By Kenzo Shibata
Last Thursday, I came across this tweet from the official account of the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report.
It was not something that normally would have entered my radar since I don’t follow the show. Frankly, I lost interest after its first season. We get it. He’s a fake pundit. His shtick is that he acts slightly more ridiculous than right-wing Fox News talking heads, which makes for passable segment fodder, but I don’t have the patience for 22 minutes of ironic racism, sexism, and classism. This is on the network that put Daniel Tosh’s punch-down-and-laugh-at-rape brand of humor as a nightly delight and made famous comic, Anthony Jeselnik, whose show The Jeselnik Offensive exists solely to give a national platform to racist, sexist, and classist jokes. With a line-up like this, sometimes it’s hard to tell where the winks-and-nods exist.
Initially, I wasn’t all that offended by the fact that Colbert told a racist joke. I was offended by the fact the tweet was a racist, UNFUNNY, CHEAP joke.This was the kind of joke that 5-year-olds would tell to bully me when I was in grammar school. Upon watching the full sketch, I failed to see any kind of high satire from it. The construction of the joke was indeed satirical, but sometimes it’s hard to tell when someone is laughing at you or with you when the punch line is basically the same punch line of an actual racist’s joke..Regardless of how someone whose never been slurred ethnically may feel, the difference between ironic racism and racism is a liberal arts degree.
I hoped that the tweet would be largely ignored by Colbert’s loyal fan base so the Asian American community wouldn’t have to deal with hearing the joke repeated over and over again in schools, on college campuses, and at the water cooler. I remember growing up, whenever a popular sitcom would have an Asian character with a thick accent, or one who committed some kind of stereotypical act, I would dread going to school the next day. Kids would needle me with it and use it to ridicule my family.
Sparked by activist Suey Park, many Asian Americans on social media sent tweets with the hash tag #CancelCobert to explain their frustration. I didn’t sign on to the #CancelColbert hash tag because it contradicts my feelings towards the prevalent attitude in society that we can solve problems by firing people. I wrote about this in the past where I advocated against the firing of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson (interesting to note — many of the liberals who called for Robertson’s immediate dismissal were the first to throw stones at Suey Park, the originator of the #CancelColbert hast tag). I understand that the idea behind the hash tag was tactical and that hash tags with mealy-mouthed demands do not get any traction. I respected her choice to go this route, but it would have been hypocritical of me to sign on.
I sent a few cheeky tweets about how Comedy Central should #CancelColbert because he wasn’t funny and that I preferred the network when it showed reruns of good sketch comedy shows. I did not get involved until I saw the blowback she and others received, which was filled with contradictions and was a very reactionary response by self-styled liberals.
I remained silent until I saw allies of mine attacking people who carried the #CancelColbert hash tag. What’s more, they weren’t just questioning this specific campaign, they were belittling the notion that anti-Asian American racism exists. That was when I decided to lend my voice seriously to the discussion.
I couldn’t watch allies attack Asian Americans with whom I share a common history of joy and pain. Some told me to stay out of it, but what I saw were few allies intervene when the attacks on Asian Americans turned to threats of murder and rape.
Many of the Colbert supporters used the argument that Colbert was just employing satire and that his critics’ feelings were merely hurt and should have tougher skin. And there were arguments that his satire serves a higher purpose and it “raised awareness” against the actions of Washington NFL team owner Dan Snyder.
There’s a lot there that needs to be unpacked.
Satire is the use of irony or sarcasm to critique an idea. To make clear that the device of satire is being employed, the sarcasm should be an absurd version of the idea being critiqued. Colbert fans compared his humor to author Jonathan Swift’s use of satire in his essay “A Modest Proposal,” an essay that proposes the solution to poverty is allowing the poor to sell their children as food to the rich.
Beyond the ridiculousness of comparing a fake TV pundit to a canonical English author, the humor that Colbert used was not absurd given the acceptance of anti-Asian American sentiment in popular media.
I get that the joke was meant to show the lunacy of Snyder’s fake charity to make amends with Native Americans, but how can we say that the “Ching Chong” foundation is really absurdist humor when Asian Americans bear the brunt of that humor in the media on a regular basis and not always in the name of satire.
In 2006, Rosie O’Donnell, co-host of the nationally-broadcasted The View made the “ching chong” joke to the cheers and laughter of her studio audience. O’Donnell does not play an ironic character on TV and used the jokes to get a laugh.
This was not just an acceptable piece of humor used in pre/post-racial America. Just last July in San Francisco, after a tragic plane crash that killed two people and injured dozens of others, staffers at the local Fox affiliate chose to make fun of the names of the Asian pilots. This humor carried in the Chicago Sun-Times who mockingly referred to the incident as “Fright 242,” to poke fun at Asian accents.
Further defending this humor was Disney film punch-up artist and King of Queens star, Patton Oswalt, who tweeted jokes along the same lines and threw a fit on Twitter when he was called out.
It’s clear that society has accepted jokes at the expense of Asian Americans and Colbert’s tweet may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for many. You cannot expect Asian Americans to “get” that the racism was ironic when it’s never quite clear to us what the comedians’ intentions are.
It would also be different if there were positive depictions of Asian Americans in the media. Where are the Asian American sitcom families? TV pundits? Talk show hosts?
When the only time Asians and Asian Americans are seen on TV is to ridicule them, regardless of the intent of the writers, Asian Americans are not being laughed with.
Asian Americans seem overrepresented as news anchors in many local affiliates, but there are no Asian American pundits. We can deliver news, but we aren’t allowed to have an opinion on it.
I feel the need to reiterate. This is not about feelings — there are material impacts to the media’s lack of positive Asian American depictions.
On shows like 30 Rock and Entourage, Asian Americans are the doting assistants to white alpha males. In the workplace, that seems to be the expectation on Asian Americans. We are activists, but not elected leaders. We are workers, but never the CEO. The disrespect for Asian Americans in popular media has a direct result in our place at work and in our communities.
The stereotype is that we’re great with technology, but we’re not leaders in Silicon Valley.
We make less and have less power in academia than our white counterparts.
These facts attracted me to the #NotYourAsianSidekick movement started by Park. Many of us were tired of being passed for promotions, acting jobs, and leadership roles. We need to reclaim our agency, which has fueled the fires online for Asian American activists.
Networks will never hire an Asian American Colbert or Jon Stewart — or a real pundit — so we need to take it to social media. And when we show how good we can be at digital organizing, we are punished for it. There was a common sub-thread to this dust-up where Colbert supporters dismissed the push-back as mere “hash tag activism.” It’s been a common trend to cast aspersions on digital organizers when they question pundits with mainstream platforms.
The only reason why Michelle Malkin is given a platform is that she has been an active voice against Asian Americans. Much like the Korean American authors of the recent Deadspin article that employed the word “gook,” there will always be people looking for money or exposure willing to sell their people down the river.
I was really hoping that this whole incident would have opened space for dialogue on how Asian Americans are perceived in America, but it has descended into nothing more than the side with more power applying a fly swatter to voices of dissent.
Furthermore, this should have never been about any of the specific names involved.
It seems that folks who do not want to have these uncomfortable conversations would rather shift the focus on the faces of the movement to slander and ridicule them, much like the transphobic digs on Chelsea Manning used to ignore the abuses by the U.S. military.
This is a problem far bigger than Stephen Colbert vs. Suey Park, and that debate can’t be constrained to 140 characters or 30 minutes of airtime (minus commercial breaks).
Kenzo Shibata is a father, activist, and digital strategist living in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kenzoshibata
This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.