How Colbert Report’s “funny” tweet is actually really racist and anti-Asian; but no, we shouldn’t #CancelColbert

Stephen Colbert has carefully orchestrated a persona, and uses many forms of physical and verbal comedy to reinforce the exaggerated nature of his character. This suit, the eyebrow, the thumbs-up sign: they are careful exaggerations designed to both invoke and parody a very specific Fox News-esque persona.
Stephen Colbert just done screwed up.

Yowza.

So, I just got off the treadmill and checked into my Twitter, only to discover that Stephen Colbert — the only contemporary satiricist I’ve written as truly understanding the art of satire — apparently forgot the rules of his craft (Update: apparently it was some poor schlub at Comedy Central who doesn’t know these rules): satire is not a thin veil for your hatespeech.

Roughly two hours ago, Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) Comedy Central tweeted through Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report persona (@ColbertReport) the following tweet:

colbert-tweet

 

Wait, what?

The Chinese coolie in the American minstrel tradition.
The Chinese coolie as illustrated in the late nineteenth century.

Checking the Colbert Report Twitter feed, there is absolutely no context for this tweet.

Update: The tweet is part of a bit on the Redskins reportedly making a charitable foundation to offset the uproar over the clear problems with its team name. In the context of the full segment, I believe the satire is appropriate — if incredibly uncomfortable for me. However, I also believe that absent of explicit reference to what it is satirizing — adding #Redskins, or something — the tweet itself loses it satirical context and becomes wholly racist.

There’s a way to poke fun at the pseudo-racial tolerance of conservatives towards racial minorities — a ploy frequently used by those at Fox News and clearly something that Dan Snyder is invoking over at the Washington Redskins with his announcement of his charitable foundation.

This — a tweet that uses similar racial slurs in the absence of reference to Dan Snyder or the Redskins — is not it. In the absence of context, this tweet becomes straightforward anti-Asian racism.

First of all, “Orientals” is a racial slur. Period. End of sentence.

Second, “Ching Chong” pidgin Chinglish has been historically used since the nineteenth century as part of the American minstresly tradition to portray Asian immigrants of the era as slack-jawed, sub-human foreigners. Typically using yellowface or highly stylized imagery, American minstrel shows developed a stereotype of the “Johnny Chinaman” as pig-tailed, buck-toothed foreigners who ate cats, dogs and rodents while speaking “ching chong chang” gibberish.

The record cover of "Ching Chong" a1917 song about a character named Mr. Ching Chong arising out of the Tin Pan Alley repertoire.
The record cover of “Ching Chong” a1917 song about a character named Mr. Ching Chong arising out of the Tin Pan Alley repertoire.

In short, this tweet is racist. Not satirically racist. Just racist. Period. End of sentence.

This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the Colbert Report’s depiction of Asian Americans. Last year, I wrote about a segment that Colbert did on some anti-Asian statements made by Bill O’Reilly wherein Colbert, himself, basically spent several minutes making his own flurry of anti-Asian puns and jokes. And, in 2012, Colbert made this joke (as transcribed here):

Stephen Colbert: "Now folks, you are here on an historic night. The Report has been on the air almost seven years now and it has gone through a lot of changes. I mean, who could forget year one and my animated antigovernment sidekick, The Spends Too Much Chinaman. It was a different time. We can’t judge them."
Stephen Colbert: “Now folks, you are here on an historic night. The Report has been on the air almost seven years now and it has gone through a lot of changes. I mean, who could forget year one and my animated antigovernment sidekick, The Spends Too Much Chinaman. It was a different time. We can’t judge them.”

As I’ve said before and I apparently need to mark on my calendar to say every other Tuesday: satire is not an excuse for your hatespeech.

In this case, what Colbert is apparently attempting to demonstrate is the racism of the Redskins name by comparing it to archaic racist stereotypes of Asian Americans, which is a worthy and laudable goal, and one that is clear in the full segment.

However, the tweet appears in the absence of the satirical context, and runs the danger of perpetuating the very stereotypical images — in this case against Asians — that Colbert is satirizing regarding Native Americans. Thus, this tweet violates my rules of proper satire, which is that each example of the satire must make clear what it is you are satirizing, lest the satire be mistaken for actual hatespeech.  In the absence of this, it — the tweet — becomes indistinguishable from actual anti-Asian racism; particularly as it is re-tweeted and shared (again, in the absence of context), as tweets are wont to do.

The tweet has since been deleted, but not before sparking a world-wide trending hashtag, #CancelColbert, calling for an apology and, for some, the cancellation of his show.

(Incidentally, one of those calling for Comedy Central to cancel Colbert Report is GOP pundit Michelle Malkin (@MichelleMalkin). Frankly, I’d be more persuaded by Malkin’s sudden stance against anti-Asian hatespeech if she hadn’t once penned a book both defending and denying Japanese-American internment.)

Update:  Apparently the @ColbertReport account is run by Comedy Central, not the show itself. To that end, it is absolutely not appropriate to call for cancelling of the show. The full segment is not, itself, problematic; it is clear — if uncomfortable — satire (and probably the most appropriate use of anti-Asian tropes to make a point about racism that the show has used relative to the other kind of muddled segments I cite above). It doesn’t make sense to call for the cancelling of Colbert Report based on what will probably turn out to be the ill-considered actions of an underpaid Comedy Central intern.

Personally, I do not think that calls to “Cancel Colbert” are appropriate; they miss the point on why and where the tweet is offensive. I think the most appropriate request here is a rethinking of the network’s policy of tweeting out fragments of Colbert Report segments absent of satirical context.

And sadly, after the last 24h, I’ve watched the hash-tag devolve in Twitter and in mainstream news into a lot of rabid name-calling. Further, as it became clear that Stephen Colbert — a talented satirist — was not responsible for the tweet, nor were his staff, it makes absolutely no sense to cancel the show over this tweet. Either way, we’re missing an opportunity here to have a thoughtful, nuanced, and necessary conversation on race, racial humour, comedy, satire, and a really racist sports team name and mascot. Let’s please focus on that?

This post was updated on Friday, March 28 to reflect the fact that Comedy Central, not Stephen Colbert, controls the @ColbertReport Twitter account.

 

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