the show, the comment lost its satirical edge and read like a pretty straightforward racist joke, the kind of joke that you could imagine, I don’t know, fans of Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or even Dan Snyder himself making. And so it’s understandable that the reaction on social media to the tweet was swift and seemingly merciless. Within hours, the twitter call to #CancelColbert had gained traction, spurred on by Suey Park, a writer and activist who created the viral #NotYourAsianSidekick twitter conversation last year. As a response to the tweet from The Colbert Report, Park (who was recently named one of the Guardian‘s “Top 30 Young People In Digital Media“) tweeted, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.” And because Park has well over 10,000 followers and is now a veteran of hashtag activism, #CancelColbert grew in popularity, until its existence caught the notice of the thousands of ardent Colbert fans (and even Colbert himself, who tweeted, “#CancelColbert—I agree! Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage. Who is that, though? I’m @StephenAtHome“), who then matched the outrage of the #CancelColbert community with their own passionate defense of the comedian. And lo unto us, a shitstorm was born.
Of course, a shitstorm isn’t really going to have much impact if it remains limited to one social media platform, it needs to be nurtured in other ways, namely through popular websites. This happened with incredible rapidity, soon writers on Deadspin (“Gooks Don’t Get Redskins Joke“) and Jezebel (“What We Can Learn From the Embarrassing #CancelColbert Shitstorm“) were weighing in on the matter, defending Colbert from Park and the other twitter activists using the basest kind of “actually journalism” and explaining—step-by-step—how Colbert’s joke was actually very funny and was the very opposite of racism. Colbert, they reminded us, is one of the good guys! Even as a longtime (and continued) fan of Colbert’s, I was uncomfortable reading these ardent defenses of a privileged white man who was—let’s face it—not really ever in any danger of being fired. The overarching message from these defenses of Colbert was simply that if you didn’t like the tweet, then you just didn’t get it. Oh, and you’ve probably got a stick up your ass. And maybe you’re even a little bit racist yourself because you’re only promoting a distraction from the real issue at hand, which is Dan Snyder and his insensitivity toward Native Americans. Basically, leave Stephen Colbert alone!
Hashtag activism, especially as it’s employed on Twitter, has been credited with everything from inspiring great political and social movements to getting people fired. But does this type of activism always need to be employed with a set goal in order for it to be considered successful? Colbert-defenders have criticized Park and others promoting #CancelColbert by saying that—because there is little to no chance that Colbert will be fired (especially true due to the fact that neither he nor any member of his staff was responsible for the initial tweet)—the movement is nothing more than faux-outrage and an exercise in futility that is quickly being coopted by right wing nutjobs like Michelle Malkin. But this is missing the point of hashtag activism and forcing it’s usage into a kind of false binary of success and failure. It’s not always a question of whether or not someone gets fired, or an elected official’s poll numbers plummet. Sometimes—as is the case with #CancelColbert—activism can be used against people who think that their liberalism and ability to understand the clever, yes, but also incredibly accessible satire of Stephen Colbert should protect them from accusations of racism or even of privilege. In an interview with Jay Caspian Kang of The New Yorker, Park admits that she likes the show, but also explains, “Well-intentioned racial humor doesn’t actually do anything to end racism or the Redskins mascot. That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.” Furthermore, Park—who received numerous threats following her creation of #CancelColbert—points out “that the point of the ‘movement’ was to argue that white liberals who routinely condemn what she called ‘worse racism’ will often turn a blind eye to, or even defend, more tacit forms of prejudice, especially when they come from someone who shares their basic political beliefs….’All this happens because they were worried that a show they enjoyed might be taken away.'”
The efficacy of hashtag activism in this case is only questionable when looked at through a lens that purports a false dichotomy of conservatives being bad when it comes to race-based issues and liberals being good. The anger directed at Colbert isn’t just about Colbert, and it isn’t just about the fact that a white man in a position of privilege made that particular joke. It’s about the fact that the only person who even could have made that type of joke from the platform of an immensely popular television show on Comedy Central is a (you guessed it) powerful white man. And there is a real problem when thousands upon thousands of people rush to the defense of a man who is already in about the strongest possible position anyone could ever hope to be in, and then try to dismiss the grievances that come from a woman of color as being fake and manufactured. The problem isn’t that there’s faux outrage on Twitter. The problem is that there isn’t enough real outrage in the world, and that much of our society is told to laugh at jokes being made at their expense because, hey, don’t you get it? We’re on your side. It’s the Dan Snyders of the world who are the problem! Which, that’s true! Dan Snyder is a problem. But so are a lot of other people. And if Suey Park and other Twitter activists can make those people uncomfortable? Then more power to them. Stephen Colbert will be just fine. There’s many more deserving people to worry about. Save your energy for them.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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