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Cancelling Colbert

| Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I’m an Asian-American and, like many Notre Dame students, an avid fan of “The Colbert Report.” Instinctually, I dismissed the “#CancelColbert” fiasco with contempt. The trending hashtag was a reaction to a tweet from the @ColbertReport account (now terminated) that referenced a line from the episode taken out of context. In the actual segment, Colbert satirized how Washington Redskin’s owner Dan Snyder erroneously named his organization “Washington Redskins for Original Americans” by fabricating his own organization, the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The tweet only showed the latter name. Even out of context, the name of Colbert’s fake organization was a spot-on articulation of a white man misguidedly asserting his benevolent superiority. “Oriental” is an archaic term, just as offensive as “ching-chong.” Pretty sure the writers knew that, and were making fun of Dan Synder, not Asians.

Still, #CancelColbert brings attention to a more insidious kind of micro aggression. I grew up in very diverse Orange County areas and made race jokes often and openly. Many of us did. It wasn’t until I matured in my later college years when I realized imitating racism was a very problematic way of recognizing racism. I laughed along with racial stereotypes under the assumption that I was “allowed to” because I was a minority and knew the difference. As a Korean-American, I especially felt permitted to mention Asian stereotypes in everyday conversations. Soon enough my friends, of all ethnicities, openly made jokes that targeted Asians and Asian-Americans around me because, come on, we’re not actually racist. We saw someone like Suey Park, the activist behind #CancelColbert, as someone who just really didn’t get it.

Just as the @ColbertReport tweet provided a limited view of the show’s humor, #CancelColbert is a simplistic label on a larger concern. In The New Yorker article “The Campaign to ‘Cancel’ Colbert,” prominent Asian-American writer Jay Caspian Kang interviewed Asian-American activist Park even though he did not support the hashtag. Finding that Park had an issue with exceptionalist attitudes instead of with Colbert, Kang admits “like Park, I have seen how quickly a presumed collegiality can turn into a mocking, almost threatening, tone whenever I stray from the assumed consensus that we all hate ‘worse racists,’ Fox News and gun nuts. Like Park, I have always assumed — again, fairly or not, that white liberals believe that as a person of color, I owe a debt of gratitude to the generations of well-intentioned white people who have fought hard for my right to write for prestigious publications.”

The U.S. Census Bureau recognized “Asian” and “Pacific Islander “ as ethnicities relatively recently, the former in 1990 and the latter in 2000. Again and again, the Asian-American populace is still demeaned as a novelty, an “other,” gaining prominence because “well-intentioned white people” let them. An unfair generalization, but an experience nonetheless expressed by many Asian-Americans who reach a ceiling in the workplace despite their merits. Racist media portrayals from the past perpetuate the sentiment. Whether or not the majority is cultured or a conservative “gun nut,” there still seems to be an air of superiority and predominance over the minority. When a racist joke is said for the public, will anyone really be able to read (or care) about the person’s actual intentions and views?

Along with Park’s views, we need to understand #CancelColbert in context to everything that’s been concerning the Asian-American activist community. The hashtag, I think, is a reaction towards a culmination of micro aggressions. “Jimmy Kimmel” aired a segment where he asked some children: “America owes China a lot of money, how should we pay them back?” One child responded, “Kill everyone in China.” “Kimmel” received a significant amount of backlash for showing that response to the public, but not nearly the same amount of internet activism. The “Dads” sitcom premiered with a heavily stereotyped Asian schoolgirl character. “How I Met Your Mother” had that kung-fu parody episode. Although the hashtag is an inadequate and often misguided mode of communication, it indicates the existence of an Asian-American community that has little voice in mainstream media.

I really can’t imagine Colbert as someone who views any race as socially acceptable to victimize. But I also can’t imagine him mentioning slurs about a minority ethnicity regardless of the intention behind the slur. Kang pointed out how the backlash showed how “desperate” Asian-Americans were to discuss their own national identity. I don’t like the word “desperate,” but I think many saw “CancelColbert” as an opportunity to vocalize that, once again, the public views our race as fair game for slurs and discrimination. Racial stereotyping was once again shrugged away, neglected like the one-paragraph explanation of internment camps in high school textbooks.

Do I still think the hashtag was overblown and a bit ridiculous? Well, yeah. I wasn’t offended when I saw the tweet out of context or within Colbert’s actual segment. The satire seemed pretty clear. However, I do need to thank Suey Park’s hashtag fiasco for a hilarious response episode from “The Colbert Report.” Self-aware of his show character and the issue, Colbert celebrated his non-cancellation while explicitly discouraging his viewers from harassing Suey Park.

Of course, Colbert was also unafraid to satirize the movement that wished for the show’s demise. In classic “Report” fashion, Colbert called out the media and its attention on #CancelColbert, which inadvertently concealed the original commentary on Dan Synder’s lack of cultural sensitivity. Restating his actual intention, Colbert conjectured that “Twitter seems to be fine with” the Redskins Foundation for Original Americans ”because I haven’t seen sh** about that.” As an Asian-American who is also a fan of “The Colbert Report,” I could not have asked for a more enjoyable 30 minutes of television than watching one of my favorite comedians discuss the issues of unrecognized minorities with humor, insight and fairness.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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