Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

[Content note: racist language, sexual harassment]

It has all the makings of a social media firestorm: at some point last week, Stephen Colbert made a joke on his show in which he implicitly criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for refusing to change the team’s racist name. The @ColbertReport Twitter account tweeted part of the joke out-of-context. Now-deleted, the tweet read, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Screenshot via Suey Park

Screenshot via Suey Park

Folks thought Colbert had tweeted it and didn’t realize that it was part of a larger satirical bit that was actually criticizing racism against Native Americans, because nothing in the way the tweet was made suggested that it was a quote from the show. And even knowing the context, many would argue (and have argued) that that context doesn’t excuse racist language against another group, and that said language is still harmful.

Some Twitter users, including Suey Park, criticized the tweet using the hashtag #CancelColbert. Although the hashtag’s mostly a useless mess now, Suey’s Twitter account is currently a great collection of her thoughts and retweets of others’ opinions about the situation. For the record, I don’t personally think Colbert Report should be canceled over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the criticisms being made. And also, I’m not even sure that everyone tweeting in support of the hashtag also literally wants the show canceled; it’s an alliterative and snappy hashtag that gets attention, and in a medium like Twitter, sometimes that’s what you need. But maybe they do. I respect that view despite disagreeing with it, and it’s unfortunate that in many settings this has become a conversation about whether or not they should cancel the show, and not about what’s wrong with this whole situation.

So naturally, there was a swift counter-response, including many of Colbert’s liberal fans, who claimed that the critics were “too sensitive” and “don’t get satire” (because there’s no way someone could possibly disagree with you unless they just “don’t get” the topic at hand). There was smug condescension about stupid Twitter social justice warriors who “took the tweet out of context” and “didn’t bother researching the actual facts.” There was, in other words, all the usual smarm and dog doodoo.

First of all, to understand what happened, let’s go back to an amazing recent article by author Kameron Hurley called “Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt.” There’s a long parable here, but bear with it, because it’s instructive.

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative.

[...] Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

Colbert is funny. I like him. But he has a history of using humor in bigoted ways. I don’t have room here to discuss them all at length, but here’s an example. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s “ironic.” People’s anger and hurt over the tweet has to be viewed in context, and that context is 1) lifetimes of racist abuse and 2) lots of racism from Colbert and his writers in particular.

It is extremely ironic that Colbert’s defenders demand that the tweet be viewed “in context” while refusing to view anger over the tweet in context.

As it turned out, Colbert didn’t write the tweet and neither did anybody on his staff. The Twitter account is run by Comedy Central and Colbert does not know who made the tweet. However, you would be forgiven for believing that a verified Twitter account named after a TV show is run by someone involved with that actual TV show, and I don’t understand why people are treating those who thought this was Colbert’s tweet as though they just believed one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you $10,000,000. Comedy Central should not be running an account that’s dedicated to a particular one of their shows, and they especially shouldn’t be tweeting jokes out of context that look really really bad when presented out of context. That’s basic fucking PR. And as for Twitter’s role in this, the entire point of verified accounts is that they’re supposed to be run by the person or group named in them. (Of course, that person might have staff tweeting for them, but at least it’s someone employed by the celebrity.) I don’t know how or why Twitter verified an account called “Colbert Report” that is not run by anyone associated with the Colbert Report, but that’s on them, not on Twitter users.

But anyway, I don’t actually want to argue about whether or not the tweet was racist or offensive or in bad taste or whatever. The meat of my point is this:

  • If you defend Colbert’s attempt to attack racism by condescendingly sneering that his detractors just “don’t get” satire, calling them “idiots,” and generally acting like there is no conceivable reason anybody in their right mind could’ve disliked this tweet, you are part of the problem and I don’t think you care about racism as much as you claim to care about racism. I think you care about Stephen Colbert.
  • Relatedly, if you accuse people of “derailing” the conversation about the Washington Redskins to discuss what they perceive as Colbert’s anti-Asian racism, something tells me you’re not actually that concerned about racism. Because you can be racist against one group while trying to fight racism against another, or you can just try to be anti-racist and do something perceived by some as racist. You can also care both about the racism of the Redskins’ name and the racism of Colbert’s joke. You can care equally about these two things. Shit gets complicated.
  • It’s insulting and inaccurate to assume that anyone who feels differently than you do about an issue just “doesn’t understand” it. Perhaps they simply have a different understanding. As Crommunist tweeted, “It is emphatically the case that PoC have more familiarity with satire than white people do with racism.”
  • You can disagree that the tweet was hurtful without disagreeing that people have a good reason to be hurt by it. Actually, I fall into that category. I don’t think it’s hurtful. But, I’m not Asian or Asian American. So of course I’m not hurt. If you are white, it’s not your place to say that the tweet is categorically Not Hurtful.
  • The existence of people of color (and, in fact, of Asians or Asian Americans) who have no problem with the tweet does not invalidate the claims of those people who do have a problem with the tweet. Analogously, the fact that some women don’t “mind” catcalling doesn’t invalidate those of us who do mind it.
  • Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote. Many comedians use Twitter to write one-liners that have no context. Even if someone suspects that it came from the show, nobody has the time to watch every single recent Colbert episode to try to find the bit. Even if you know the context, you may still find the racial language hurtful and jarring, and you may still think the entire original joke was pointless and fell flat.
  • You can lecture people about not getting upset about “out-of-context tweets,” or you can lecture comedians and others about using Twitter effectively. Which group you choose to lecture says something about your priorities.

These are risks you take with humor, especially satire. I’m tired of seeing people blame those who don’t find a particular joke funny for “not getting satire” or “not being able to take a joke” or “being too sensitive.” Look, some people will laugh at a joke and others won’t. Some will think the joke’s great and others will find that it hits way too close to home. Some people like to consume their comedy with nothing but laughs, and others like to point out how humor can be used to promote faulty and harmful thinking.

And it’s quite possible to love and understand satire but still feel that a particular joke goes too far. Many people felt this way about The Onion‘s tweet calling 9-year-old Black actor Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, many people who were otherwise huge fans of the satire site. In fact, The Onion, which presumably is a fan of itself and also “gets” satire, eventually agreed with them and published a heartfelt apology that would serve as a great model to Stephen Colbert or whoever the hell wrote that tweet.

You can disagree that the joke was hurtful or bad or unfunny without being an asshole to the people who think it was hurtful or bad or unfunny.

Just like I can say, “I love New York but I can see why you don’t like it.” Or “I like Colbert’s style of humor but it’s not everyone’s thing.”

Or, you know, I haven’t spent my entire life dealing with the effects of structural racism, whereas you have, so our perspectives are going to be different.

~~~

Out of respect to the important issue originally raised by Colbert, I’ll close with some links to more about the Redskins controversy and why the team should be renamed. I also welcome a discussion about this in the comments even though it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

Comments

  1. Billie says

    Thanks for putting into words what I’ve been trying to articulate all day. Great piece! I think part of the issue here is that twitter is a medium that keeps discussion artificially short (character limit). So anyone who feels strongly on either side of this issue is forced to reduce their response to something short and sweet and unfortunately this often leads to people posting rash, overly generalized responses. Which in turn, leads other people to become even more offended and write their own rash, overly generalized responses and things get carried away. Someone who tweets “I hate Colbert, he’s always racist!” might really be trying to say “Colbert has made some pieces that I’ve really found offensive and while I understand his humor I really wish he would find a way to broach certain issues more carefully because the way he does it now can be very hurtful to certain groups” or vice versa for the other side of the argument. It’s all super complicated. I don’t think people should hold this against Colbert or attack him personally for it because it was (I think anyway) obviously not intended to offend and if anything, will serve as a learning experience for his show in the future. It’s regrettable but not indicative that he’s a bad person or has bad viewpoints or that his show is even bad.

    • says

      Yeah, it’s just…Twitter is great for a lot of things but this isn’t one of them. Maybe the joke even “worked” in its full context, but now I don’t know because my opinion of it has been skewed by seeing it this way first. Likewise, explaining what’s wrong with the joke takes a lot of words to do well. Twitter is great is a signal-boosting thing (“Wow look what Colbert said!”) but not necessarily for a lot of analysis of what it was that he said. The only good analysis I see on Twitter usually takes place over dozens of tweets from the same person, but that can be hard for others to follow.

      • says

        It is actually not all that complicated to explain. It is, in fact fairly straight forward to show what is wrong with that joke and jokes like it.

        Look here, this is a perfect, and short, analysis and nothing more needs to be added on it.,

        http://goo.gl/sMzvcv

        The real problem is not explaining the logic behind what is racist and wrong about such “satire” and the response is usually generates from “fans of the satires” (people defending racism)… the problem is that because the media is essentially a white privileged space, there is a built in apathy to such perfectly rational arguments. The logic is sound and valid, problem is people in general are just so numb to racism that is right in their face everyday, that they feel nothing about it anymore – they think it is normal. Even if certain segments of the minority community, that are working on a solid foundation/framework that understands how racism functions, are effected emotionally by such predominant dehumanization in the media.

        The explanation is, in fact, simple rationally… but people are so culturally desensitized that not only do such rational objections evade them, they get extremely reactionary and defensive when defending the culture they live in and partake in.

        • Billie says

          Dezn, I definitely see where you’re coming from and I totally agree with what you have to say about the media being a white privilege space, but I’m not sure I agree with you 100% that it’s simple. In fact, I had this very same conversation earlier today. As an African American woman, I remember a while back Colbert had a bit about referring to African Americans as “monkeys” and did a somewhat similar satirical piece. I remember it hurt in a weird way and it was really jarring to see that racial stigma thrown back into prime time. It was hard to explain to non-black people how I could both not be mad at Colbert or his show, but at the same time be mad at the situation that society has put us all in where in order to get people’s attention about a certain issue you almost have to bring back hurtful stereotypes to get other people to understand. I did not think this skit was racist per say either, I just think it was (like the aforementioned) out of touch and wish he had found a different way to make a point than having to use an old trope than can be triggering to many people. After all, if you’re part of a group that enjoys a societal advantage, you really should be extra careful what you make light of because what might see harmless to you could actually be painful to someone else. So, in essence, while I definitely believe that your point:

          “The explanation is, in fact, simple rationally… but people are so culturally desensitized that not only do such rational objections evade them, they get extremely reactionary and defensive when defending the culture they live in and partake in.”

          May often be true, we can’t just look at anything that MIGHT be racist and be all “yep that’s racist, people are desensitized to it, next”. There’s a healthy dose of self-discovery that happens when we question and actually examine these in detail.

          Thanks for bringing that up, that’s definitely something many people forget…

          • says

            I just wanted to make the point that what he was doing is racist. There is a big liberal white trend to be racist just in that manner (for satire), and yeah it has to be called attention to. I just wanted to say that racism is not a complicated science, there is no secret code to unlock… it is relatively easy to show. Making fun of Asian languages in a way that has long been used to stereotype Asian people… is definitely racist and imperialistic to boot.

            The illegitimacy of white liberals saying “I am going to act racist to combat racism, and I think this is hilarious. If you are hurt by my use of racist tropes then you simply must be too stupid to understand the concept of satire….” is so absurd one wonders how people can not think that defense is racist in itself (that defense is racist). The only reason people accept this is because the culture tells them nothing is wrong with this view.

            I think what I was trying to get at is that we should not believe that racism is “hard to understand.” It is in fact relatively easy to understand.. however, people are never exposed to such a simple rational understanding because the culture and media is ruled by white supremacy. Racism is easy to explain, one does not need a formal education to get the concept… what happens though, and this is what I wanted to highlight, is that this culture is so absurd such concepts are alien to people. That says something about the culture, rather than the concept of racism. The concept is simple, the explanation I linked to was simple and easy to understand, what is not so simple is our irrelevance/apathy to such a good argument even when presented with it. The fact that people can not find the words to describe how wrong racism is, says something, very bad about how white supremacy has prevented us from understanding easy to get concepts.

            My writing is terrible, so I hope this came out clear.

            I share your conflicting emotions when looking at racist humor.

        • khms says

          Look here, this is a perfect, and short, analysis and nothing more needs to be added on it.,

          http://goo.gl/sMzvcv

          I have one problem with this explanation:

          It doesn’t seem to actually explain the (to me) most important part of the logic. It is just flat assumed that this does harm. And for me, that is the important link here.

          It looks to me that that argument essentially says that you’re not allowed to mention these things even when criticizing them … which, if taken further, makes not only satire but any form of criticism essentially impossible.
          Now I’m sure that’s not what the critics actually want, but then I have trouble understanding their reaction.
          Something is missing here. Something important.
          Something that people on one side seem to think is completely obvious, and people on the other side cannot seem to see at all.

          Just for complete context, the original (in-show) version seems, to me, to say “See how ridiculous this behavior is when applied to a different group (Asian-Americans)?” – which implicitly says “we all agree that, yes, this behavior is absurd when applied to Asian-Americans, that is not in doubt” (because otherwise, the satire would not work).
          So, on first glance, the critics seem to say that this assumed consensus does not actually exist … is that anywhere close? (I’d still say the form of their critic is a bad move, especially as they’re not making this part clear, but hey, I’m an ocean away from this discussion …)

          • says

            You trolling me? It is like you read the link.. then thought to yourself… let me find the most passive aggressive way to emulate that characterization.

            1) You don’t understand the reaction?

            You don’t understand when some minorities get upset when racist stereotypes and slurs are spewed about them? Nah… you do… you do. If you are personally not offended by it, and I was not offended by it – but I ain’t Asian….

            Are you white? Yes? Privilege.

            Are you not white? Yes? Your personal non-offense should not be used to nullify other peoples offenses.

            2) You attempted to explain the joke to me, and the satire.

            Let me do better. Stephen Colbert is a comedy show, and the satire in the skit was meant to highlight the absurdity of the racism within American Football. Wow.. I summarized it in a sentence! I think I get what satire is and how the joke was Intended.

            3) You pronounced that the consensus must be… everyone understands racism so much that… they can use racism to combat racism.

            As the link said… the point is that, the joke is not for Asians, it is for white people. The harm the slurs might cause to certain segments of the Asian community is outranked by white peoples rights to make fun of what they define are the real racist. This is a move of white dominance and white supremacy, it is, in fact, a racist move. To put white peoples “comedy needs” above the feelings of minorities… is a white power move.

            The fact that people are easily dismissing the feelings and needs of some Asian minorities, and dismissing the fact that doing so is dehumanizing – on top of the dehumanizing jokes they tell already tell themselves…. is a key feature in racism. The most trivial needs of the white liberal community – to feel good, to laugh, to give themselves cookies for calling out “real racists|” – far outranks the actual needs to minority groups that on this occasion they decided to throw under the bus for a laugh. That is white dominance, the definition of white dominance.. that their trivial needs outrank real serious needs of oppressed groups.

          • J. J. Ramsey says

            dezn_98:

            You don’t understand when some minorities get upset when racist stereotypes and slurs are spewed about them?

            That assumes that the minorities in question either don’t know or don’t care about the difference between actually aiming slurs at them and a mocking portrayal of such slurs being aimed at them. That’s rather patronizing to those minorities.

          • says

            J.J.

            No… what is patronizing and straight up silly.. is the fact that you think this distinction, was not already known and dismissed as an invalid objection to the fact that what was said was hurtful. If you seriously think that distinction is the only thing necessary to legitimize the use of racist slurs and stereotypes… than man… you have no idea how racism functions at all… at all.

            There is a long history of white people using such a “distinction” to legitimize actual racism. It does not matter if the slurs were not “aimed at them.” The point is that the repetition of these slurs still hurts regardless of the distinction, that the laughter coming from an all white crowd at the slurs themselves is dehumanizing, finally when pointing out that these things hurt and trivialize a minority group, the reaction of… this does not matter, Stephens “rights” to make me laugh matter more… is straight up white dominance.

          • J. J. Ramsey says

            what is patronizing and straight up silly.. is the fact that you think this distinction, was not already known and dismissed as an invalid objection to the fact that what was said was hurtful.

            Just because someone on Tumblr dismissed it as an invalid objection doesn’t make it invalid.

            By your logic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is racist.

          • says

            J. J.

            Ummm… Are you that fcking ignorant? Do you not realize there has been dozens of literary theorists that do in fact make the argument that Huckleberry Finn is in fact Racist? That the author himself was racist despite fighting against what he defined as racist? You are not aware of the countless literature by people of color highlighting the fact that the book is racist? By that alone I should end this conversation because you clearly have made no attempt to educate yourself on the topic you claim to speak with authority on.

            I’m tired of thus fcking BS coming from supposed “allies” that are ignorant as fck about racism. It’s not a hard grasp to handle… Abraham Lincoln was a racist despite being against slavery. People’s contradictory thoughts are quite common. It’s the same with the author of Finn, despite fighting against racism he was still pretty racist himself… His book, despite sending good ant-racist messages also contained racism as well. The fact that you automatically assume this book, written by some from the view point of white satire, is beyond reproach demonstrates not only your ignorance but the fact that even in literary criticisms… It’s a white space. White people get to say what is racist and what is not, even when they are racist themselves. When people of color speak up, we don’t get heard…. There are many PoC’s of color that are professional literary critics that make the argument that the book can at times be racist itself. Oh but how would you know that? Every lime we try to talk we just get shouted at and patronized by white allies like yourself… Attempting to command a situation that you have no authority over. It’s only the racists that whites call to that actually matters….

            When PoC’s say that, “in your attempt at anti-racism you are being racist as well”…. What do we get back? We get treated like children as if we can not understand simple points… Fck off with this noise. I know what satire is and I am fimiliar with Finn… And unlike you I am more fimiliar with the litarary criticisms of Finn coming from POC’s.

            How many fcking ignorant people are gunna try to “educate” me today? I don’t need to be educated. I know what the fck I am talking about, and am more aware of this issue than you obviously will ever be. So fck you and anyone who defends this racist sht from colbert.

            Im fcking done… Y’all wonder why this is a white space…. This is fcking why. Fcking ignorant prick. How DARE you try to bellittle and talk down to me with your vapid and ignorant talking points you get from the very white culture I am critiquing.

            WTF… This is why these conversations matter… But also why they can’t take place in white spaces… Cause you only get a few PoC’s criticizing it, but dozens of whites coming out the woodwork saying silly things begging to be educated but at the same time talking down to minorities like we are children and “need to be explained to.” On top of that in looking at a bunch of racists white making death threats, rape threats to WoC’s and others being overtly racist…

            Where the fck are the white allies there? They ain’t there cause they to busy trying to talk me down, trying to educate me, trying to get educated through me, and trying to trivialize issue they have not the faintest understanding of. This is why we simply can’t exist is white spaces… You get passive aggressive nonsense on one end, ignorance on another, racist death threats on another…. Yet all these forces agreeing on one thing… Tell that minority to STFU and know they place. Ain’t it funny huh? All these white people working together to silence… And they don’t even fckin know it… Nor do they care when we point it out…because what matters more to them is not plight… But their special feelings and their authority to decide when racism matters and when it don’t.

            I’m tired…. I really try to be patient but when vapid BS comes from spaces I felt safe in… I’m just reminded…. I should not talk about real issues in white spaces… Cause they ganna shout you down and trigger you. I’m done being triggered and I’m done explaining sht…y’all want to continue white dominance… Go ahead. Great fcking job… I’m done. When like 7 out of like 9 posts have racist micro aggressions in them explaining the situation to minorities like we don’t already know…. We done here

            Truth is all of you are the ones in power… Not PoC’s… Cause no matter what arguments we put up, no mater how rationally founded they are…. Y’all don’t have to listen… White supremacy allows anyone to dismiss points not with logic… But simply by saying the minority is either simple minded or reactionary… And bam… Back to square one. Logic be damned… Racism for the win.

            Y’all win. Ill shutup… Cause I cant argue my humanity anymore. Truth is, as the quote I linked said mtherfcker, whites use us as tools to make them feel special, fck our feelings…. Cause hey… Y’all can get away with saying that… Racist Satire for everyone! Ignore “reactionary” minorities… They don’t know shit right? Funny how most of you love that narrative… So instead of thinking… Just dismiss me, dismiss us all… Cause the truth is… Any white person has that power and they use it… Oh they use it.

            I’m rambling… Forget it… This is not worth my emotional stability. Fck the spell Check

            I’m out.

          • J. J. Ramsey says

            Ummm… Are you that fcking ignorant? Do you not realize there has been dozens of literary theorists that do in fact make the argument that Huckleberry Finn is in fact Racist?

            I am most certainly aware of attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn from school on account of its flawed characters thoughtlessly using racial slurs, and I daresay that your arguments have been on the same shallow level as the ones seeking the ban.

          • Hertta (Herttainen) says

            I’m sorry for all the hurt, frustration and disappointment these conversations cause you. I’m sorry that you are driven out of these spaces by supposedly liberal white people. It sucks, I’m sorry.

          • Hertta (Herttainen) says

            My last comment was for dezn_98. This is for J. J. Ramsey: Really? That’s your reply? Did you mean it to feel like a knife in the gut for dezn_98? Because if you read the whole thing you replied to, you must know how your complete dismissal of their experience must feel like. Christ, what an asshole.

  2. says

    Anyone who got up in arms about Colbert’s (actually Comedy Central’s) tweet is no better than those who retweet BS from naturalnews.com or 911 truther sites. They took umbridge because thay wanted to. They didn’t bother to do a lick of research to find out if taking the tweet seriously was reasonable. Lazy, humourlous twats, the lot of them.

  3. John Horstman says

    And this is further complicated by the fact that it’s not just the one bit from the show or single tweet in question that’s satirical, but Colbert’s entire public persona. His Excellency The Rev. Sir Doctor Stephen Tyrone Mos Def Colbert, D.F.A., Heavyweight Champion of the World✱✱ featuring Flo Rida La Premiere Dame De France is absolutely and intentionally an unrepentant bigot, holding racist views of all non-White people. This makes it nearly impossible to definitively determine the context, because it blurs the line between ignorant racism and satire thereof, and intent is part of context.

    When it come to satire (or any criticism, really) of something like racist language, we run into a central postmodern paradox of discursive theory: it’s impossible to criticize something without first reproducing that thing and thus reinforcing its position in the discourse so that we know what we’re talking about in the first place. One of the more hilarious (from a distance) examples of trying to avoid this paradox is the contemporaneous reporting on Oscar Wilde’s trial, where the newspapers’ own ‘decency’ standards barred them from reporting on what Wilde was actually charged with, so instead they used euphemisms* that entirely obfuscated any useful information about his alleged crimes. If I want to criticize the use of the “n-word” or “c-word”, for example, I can’t without either naming the words or using euphemisms that are known substitutes for the words, which mostly defeats the purpose (along the lines of, “Don’t think of an elephant!”).

    In practice, I’ll mostly tend to fall on the side of the people e.g. defending Colbert and saying the critics are missing the context, though I think the defenders are expressing that position badly. It’s not really so much that the critics are ignoring context (they’re paying attention to the context of the remarks as it relates to their positionalities), it’s that they’re essentializing certain words based on their own personal experience with those words, and will thus make universalized claims that are also possibly poor expressions of their positions. Contrast: “That tweet uses racist words and is thus not okay, so the Colbert Report should be canceled,” and, “Because I and many other Asian Americans have heard the language used in this tweet hurled at us as racist invective, I find any use of such language, even for attempted satire, to be harmful to me, and I suspect many other Asian Americans experience it as similarly harmful. The fact that such language is likely to be experienced as harmful, even when its use is intended to COUNTER racism, is something allies need to take into account; people who wish to be allies should default to avoiding loaded language.” Obviously off-the-cuff responses might be rather angrier and perhaps somewhat less thought-out, but I’m seeing a disturbing trend of baseless or flatly inaccurate essentialism in a lot of anti-racist/anti-sexist rhetoric that comes from various marginalized populations that is problematic in and of itself (and also then defensive comments from supporters of whomever made the statement in question that are ALSO often problematically essentialist, as well as implicitly racist in a -splaining sense). Many charges of “appropriation” are similarly problematic: cultural borrowing and blending are not inherently bad – I doubt anyone is going to run around claiming that the ‘appropriation’ of the diesel engine by anyone not of English or German ancestry or the ‘appropriation’ of business suits by people of non-English ancestry is an unacceptable cultural violation, for example – but instead of commenting on why a given racist/ethnocentrist/otherwise-problematic use of a cultural trope is racist/harmful/problematic in the context in which it appears, critics too often decry “appropriation” as a blanket condemnation of any ‘outsider’ using cultural tropes (as though the borders of “a culture” and who “owns” it are ever clear, and requiring a belief that someone or some set of people ever have some sort of unique right to a particular idea or behavior). As is the case in many, many debates that play out in popular discourses, we continually have people who decide that their personal experience makes them experts on a broad cultural system that impacts millions or billions of other people in different ways or experts in an entire filed of scientific inquiry. Granted, it’s almost always less harmful when people in marginal positions universalize their personal experience than when people in privileged positions do so, largely becasue they’re in marginal positions and thus not in positions to harm many, if anyone. It’s not really any more accurate, though.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    The signal I want to boost here is the one from Miri in 1.1 above. When I read about stories like this, the thing that I get mad about is Twitter itself. Anybody who read that Tweet, then went back and watched the original segment, then wrote a thoughtful piece about why the segment was unfunny and hurtful — ok, I’ll listen and maybe agree. But if someone just heard about the tweet and fired away — gagh.

    Twitter is the graffiti of the internet. It makes just as much sense to get angry about something you saw on Twitter as it makes sense to say you find it inspiring, or profound, or illuminating. It’s just 140 characters. That’s not enough space to adequately develop a joke, let alone serve as a substitute for actual discourse.

    • says

      But as I said, there was no way of knowing that the tweet was part of a larger segment. There were no quotation marks used. And if the joke weren’t funny in isolation, why tweet it in isolation, without even a link to the episode? Those aren’t Twitter randos running that account, but employees of a major TV channel. They know what they’re doing.

      • J. J. Ramsey says

        But as I said, there was no way of knowing that the tweet was part of a larger segment.

        True, but to be fair, even someone unfamiliar with the particular segment is likely to know that Colbert plays the buffoon and that anything he says in character is meant to be stupid.

  5. Brett says

    Just because it’s possible to understand the joke and be offended by it doesn’t mean that critics of the joke actually do understand it. I think Colbert has said offensive things in the past that in no way helped the joke he was making (the one Miri linked was pretty terrible, for example), but in this case the form of the joke was completely in line with Colbert’s character. The only times he says ANYTHING that isn’t offensive is when he leaves politics and talks about pop culture things like Lord of the Rings.

    Getting mad at this one particular things sounds like they’re saying welfare recipients, physically handicapped people, Latinos, African Americans, the LGBT community, illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, Jews, atheists, Muslims, people with mental illnesses and many many more groups all had it coming, but Asian Americans are where they draw the line! Hating the Colbert character seems completely fair, but he never advocates a political position without saying offensive things about it. When people (at least the more sensible ones) say that someone didn’t understand the joke, they’re probably talking about people who don’t even seem to have a basic understanding of the show’s general flow.

    I’m not trying to defend the joke. The form of the joke flatly isn’t racist (It is directly mocking the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation”, not Asian-Americans), but it uses racially insensitive language in away that I as a white guy really can’t judge. Maybe he did more harm than good. The reason I wanted to write is that sometimes misunderstandings actually do happen. Sometimes someone really just didn’t get the joke. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt can not only be good PR, it also stops you from being wrong every once in a while. (I’m not understating that for dramatic effect. I really do think the people who tend to point out racist jokes are usually right)

    I hope I was relatively clear and not too rambling, I tend to avoid commenting because of my tendency to babble, but this is a topic I care about a bit (as I have both been truly offensive and also misunderstood in the past) and I tend to think both this blog and it’s commenters are pretty great.

    • says

      Brett, I think the problem with “Getting mad at this one particular things sounds like they’re saying welfare recipients, physically handicapped people, Latinos, African Americans, the LGBT community, illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, Jews, atheists, Muslims, people with mental illnesses and many many more groups all had it coming, but Asian Americans are where they draw the line!” is that there’s a lot of other context and possibilities you’re forgetting. Just like with bullying, at some point you hit that ‘enough is enough’ kind of wall like the post Miri quoted. The straw that broke the camel’s back. As well as people who just aren’t that familiar with everything else he’s done over the years, for various possible reasons.

      • Brett says

        It seems to me that a “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation would require a person to have seen more than one episode of Colbert’s show, and the critics I find most annoying don’t appear to have seen even one. They saw a tweet that was at best terribly ill-advised and at worst completely racist. They decided that that tweet must be representative of Colbert’s show, then they pretended they had seen Colbert’s show to lend themselves credibility.

        When I claim that they hadn’t seen Colbert’s show, it’s not because they disagree with me about the joke. People would focus on several out of context offensive quotes made by the character Colbert (and he’s made offensive quotes about LOTS of people, including many categories I fall into), and completely gloss over actual offenses like the one Miri linked. One commenter on this thread mentioned Colbert’s “racist skit”. Colbert doesn’t do skits. It isn’t a sketch comedy show. The most angry, vocal critic on this comment thread hasn’t seen a single full episode of the show, or they’d know it wasn’t a sketch comedy show.

        When someone lies or is willfully ignorant while supporting a position, it makes everyone else who supports that position because of good research look bad. Next time some jackass makes a racist comment about Asian-Americans, people will be able to point at the reaction to Colbert’s show (not the tweet) to discredit those who speak out against it, and I hate that.

        I know I get overly wordy and take nuance very seriously when I write online, and these can get me into all sorts of trouble. I’ve heard some great criticisms of both the specific tweet, and this bit on the show, and the show in general from people who actually watched it, or from people who feel that hearing the words used is too painful for the context to matter. I don’t think we actually disagree as far as I can tell, but you’re not using catchy hash tags or calling anyone a white supremacist.

    • says

      Just because it’s possible to understand the joke and be offended by it doesn’t mean that critics of the joke actually do understand it.

      Interesting that you talk about the “benefit of the doubt”, but only bother to extend it to one party here.

      • Brett says

        Are you saying someone should be allowed to comment on something they didn’t see? I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I don’t think I did that.

    • says

      I think the argument that the entire joke is racist is more about the idea that Colbert was banking on the supposed “ridiculousness” of such blatant anti-Asian racism in order to point out how anti-Native racism ought to be seen as just as ridiculous. Except…anti-Asian racism is still going strong. That’s why the whole “ironic racism” thing doesn’t work. People in this very thread have pointed out that they’ve had those words flung at them to demean them. Colbert’s whole thing here is being like “ahahaha see how ridiculous this would be?” But our society does not entirely agree that it’s ridiculous in the first place.

      • Brett says

        Before reading comments here I thought the joke probably did more good than harm, I have since changed my mind. Even more now I think it’s important to keep definitions clear and arguments precise. Saying the joke “made fun of Asians” gives people who don’t want their position challenged an easy out. I don’t want an easy out when I’m hurting people. The joke simply wasn’t targeted at Asians. It was targeted at mostly white people who support an offensive team name, and the feelings of Asians were collateral damage.

        When I realized where the misunderstandings were, I did get a little angry. When someone uses an alternate definition of a word without defining it it really makes me feel like they didn’t want to change my mind, they just wanted to feel smarter than me. I notice this kind of attitude a lot because I see it directed at my family. I used to be a fundamentalist Christian, and my family still is and I know how they think. They’re not stupid, and they’re not evil. They’re wrong about all sorts of things, but maybe they’d be wrong a little less if every liberal argument they hear assumes they know they’re wrong and are just to mean or dumb to care. I got mad at dezn_98 because they very much seemed to think that J.J. Ramsey (and indirectly several other people, probably me included) were just too mean or dumb to care.

        • says

          I got mad at dezn_98 because they very much seemed to think that J.J. Ramsey (and indirectly several other people, probably me included) were just too mean or dumb to care.

          I respect your feelings, but I don’t think that there’s really evidence for that interpretation. dezn_98 seemed upset, as I would be, too, after a lifetime of people who don’t understand the oppression I face very well talking at me as if they do. It sounds like dezn_98 thinks you don’t really understand racism as well as they do, not that you’re “mean” or “dumb” (or that J.J. Ramsey is). In discussions of oppression that one person in the conversation faces and others do not, it is the responsibility of those who have not directly experienced that oppression to listen to those who have. Urging people to listen to those who say they were hurt by this joke/tweet was the entire purpose of this article.

          • Brett says

            You’re probably right. I remember how I felt the first time I read some of the posts…. and re-reading them I just don’t feel it. It probably reminded me too much of someone who actually said something offensive (which of course couldn’t possibly be dezn_98′s fault).

            It’s always hard to see someone loose control a bit, and easy to write it off as silly irrationality to avoid having to think too hard about the situation as a whole. Sorry about that.
            .

  6. Mori says

    The one thing I’d add here, is that it is interesting to say “Colbert has a history of using humor in bigoted ways”. Because that is, essentially, the essence of his character on the Colbert Report. He plays a very, very stereotypical tone-deaf white conservative. From the first episode he has acted the fool in this role and his writers have supplied him with a never-ending stream of tone-deaf bigoted language.

    The idea, of course, is that Colbert the Character is mean to highlight how the actual conservative, male, white privileged pundits and politicians are clueless and bigoted even when they think they’re trying not to be. It’s just that, I don’t think you can watch Colbert for any appreciable length of time and not see this is a pillar of his comedic framework.

    As an example here, I am a gay male. I’m white, as it happens; but I have heard that being gay regardless of skin color tends to give one a bit of a perspective of institutional bigotry. I’ve never been bothered in the slightest by Colbert’s constant “homophobic” statements (made in-character). It’s not that I’m saying because I’m not offended, nobody else should be. More just that the math isn’t as simple as “bigoted language is always bad in every context, full stop”. That’s just not true, when in the service of satire. The idea that it is, is damaging in my opinion. It means that a tool is removed from reach in the fight against actual bigotry – comedy and satire is one of the most effective tools for highlighting hypocrisy and irrational attitudes. Because comedy and satire directly attack cognitive dissonance. They pry open closed minds, often against their will.

    And it’s dangerous to promote the idea that you can’t fight fire with fire – you can’t directly pull authentic bigotry on the carpet with the “snare” of satirical exaggeration. This actually, in my opinion, gives bigots power – and makes bigoted language more powerful, not less. The mere words become a frightening taboo that can never be uttered lest we cause racism and bigotry to appear out of the air. It’s the attitude of people who are insecure and afraid of being infected by that that which they fear. Meanwhile, the actual bigots share no such compunctions and are quite free to act.

    A bit of irony here is that Colbert never uses actual slurs in his pseudo-bigoted satire. The writing of his show dances around them skillfully, and never goes as far as say, The Onion did in the example given in this article. Colbert is an easy, yet weak, target to attack on the ground of “comedy gone too far”.

    • Sola says

      “A bit of irony here is that Colbert never uses actual slurs in his pseudo-bigoted satire.”

      Apparently you aren’t aware that “ching chong” and “oriental” are considered very offensive to Asian Americans. They effectively work as slurs, hence the backlash.

  7. says

    (Note: I’m going to refer to the actor as Stephen and the character as Colbert.)

    I’m split two ways so hard on this it hurts.

    I have always taken Colbert to be the worst stereotype of the right: extreme conservative Christian, extremely well-rounded bigot (hating everyone who is not a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, wealthy, Christian, USian male), both completely uneducated and completely anti-education, completely anti-science, easily bought by money, and so on.

    So when Colbert fires off racism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, etc, I don’t see it as Stephen really thinking or believing this stuff, but using it to highlight the most absurd of the right. I will absolutely grant that this is entirely because of my privilege as a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied male, but I simply don’t take Colbert seriously, perhaps because he pretty much encapsulates (in my mind, anyways) the entirety of Fox “News” and at least the public wing of the Tea Party in a nutshell.

    But on the flipside, I’ve been reading more and more of why the shown bigotry, whether satirical or not, is a major problem, and I can’t find any reason to disagree with the criticisms.

    So I’m completely lost as to what to think.

    I love both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. I watch them almost religiously, in fact.

    Jon Stewart isn’t playing a character, so he’s a lot easier to criticize, and he pisses me off a lot. He could stand to be oh so much more Progressive, and he has often been tone-deaf when it comes to atheism (in fact, ironically, the very Catholic Stephen is a much bigger ally to atheists than Jon, which I always found sort of backwards because Jon is a deist and not the world’s biggest fan of religion, while Stephen is a Catholic and loves religion) and feminism. And that Reason Rally… I was so excited coming up to it, but then I just wanted to punch Jon when it was over. And then both of his interviews with David Barton were absolutely pathetic, and he couldn’t even be arsed to search out someone, like Chris Rodda, to bring on the show to refute Barton’s bullshit.

    With Colbert, though… because Colbert is a character and not actually real, I take him in that context; he is meant to be the worst of the worst. And yet, the criticisms against the character are very hard to disagree with, for me, at least.

    • Onamission5 says

      The thing that has long made me the most uncomfortable with Colbert’s attempted spoofs on racism is something I think of as the Chappelle effect– can he ever be entirely sure that many of the very people he’s trying to reach aren’t laughing *at* the joke, rather than *with* it?

      • says

        Which simply adds yet another dynamic: does Stephen know the audience well enough? Is his entire audience trustworthy, or are their factions who take Colbert seriously?

        Perhaps this section of Colbert’s wikipedia article puts my point about Colbert more succinctly than I could. And it’s based on that that I don’t take his bigotry seriously… and yet I wonder if maybe I should, because even where it’s meant to be satire, it’s still harmful…

      • Sola says

        “The thing that has long made me the most uncomfortable with Colbert’s attempted spoofs on racism is something I think of as the Chappelle effect– can he ever be entirely sure that many of the very people he’s trying to reach aren’t laughing *at* the joke, rather than *with* it?”

        This is a very valid point that I wish was brought up more often. Many educated and self-professed liberals tend to underestimate the full pervasive and insidious nature of racism in this country.

        If we truly lived in a post-racial society, maybe the joke wouldn’t have been so bad. But the fact of the matter is, Colbert, in his attempt to highlight the absurd nature of Snyder’s charity foundation, inadvertently triggered many AsAms with words that tend to cut a bit too deep (no matter the context). The fact is that we AsAms are still perpetually marginalized and still struggling for more well-rounded representation in the media.

  8. Wally Weaksauce says

    Thanks for a great article. I’m unsure where I fall on this whole CancelColbert thing, but I appreciate that its given me the opportunity to read thought provoking material like this.

  9. thelibyan says

    But #cancelcolbert has welcomed Michelle Malkin in its ranks, or at the very least the original tweeter hasn’t repudiated her. Michelle Malkin is one of the worst Islamaphobes, having called for the increased profiling of Arabs at airports, and for the continuation of America’s policy of invading Arab countries. She’s continually said racist things aginst specific Arabs, such as the Arab Miss America winner, and has offended Arabs in general by supporting any policy of communal internment of Arabs during the War on Terror. That Michelle Malkin’s name is even associated with this hastag and the author of this article can write about it without even mentioning Malkin’s association just shows how white liberals diminish and thereby legitimize racism against Arabs. The creators of the hashtag and the author of this article should immediately remove the offending material and issue an apology for tacitly supporting the ongoing racism against Arabs and creating an atmosphere that perpetuates Islamophobia.

    ^see how easy faux-outrage is?

    • says

      How can a collection of unassociated people “welcome” anyone? Have you seen any of the progressive tweeters interacting with her positively? Can you guarantee that everyone using the hashtag even knows who she is? (Only reason I do is because I used to be conservative.)

      And if you’re going to call something “faux-outrage,” then you need to present evidence that it is “faux.”

  10. jamessweet says

    Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote.

    Yeah, this. The tweet was racist, there’s not really any question about it, and without the context you couldn’t even come close to arguing that it was satire. What was it satirizing? “Hey look, I’m being really racist, isn’t that funny?” If so, how is that different from people who think racism is awesome and make a joke whose point is “Hey look, I’m being really racist, isn’t that funny?”

    I think that in context, the bit was definitely satire (though, as you point out, as a white person I’m not really the authority on whether it might be hurtful — but it was clearly satire, and it was clearly an attempt to “punch up”). I actually think it’s a really fascinating example of how just the smallest amount of context can entirely change the meaning.

    There is no credible way to defend the tweet. The very best defense you can make is that the tweet was an epic fail at providing the proper context, so that it turned legitimate satire into a plain old racist joke. Expecting people to just guess the context? That’s just silly.

  11. says

    Just a note: a lot of the discussion here has centered around Colbert’s satire and whether or not it is in itself offensive. That’s not really the focus of this piece, which is about the idea that, regardless of YOUR opinions of Colbert’s satire, other people may find it hurtful and that’s a valid view even if you disagree with it. So arguing to me that Colbert’s satire is great (a point with which I’d generally agree anyway) doesn’t get at what I’m saying here.

    And to recap, again: there was no way to tell that the tweet was meant to be Colbert’s character. There were no quotation marks used. There was no link or reference to an episode. The rest of that Twitter feed is semi-serious political links and announcements about the show, not Colbert’s character. What goes on on Colbert’s actual show is almost irrelevant to this tweet. The people who are upset about it are not the ones taking it out of context; the person who tweeted it took it out of context, and presented it that way to the public.

    • says

      And to recap, again: there was no way to tell that the tweet was meant to be Colbert’s character. There were no quotation marks used. There was no link or reference to an episode. The rest of that Twitter feed is semi-serious political links and announcements about the show, not Colbert’s character. What goes on on Colbert’s actual show is almost irrelevant to this tweet. The people who are upset about it are not the ones taking it out of context; the person who tweeted it took it out of context, and presented it that way to the public.

      Actually, I did a bit of research, and this seems to be normal for Viacom. They often randomly create “verified” Twitter accounts for shows on the channels they own but don’t actually have them run by anyone associated with those shows.

      I don’t know if it’s relevant or if anyone’s interested, but Stephen Colbert tweets (or, at least, someone associated with him and the show tweets) from @StephenAtHome.

    • J. J. Ramsey says

      That’s not really the focus of this piece, which is about the idea that, regardless of YOUR opinions of Colbert’s satire, other people may find it hurtful and that’s a valid view even if you disagree with it.

      I’d say that this is only true up to a point.

      If someone sees Colbert’s routine and just says that it rubbed him/her the wrong way, that’s fine. That’s just a statement about one’s own personal reaction and isn’t a disparagement of his character. If one, however, says that what Colbert did was racist, then he/she is no longer just speaking for him/herself. That’s an accusation that Colbert did something wrong — and that’s something that has to be backed up by more than one’s personal feelings.

  12. says

    Weird thing is I went into school not knowing I was different, and that is what I was taunted with. Ching Chong and little kids using their fingers to make their eyes look slanted.

  13. J. J. Ramsey says

    There was an interesting comment from a Native American blogger on this whole #CancelColbert bit:

    Portland, Oregon based writer and blogger of Navajo and Yankton Dakota descent Jacqueline Keeler pointed out that the explosion of attention given to #CancelColbert had meant that Natives had essentially been “edited out” of the conversation, with “one tweet supporting Native people for every 100 for #CancelColbert.” “Native people are messaging me that they feel their work has been co-opted,” she posted. “90,000 [people] go to stadiums EVERY SUNDAY in redface — how much hashtag trending would that equal in #CancelColbert terms? If our allies did that much twittering for us as they do for a satirical skit, redface would be banned from stadiums tomorrow.”

    She’s got a point.

  14. Pen says

    I get that you’re trying to make the point that even if one person appreciates Colbert’s satire (in context presumably) another person may find it hurtful and that view should be accepted as valid. But where do we go from there?

    Can we transfer this to a situation where most people on an atheist network are likely to share similar experiences for a minute? For example, I find the contents of the Bible offensive and it’s hurtful to me when people offer up quotes from them in public places*. Some of them are quite threatening to the kind of person I am, and others strike me as harmful to society. I know lots of people who have been more seriously harmed by them than I have. Still, I know there are other people out there who would be very hurt and offended by my saying so in public. Look at Bill Maher, it’s exactly that situation. Personally, I share his view, but he’s upset some people…

    Shall we say that both those views are valid? The Bible-fanciers may have a whole life history that makes respect for that particular book very, very important to them, so their distress is valid. I can point to the content of the Bible which is so radically against my values that my distress is valid. And even if I admit that their distress is ‘valid’ or at least understandable or predictable, I’m still not going to want to stop saying I find the Bible offensive. Or apologize. Or willingly submit to sanctions. These are mutually exclusive positions with two groups of people upsetting each other. Both are asking the other for a behavior change and probably an apology and only one can win. It’s not a let’s agree to disagree situation.

    Don’t you think this business about the Colbert Report has something in common with that? One side really wants the other to lighten up or shut up for the sake of the future of comedy and the other side really wants punishment/revenge or minimally an apology for the sake of defending their honor. Okay, I realize there are some people occupying a middle zone, like you, but these extremes seem to exist.

    * There’s and interesting parallel with the Redskins name situation. When are we going to get that horrible, out-dated, oppressive book out of the hotel rooms???

    • says

      I don’t think I would characterize a demand for an apology and less racist humor/satire in the future as ‘extreme’. Significantly less so than the ‘shot up, it’s just satire so you shouldn’t be angry’ stance – even without the racist, misogynist, and otherwise hateful attacks some make.
      I was of the impression that few people supporting that hashtag expected, or even wished, The Colbert Report would actually be canceled.

  15. says

    I am most certainly aware of attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn from school on account of its flawed characters thoughtlessly using racial slurs, and I daresay that your arguments have been on the same shallow level as the ones seeking the ban.

    I want to highlight this, and call it out as bullshit: dezn_98′s discourse on the matter in the above comments was anything but shallow, and for J. J. Ramsay to dismiss it as a simple “ban this book” sort of rhetoric when it was in fact quite nuanced and analytical…and then to leave such a hurtful comment as the above when dezn_98 had just expressed outrage and exhaustion about being driven out of this space by white ignorance…well, that was shameful.

    J. J., you should be ashamed of yourself. I am almost certain you will not be, but you should be.

    • Brett says

      I’m not sure what you’re definition of “nuanced” is, but as far as I could tell dezn_98 was far too busy feigning disbelief that anyone ever could possibly not ever agree with their opinion with short breaks to call everyone who has ever looked at them sideways for their entire life a fcking white supremacist. I appreciate being told I’m wrong if I am, but I can’t think of anytime someone was more receptive to constructive criticism after being compared to the Klan.

      I personally had never heard that serious academics disagreed on racism in Huckleberry Fin. It’s pretty likely this is because of all sorts of white privilege. Do you know of a good place to look for info? In my very white mostly middle class home town, the only people who considered Mark Twain racist were exactly as J.J. described.

      • says

        I’m not sure what you’re definition of “nuanced” is, but as far as I could tell dezn_98 was far too busy feigning disbelief that anyone ever could possibly not ever agree with their opinion with short breaks to call everyone who has ever looked at them sideways for their entire life a fcking white supremacist.

        That’s a very uncharitable reading, and misses a lot of the conversation besides.

        • Brett says

          I just erased a bunch of text because I think I figured out what’s really bothering me, and it has little to do with Mark Twain.

          I grew up believing lots of stupid, terrible things (evangelical christian background), and I like to think I believe far fewer stupid terrible things now. I got this way by speaking up when I disagree and listening when people try to correct me. Since I started having more problems with social anxiety the number of places I feel comfortable speaking up has dropped a lot. While dezn_98 wasn’t targeting me directly, they were making me feel VERY unsafe even asking clarifying questions (I’m *sure* I was one of the ones referred to as posting racist things, just based on the 7 out of 9 thing). That made me mad. I can’t help but feel I was still right in what I said, but I don’t intend to try to defend it because I had definitely lost my temper and don’t trust my judgment.

          From a pragmatic point of view, if your goal is to improve conditions and not just to vent, I recommend avoiding the term “white supremacist” unless the person you are talking to self-identifies as one.

          • says

            Have you ever seen the video by Ill Doctrine, “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist”?

            I recommend it.

            The crucial thing to take away from it, is that “white supremacy” and “racism” are not terms aimed at individual people, but at systems of belief and social organization. When dezn_98 was referring to white supremacy, it was as a matter of social structure.

            As for not feeling safe bringing up a question…I must ask, what consequences did you fear?

          • Brett says

            I’ve heard discussions on the topic before, but never seen that video. It’s a fascinating and really difficult topic. I’ve never heard the term “white supremacy” to refer to anything other than white nationalist movements. The same for the term “white power”. It seems either clumsy or intentionally manipulative to try to re-appropriate those words without drawing attention to the fact that you’re doing it. If that was the case I think my confusion was justified based on the established common uses of those phrases, but isn’t any more now that I know better.

            As far as what I’m afraid of, I get upset when pointing out flawed arguments is treated like opposition. I work in software testing and it’s a great fit for me psychologically. Finding problems and pointing them out isn’t opposing a philosophical position (or piece of software), it’s improving it. It hits pretty close to home feeling like someone is accusing me of supporting morally terrible positions that I actually used to have in my misguided Fundamentalist Christian/Republican days. That sets off my social anxiety pretty bad, so my reaction is probably out of proportion. I also make a real effort to understand a position before I accept it, and that can sound like contradicting it.

            I suppose this is over-sharing a bit, but at least people around here don’t seem to mind that sort of thing (or at least are annoyed politely)

          • J. J. Ramsey says

            Flewellyn:

            Have you ever seen the video by Ill Doctrine, “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist”?

            I recommend it.

            The crucial thing to take away from it, is that “white supremacy” and “racism” are not terms aimed at individual people, but at systems of belief and social organization.

            I’ve seen that video, and the lesson you apparently took away from it is not the one that was actually in it. The video was about keeping the focus on whether what someone said is racist, rather than whether someone is a racist. To quote the author of the video, Jay Smooth himself, the latter is an argument one doesn’t want to have “because that conversation takes us away from the facts of what they did and into speculation about their motives and intentions, and those are things you can only guess at, and can’t ever prove.” If there’s a lesson there that pertains to dezn_98′s behavior, it’s that saying things like “There is a big liberal white trend to be racist …” is a really bad idea.

            (And I’m wondering where the heck you see nuance in anything that dezn_98 has said. A “big liberal white trend to be racist”? His/her loose use of “white supremacy”? Those are really broad brush strokes.)

          • says

            I find it a little disturbing that the conversation has now turned into “how dezn_98 should have expressed themselves” rather than “what dezn_98 actually said.” First of all, even if their use of the word “white supremacy” was wrong, there is still a LOT of material in their comment to discuss. Second, many people use “white supremacy” to mean “a system in which whites are privileged over all other races,” and “white supremacist” to mean “a person who tacitly or otherwise supports this system.” Just like we may call someone a sexist or misogynist who is honestly not trying to be. In my understanding of these definitions, white supremacy:racism::misogyny:sexism. It’s a way of naming who exactly is most privileged by racism.

            ETA: This is the second google result for “white supremacy,” right after the wiki page. It’s pretty instructive.

          • Brett says

            I’m aware of the problems with what I think is called “tone policing” and I honestly wasn’t trying to do that here. Tone and context are how we settle problems of ambiguous language, and dezn_98′s tone was such that I didn’t realize what they were saying until after they stopped commenting. When I first responded to their posts, I thought I was responding to the substance of it and not the tone because of the ambiguous wording used, and the mismatch between tone and intended meaning. I am sorry my failure to correctly understand the language helped derail it (although mine was mostly/all after dezn_98 had left I think), it’s a conversation worth having.

            I actually really loved the page Miri linked to about white supremacy. It seemed like it was designed just for people like me to read. I get so frustrated that real life doesn’t have a “definitions” section at the beginning of conversation that I sometimes get some very strange looks for actually just adding one to the beginning of my in-person conversations. (i.e. For the purposes of this conversation x means y)

  16. queequack says

    I do think the tweet was tone-deaf, especially without proper context. Whether or not it’s objectively “offensive” is sort of irrelevant; it’s not that hard to foresee that certain people would find it offensive and would be hurt by it. And with that being the case, if you’re running a twitter account with over a million followers, I’d think it would be common courtesy to refrain, whether or not you personally have a problem with it.

    As to whether I find the tweet offensive, well. Satire is a tricky thing, and you always run the risk of stepping on someone’s toes. There’s no hard and fast way to avoid it. I do, however, think there are steps you can take to reduce the risk. Maybe one good acid test would be to ask yourself whether you’re just mimicking shit that people already do and say in earnest. That Onion article fails here, because after all, people really do call 9-year old girls cunts in a derogatory manner, meaning that the Onion was just replicating a shitty dynamic, and that’s not particularly funny. This is also (in my opinion) why a lot of “ironic” racism or homophobia falls flat- it doesn’t necessarily have to, but most of it just consists of saying bigoted things “as a joke”, with the implication that it’s just so self-evidently absurd. Which, well, it’s great that you think that, but the fact is that not everybody does. Racist and homophobic slurs are not relics of a distant past, but are in fact used maliciously today, and merely repeating them is not good satire- it’s just mimesis.

    But so I guess this is why I (again, opinion) don’t really find the tweet particularly offensive. I think it’s unlikely that someone would say, “I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”, meaning it as a malicious jab toward Asians. Even sans context, the sentence structure makes it clear that the joke is on the speaker for his flippant and shallow attempt at placation, emphasized by the fact that he clearly knows nothing about Asian people beyond what he “learned” from movies like Sixteen Candles.

    Of course, my views aren’t universal. I’m also not Asian. But none of that means I’m not entitled to an opinion, even as I acknowledge that others may come at this from different perspectives and with different sets of experiences- which aren’t necessarily invalid. Which of course is what you said.

  17. Joseph Mack says

    Stephen Colbert (the character) is a dumb racist. WE KNOW THAT.

    Stephen Colbert (the humorist) made a stupid, offensive joke that backfired.

    He’s made the argument for Dan Snyder & the Redskins nickname fans. “Suck it, Asians, learn what humor is about!” Am I right? That’s exactly what Snyder’s Redskins argument is all about. “If you don’t like the whole context of the Washington Redskins, I can’t be faulted if you are offended.”

    Total fail on Colbert (the humorist). It was an offensive joke that backfired, and not just because I “didn’t read the whole thing in context”. The context was tenuous, and the joke was racist… not just the character, but the lame joke.

    Suck it, Asians, indeed.

  18. says

    If there’s a lesson there that pertains to dezn_98′s behavior, it’s that saying things like “There is a big liberal white trend to be racist …” is a really bad idea.

    (And I’m wondering where the heck you see nuance in anything that dezn_98 has said. A “big liberal white trend to be racist”? His/her loose use of “white supremacy”? Those are really broad brush strokes.)

    Because, of course, when a PoC expresses frustration and anger at liberals engaging in “ironic” racism and calls it out for supporting white supremacy, the important thing for other white people to worry about is whether or not that PoC did their calling out “right”, and whether or not they were using “broad brush strokes”.

    FOR SHAME, Ramsay. For shame.

    • J. J. Ramsey says

      Flewellyn:

      Because, of course, when a PoC expresses frustration and anger at liberals engaging in “ironic” racism …

      But that’s not what dezn_98 is actually doing. If we were talking about people who talk actual racist crap and then use faux irony as a fig leaf, that would be one thing. However, that’s clearly not what this is about.

      dezn_98 is confusing an obviously negative portrayal of racism with actual racism. We have Colbert’s character having a track record of being an idiot, and we have his naming of his proposed foundation being self-defeating for its purpose[*]. Both of these are gigantic signposts saying, “This is a negative example. Don’t try this at home.

      Good grief, by dezn_98′s logic, All In The Family is racist.

      As for me pointing out, “broad brush strokes,” you were the one claiming that dezn_98 was nuanced. I was pointing out the indications that he/she was nothing of the kind.

      [*]Think about it. Do “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” and “sensitivity to Orientals” even belong in the same sentence?

  19. says

    I am Asian American (and also white, I noticed you worded the post as if they are mutually exclusive), and I’m not particularly bothered by the tweet. I appreciate that there are problems with “ironic racism”, but don’t take it as a general principle that it is wrong. That said, if someone felt it was racist or hurtful, that is within my personal Overton window, and I accept it as a reasonable position. I’m not sure that this is so much because I’m accepting of views that are very different from my own; I think, rather, it comes from my own ambivalence.

    On a somewhat related note, I have been thinking lately about allies and anger. For example, when white people get really angry over Colbert’s racism towards Asians. Or a million similar situations. Anger among allies seems to be encouraged in general, but I know many people who consider it very iffy. One day I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

    • says

      Anger among allies seems to be encouraged in general, but I know many people who consider it very iffy. One day I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

      The usual criticism, I think, is that allies are just being angry to show how anti-sexist/-racist/etc they are and to get Ally Cookies, not because they are genuinely angry or whatever. I definitely think this happens sometimes, but I’m uncomfortable speculating about any individual person’s internal motivations without evidence.

      Something I’ve talked about on Facebook before (so not public) is how sometimes allies get really angry and hurl insults at people on the other side and end up making it a lot harder for the marginalized group, because their voices, already amplified by their privilege, are thus even louder and speak over the people actually impacted. This is why I’m always having to defend against “Yeah well that one feminist dude totally called me a bunch of names.”

      In this particular case, I don’t know that I personally saw a lot of angry white allies. I heard about the story through Suey Park on Twitter, and the other people posting about it in my Twitter feed were various people of color. I’m not angry, personally, because I don’t personally find the tweet offensive. But I’m upset at the way the people who are angry about it have been treated. Suey’s Twitter mentions are not a happy place to be right now. :(

      I’m not sure how to talk about racial privilege without in some way distinguishing between those who have it and those who don’t, hence the distinction between white people and, in this case, Asian Americans. But if you have an idea for how I could discuss it without making those categories seem mutually exclusive, please do let me know.

      • says

        Yeah, I’m not sure that the angry allies pertains so much to this particular issue, it’s just something I had been thinking about lately (mainly in the context of people criticizing “call-out” culture). I didn’t actually see an excess of angry white allies.

        I’m not sure you need to adjust the way you refer to Asian people and non-Asian White people. I understood what you meant, and I think I might have done the same thing in my own comment? I think “white” just has polysemous meanings of “partially white” and “fully white”.

        Sorry, not sure if my previous comment had much of a point–I was really sleepy when I said it. But thank you for your response.

  20. leni says

    Colbert was right to make fun of it. He was right to call it out for what it is: the basest idiocy we can imagine with words still usable on a network television show.

    As a passive recipient of that joke, at no point did it even occur to me that Asians were even the butt of it. That joke was a full-on mockery of the stupid shit that white people do. It didn’t make Asians look bad, it made Anglos look bad.Or maybe even worse.

  21. freemage says

    This is… ugh.

    Colbert’s joke was poorly done. Satire is a weapon, and this was a wide swing in a crowded room. It’s a bad idea, likely to cause collateral damage, and if you do it because you aren’t thinking, you should apologize afterward.

    The Tweet, then, was like tossing a double-handful of knives into the same crowded room and being surprised that you hit more people you allegedly weren’t intending on stabbing. Collateral damage abounds there, and Colbert should at least be critical of Comedy Central for the whole “verified account” thing.

    I don’t think the hashtag was well-chosen. By staking out the extreme position (Cancelling the show), Suey Park gave Colbert and Comedy Central to just dismiss this than if she’d pressed for an acknowledgement and an apology–but Twitter’s a lousy format for that kind of nuance. This was made worse when she didn’t immediately repudiate some of her more prominent supporters–Malkin being among the most odious.

    After that, I think a lot of folks who decided to jump on the bandwagon had… less than sincere motives. Not everyone, or even a majority. But I have no small doubt that many of the media talking heads, especially those from Fox News, were delighted to see Colbert take some heat, simply because he has, in the past, done such a magnificent job of skewering them. Of course, if I’m going to suggest that Suey Park was overreaching, then I have to also acknowledge that Colbert and Comedy Central created this opening for his conservative targets to jab at him.

    Finally, though: Everyone who sent Suey Park a hateful, racist, misogynistic jab these past few days? I wish there was a Hell I could wish them to go to.

    *****

    A bit on the word “Ally”:

    Look at the term’s more common usage–one nation allies with another in a struggle. The U.S., for instance, is an ally of Israel. There are times, however, when the U.S. must act on its own interests, first–even if it means Israel has difficulties that arise from those actions. However, in those situations, the U.S. cannot claim to be acting as an ally; it’s moved to the realm of self-interest. Ultimately, the final arbiter of whether or not the U.S. is acting as an ally to Israel is… Israel.

    Similarly, while I try to be a solid ally (I’m almost painfully privileged–give me money and restore my faith and I’d be next to Colbert himself), sometimes I just can’t manage it, or I screw up despite my best intentions. (I’m still working on ablist language, for instance–it’s so damned easy to slip into when I’m in an emotional debate on some other SJ issue). Sometimes it’s carelessness; other times it’s an unchecked prejudice that I didn’t even realize I was still carrying around. Regardless, the people who can make the best judge of whether or not my current efforts mark me as an ally are those in the group I’m trying to claim alliance towards. The final call will come after I’m dead; if the people in the oppressed groups I’d like to see less oppressed feel I was on their side, then I’ll have been a good ally; if not, then I failed despite my intentions–and I can’t say that that’s somehow not their call to make.

  22. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Just wanted to say thanks for this great post. It’s the best explanation for why just-a-joke/you-don’t-get-satire etc., is a lame response to people finding something offensive. I’ve been very surprised that so many friends and fellow commenters (who are usually careful about potentially offensive jokes and mindful of their privilege) are coming out of the woodwork to defend Colbert and take shots at anyone who suggests that the tweet was in poor taste. Even among well-meaning, educated, politically-active people this has turned out to expose a pretty big blind spot.

    I used to be the type who told all manner of “edgy” jokes and would be the first to ridicule anyone who questioned my taste. I’ve since learned that nobody gets to define when others should/shouldn’t take offense (If somebody takes offense, it WAS offensive) and when somebody does, the best practice is to shut up and listen, try to understand their perspective, apologize and try to do better going forward. Thanks again for the well-written post.

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