#CancelColbert Highlights The Real Problem With Racial Slurs And Comedy: Word Choice

Using words like "Ching-Chong" on a parody show sends the message that slurs like this are all in good fun. But in a world in which racism still exists, these comments are not categorically funny in the same way other satire is.
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After various Internet camps circled their wagons in response to the #CancelColbert campaign, everyone's favorite incisive pundit himself called upon people during Monday night's show to stop the pointed racist and misogynistic comments. And for good reason.

"Now all of this was started by a hashtag activist, or hash-tivist, who has been viciously attacked on Twitter. If anyone is doing that for me, I want you to stop right now," Colbert implored. "She's just speaking her mind, and that's what Twitter's for, as well as ruining the ending of every show I haven't seen yet."

The crib sheet context goes like this: The "Colbert Report" show took a jab at Washington Redkins owner Dan Snyder's foundation to help Native Americans. The charity is his feeble attempt at atonement for his team name, which American Indian activists have long asked him to change. To demonstrate the futility of Snyder's gesture, the corporate-controlled "Colbert Report" account, which has since been deleted, tweeted a version of the show's joke, drawing a parallel to Asians to demonstrate the wrongness.

"I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

This prompted Suey Park, an activist who's No. 12 in The Guardian's list of the "top 30 young people in digital media," to launch the #CancelColbert hashtag.

Because really, spoofy racism shouldn't really be a thing. The problem was that in mocking Snyder, the joke was also mocking Asians. Satire should cut to the core of the issue, but it shouldn't be hurtful to those who are the subject. The reductive argument has been that people speaking out don't understand satire. I think we very clearly get the joke, but it's not that funny when the words chosen are pretty painful.

Using words like "Ching-Chong" on a parody show can send the message that slurs like this are all in good fun. Zingers on the "Colbert Report" that lampoon public figures like the Koch brothers, Donald Trump, Anthony Weiner and others are par for the course. But in a world in which racism still exists, racial slurs are not categorically funny in the same way.

Because once Colbert's character heads home each night, we still exist in a world where ignorance, hatred and ostracizing behavior are very real -- in this case, popping up in places like YouTube and Reddit and taking aim mainly at Park:

The problem with the "Colbert Report" joke is that when you use language rooted in oppression, it feels oppressive whether it was meant to be funny or not.

These aren't things that keep me up at night, but hearing words like "ching chong ding dong" will always feel like a punch to the gut at that moment. Those words can sting because it's a taunt I've experienced countless times growing up in all-white communities. Like on the playground, when people would call me Chinese and ask me if my face was flat because my parents hit me over the face with a frying pan. Or just last night on an express train in Manhattan, when some stumbling dudebro who got too drunk at a West Village happy hour plopped down next to me on the train and managed to slur: "I love Chinese girls." Or a month ago, when someone called my friend and me "fu*king cheap Chinese" because we were digging for change to pay for something in a line. For one thing, I'm freaking Korean.

Using stereotypical pejorative language reminds a minority group that they are part of an ethnicity that has traditionally been deemed second-rate citizens and ostracized for a number of reasons. That's pretty objectively offensive.

The #CancelColbert issue became even more tenuous after Park and HuffPost's Josh Zepps had it out for all the Internets to see.

I think by now, many people agree Zepps shouldn't have called Park's opinion "stupid," and Park was overly quick to blame "the white man."

The real issue here is that it's not just white men who are to blame -- but rather anyone who is not part of the group being subjugated. Satire should dig deep to the core of the issue, but not at the expense of those who are on the receiving end. And if you're not part of the group -- whether we're talking black, Jewish, Hispanic or Asian -- it's not up to you to say whether said group can feel that it's hurtful.

There are just certain words, because they're rife with painful history and emotion, that shouldn't be used. I don't think the "ching chong" situation can be compared to use of the N-word, but the argument is similar, encapsulated in this anecdote:

Rush Limbaugh was derided in 2011 for using the phrase "ching chong" to impersonate Chinese president Hu Jintao during a visit to the White House in 2011:

"Hu Jintao -- He was speaking and they weren't translating. They normally translate every couple of words. Hu Jintao was just going ching chong, ching chong cha," Limbaugh said on his show.

Representative Judy Chu of California said in response that Limbaugh's words conjured up memories of the past 150 years for Chinese people in America who faced racial discrimination while "they were called racial slurs, were spat upon in the streets, derided in the halls of Congress and even brutally murdered."

One thing is for sure: As detractors have pointed out about Suey Park's campaign -- in the same way you never want Michelle Malkin in your camp, nobody wants to be speaking the same language as Rush Limbaugh. Saying these very words just sounds ignorant and hateful.

And I don't think we can hide behind humor in this case.

Believe me, I get satire. I watch Colbert, Stewart, Fallon, Meyers and will extol the virtues of comedy as a palatable way to explore both the triumphs and tragedies of life. This Esquire piece, that calls comedians our modern-day prophets, perfectly sums it up:

"[Comedians] are truth tellers. They're teachers. Takers of liberty, givers of offense, their hostility is deliberate, their cruelty relentless -- freeing us to laugh at our weakness, pain, and rage."

But an offensive remark thinly veiled as satire and "truth" doesn't make it digestible. And as Suey Park sums up in her interview with Zepps, Asians are too often the punchline.

Asian-American students are bullied in schools much more than any other ethnic group, according to a study from AAPI Nexus. And as one commenter in the Washington Post wrote, perhaps this sends the message that compared to other minorities, Asians are a group so inconsequential that people think they can be picked on because they act more passively:

The discourse here is that Asian-Americans are so frequently the target of this kind of passive-aggressive satire. If Colbert had put on blackfaced and spoke in ebonics, he would have been fired, and the idiots at Deadspin definitely would not have written an article titled, "N***ers don't get Redskins joke." The problem with Colbert here is that he cowardly chose to mock a powerless group like Asians instead a powerful group likes blacks, Jews, or gays, because he thought he could do with impunity. The irony is that Asian-Americans are the minority group most similar to Native Americans in terms of political power and are also similarly subject to public mockery. Had Colbert and his writers had the courage to make the original joke about racism towards blacks, the satire would have worked better because they're a group that the public knows not to make fun of. Colbert's satire failed simply because racism against Asians is not any more taboo than racist against Native Americans in the scale of political correctness.

So Suey Park is saying she won't stand for that. And then people label her a cry baby and make death and rape threats against her. Here's a reminder: She's an activist and she stands for something, and it's her job to be in your face.

Overall, I don't think the "Colbert Report" or Comedy Central meant to ruffle any feathers, but the joke should never have existed either on the show nor in 140 characters.

The questions in dispute after the brouhaha still seem to be: "Though the joke was mocking the Redskins coach, was it also mocking Asians at the same time?" and "Have we accepted that since all liberals are presumably not racist, they can say whatever they want and call it satire?"

I'd say yes and yes, and that shouldn't be OK.

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