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.