#CancelColbert? Beyond Dichotomies

When something that we like, something that is usually in line with our "progressive" sentiments, reveals that the ethics of race and racism aren't as tidy as we had assumed, that structure begins to crumble. We become defensive.
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Co-authored by Jenny Heijun Wills

Almost immediately after Suey Park started the hashtag #CancelColbert, the issue went viral. We checked out the video of the Colbert bit to see what the big deal was about. We actually found it pretty funny, and did not think much about the issue after that. A few hours later we revisited the hashtag and saw that, along with the predictable "you don't get that it's a satire, it's not him, it's a character he using to satirize a stupid racist bigot" (oh, thank you for clearing that up), there were astoundingly vicious, violent death wishes, threats of rape, hate speech all aimed at Park. It was then that we began to think about this more carefully. Park had, inadvertently it seemed, tapped into something that made her initial gesture more meaningful and important than it appeared at first.

The vast majority of Park's "critics" seem to be white liberals. The pervasive undertone of their tweets is "you can't criticize one of ours, especially one of ours who is doing you guys a favor." We'll admit that Colbert has been very sharp, very good about calling out racism and bigotry. In fact, he offers one of the very few voices out there to do so. He acknowledges racial inequality where so many of his counterparts avoid the topic altogether. But that doesn't mean that he can't be criticized at times, and the defensiveness of his supporters points to a general defensiveness they take on themselves. This is what separates liberals from radicals. The radical position would accept and even encourage a deep look into tactics for the sake of a specific political goal. If we are to be anti-racist in a serious way, we need to be open to self-critique. Instead, the bulk of the critics of #CancelColbert seem to be simply making simple and predictable points without pausing to consider how this criticism of the skit could possibly have any merit, or what might motivate it besides just anti-white racism. They trot out the perennial charge of "reverse racism" against minorities who complain about white racism, a charge that conveniently obviates any consideration of issues of power or scale or history. And in this instance, they tell us we lack a sense of humor. Well, let's examine the context for this comedic event.

As others have pointed out, there is something eerie about one rich white guy using his media platform to satirize another rich white guy for his racism against one minority group, using another minority group as fodder. What's the problem? Well, one is that minorities are reduced to simply objects. The drama of racist/anti-racist is carried out on our behalf, and we are the props in both cases. Maybe a good first step would be for Colbert to invite Suey Park onto his show and, for once, give his guest a chance to actually complete more than a few sentences.

Aside from the actual bit, and turning back to the Park-bashing ongoing on Twitter, the issue as we see it is that many of these "critics" of Park's actions see racism as dichotomous -- someone or something is either racist or not. This is because certain strains of liberalism are predicated on the self-congratulatory gesture of naming others as "bad racists," "bad sexists," et cetera, and thereby diverting attention from less obvious, and more subtle, forms of racism that are nonetheless potent, for they tap into the deep well of racist history that this country is still trying to deal with. When something that we like, something that is usually in line with our "progressive" sentiments, reveals that the ethics of race and racism aren't as tidy as we had assumed, that structure begins to crumble. We become defensive.

To grant someone moral immunity on the grounds that what they were doing was merely a satirical performance means that if they did not "mean" to be racist, they are not. The accusation is not that Colbert is a racist, it is that the skit displayed racism even in seeming to criticize it in someone else. But maybe the greater danger here is that satire is permitting and perpetuating this "good non-racists" v. "bad racists" dichotomy that lets people off the hook from thinking about these issues in meaningful and productive ways. Thinking about race solely through laughing at an ironic performance of a bad racist via satire allows us to sidestep conversations about race beyond those simple categories.

In the case of Stephen Colbert, we are able to compartmentalize even more on the grounds that this figure is a deliberately hyperbolic fictional character. There is little room (or need) to discuss the subtle, nuanced, and institutionalized ways that racism pervades in our societies. We just dismiss his character as a "bad racist," congratulate ourselves on being "good non-racists," and find comfort in the narrative that allows us to easily understand our positions. So yes, we get that it was satire... but that is part of the problem.

This is evidenced by the fact that Park, herself, is being labelled a "racist" on account of her actions. It reveals just how reductive our thinking about race has become and, frankly, just how much weight this term has gained. That "racist" is deployed as a weapon against people who are clearly trying to think through the nuances of race and identity is not just ironic, it also bespeaks the deep anxiety (and defensiveness) that, in this particular situation, those who are lashing out at Suey Park feel over this label.

To work through issues of anti-racism, we have to acknowledge our privilege and take into account that certain people profit from the historical legacy of racism. This liberal sentiment of pointing to the "bad racists" is a way of producing our own indemnity so that we do not have to acknowledge our own accountability and that we benefit from a continuing history of racial privilege. To be self-critical is not to comfortably locate ourselves outside of "race thinking" -- but to point out the fact that we are all embedded in it regardless of our best intentions. The answer is not to retreat into self-congratulatory postures while scapegoating those who are trying to say we have not reached the goal of understanding race, not just yet. Stephen Colbert has been instrumental in keeping us aware of the many ways racism contaminates our thinking; we believe Suey Park, and others, are engaged in the same project.

Jenny Wills is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Winnipeg. Her teaching focuses on Asian American and African American literature and culture. Her research draws on Asian adoption narratives, black slave narratives, origins stories, and biologism.

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