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.


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:



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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  • If I’m not mistaken, I think he was poking fun at the absurdity of the whole situation with the Redskins, ’cause Dan Snyder decided to create the Redskins Original Americans Foundation, as a way to get people to stop demanding he rename the team. He doesn’t realize that it’s kinda effed up to include the slur in the name of his charity.

    So, Colbert’s satirical tweet was just showing the absurdity of the situation through another lens. I think it was kinda supposed to be racist to show that what Snyder is doing is the same thing. That’s my take, at least.

  • Yeah, I just edited the post with the context. My problem is that the tweet lacks the satirical context, so it becomes an example of bad satire that IMO falls into the realm of hatespeech.

  • Kai

    I understand your point, but complaining that a TWEET lacks context is like saying that a text message lacks citations. Tweets by the nature cannot have context, which is my biggest problem with Twitter and rapid communication. But I agree with the comment above. The tweet was meant to be racist, on purpose, in order to show Dan Snyder’s own racist hypocrisy.. Isn’t satire all about becoming and embodying what it is you’re lampooning? The tweet seems pretty consistent with how Colbert operates.

  • Keith

    He should have just stuck to satirizing the situation with Dan Snyder, no need to insult an entire group of people unrelated to the situation to make a point.

  • Hey Kai,

    Thanks for your comment, and in context, I actually agree with you that of the three examples I cited of anti-Asian humour appearing on his show, this is the one that is “best”; i.e., the parallel is well-made, the satire is clear, and yes it is funny. Like I said, I think Colbert is — and remains — the best satirist of our time, and he should and does understand his craft well enough to know that context is critical for this brand of comedy to work.

    But, I disagree with the premise that because of the medium of Twitter, the criteria needed to construct good satire can relax. Twitter is a brief medium, but this isn’t like tweeting something without citations, it’s like tweeting 2/3rds of a sentence and then getting mad when people misunderstand the sentence because they missed the first clause. There are ways to satirize on Twitter (although I agree it is much harder) but he could have done it. Hell, at the very least he could have lopped off the last “And Whatever” of the quote and hash-tagged it “#Redskins” or “#RedskinsFoundation”. It may seem somewhat pedantic to have to do it, but it lessens the onus on the target of his humour — in this case Asians — to do the research and mental acrobatics needed to excuse and rationalize slurs against their person.

    To me, the tweet is appropriately treated as somewhat standalone, precisely because it can be, and is encouraged by the medium to be, shared explicitly in the absence of context. And without context, satire becomes the exact thing it aims to satirize.

    Like I said in the post, I’m not in the actual “we need to cancel Colbert” camp; I think that’s a little reactionary, and definitely think it hilarious that notoriously anti-Asian Republican shills like Malkin are sounding that particular charge. I think, typically, Colbert’s work is very good, and has even improved over the years. But I do think that the urge to excuse Colbert in this case is a bad one, because this is a clear example of Colbert missing the mark in his craft. I say this as a huge Colbert fan, but in this one, the appropriate response was to retract the tweet, to revisit his policy about tweeting out-of-context quotes from his show, and, ideally, to issue some sort of apology.

  • Uyen

    Hey, thanks for this post and putting the whole thing in context. I’ve been reading the hashtags in my timelime but didn’t know the whole story. A bit unrelated, but what are your thoughts about spelling the “R” word in your post with an asterisk instead of the “e”, or just typing “R word”?

  • williambwest

    He didn’t issue an apology ’cause it wasn’t his account. That particular account is run by Comedy Central. There’s more info here

  • NotSuey

    I always thought the term ‘Orientals’ was a racist term as well, and was surprised when Suey used that same term on the HuffPo interview where she made a fool of herself.

  • You’re welcome, Uyen! Glad you found the post useful.

    Regarding the “r-word”, or the “n-word”, etc. I actually personally take a libertarian stance towards slurs: I don’t fundamentally believe in outright banning of words because I think language is critical in the shaping of thought, and that academic dialogue requires the use of language. So, for example, exploration of the use of the “n-word” requires that you be able to say it. So I’ve generally not gotten down with campaigns to just outright ban words in their every instance; there are several legitimate — typically academic — reasons one might want to refer to a slur without censoring it. In this case, I think it is important to use the full spelling of Redskins, because it is an academic usage to talk about where the slur is problematic. I think the fight over the sports team should not be about banning the word in all uses, but focusing on how a racial slur is a not an appropriate name for a sports team.

    That being said, I have to weigh that outlook against my own personal, and emotional, unease with certain words. For the most part, I have little issue with spelling out full slurs referencing the Asian American community, because for me they are typically used academically — so “chink”, “Oriental”, etc. However, I have a personal discomfort with the n-word and some other slurs, so I typically never use them even within an academic context. I have specific issue with the n-word and have never used it, and I recognize that is a pretty arbitrary personal rule (however, if there were a sports team named the n-word, I would probably consider spelling it out); I am pretty much okay with spelling out virtually all other slurs when discussed in an academic context, because I think we are fighting a losing battle if we want to ban words even when discussing them academically.

    (Also, just to put it out there, I thought when you said “R-word” you were referring to “retard”, not “redskin” — so there is THAT issue, too, with full censorship.)

    @Will — yep, updated the post with that info too! Thanks! 🙂

  • @NotSuey

    She did? I am not following Suey’s work at the moment. Was the context “one of the slurs that is used against is ‘Orientals'”? Or “we, Orientals,…”?

    To be fair, the “slur-ness” of “Orientals” is regional. It’s virtually unused in the East, and yet appears to be relatively acceptable to some within the Asian American community in parts of the South and Southwest.

  • @NotSuey

    Just caught the Huff Po segment. I have lots of commentary, but virtually none of it belongs in the public domain. However, I don’t take issue with the use of “Oriental” in this context. As I said above to someone else, I think trying to ban words outright is a) a losing battle, and b) reinforces the idea that being racist vs. not racist is just a matter of checklist behaviours. It reinforces the idea that one doesn’t need to be thoughtful of one’s actions; if one just avoids certain words or viewpoints, one need not think about racism.

    I think referring to a word like “Oriental” in the context of “this is a slur that is used against us” is fine. I’m generally not really down with censorship of words; instead, I think we should focus on understanding the history of slurs, and reserving their (free) usage for academic contexts, not as a sports team name.

  • Allen

    i think the fact that the tweet originated from @ColbertReport should probably caution you to take the following 140 characters with a grain of salt, context or not.

  • @Allen

    Absolutely, but just because a person is a satirist, and just because a person is even trying to be satirical, does not give that person a free pass to say whatever the fuck they want. There is — always has been and always will be, by defition — a thin line between satire and the thing that the satire attempts to satirize. In this case, the tweet lacked context of what it was supposed to be satirizing, making it a shoddy example of satire even if Stephen Colbert were himself responsible for issuing it.

    And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to point out that communicating WHAT satire is trying to satirize is pretty critical to making a statement satirical.

  • crazy MMer

    I guess Sarah Silverman’s “I love the Chinks” statement is also cool as long it’s in the name of comedy, right?

    So let’s have some more jokes about white men being pedophiles and animal rapists.

    Also, what would the white mainstream media do about using slurs for the powerful groups of blacks, Latinos, LGBT, and Jews?

    Asians are always going to be on the losing side because of the apologists and sellouts.

  • Hey Jenn,

    As I pointed out on my blog (thanks for your comment, btw), I agree with the sentiment somewhat. I don’t think Asian Americans figure into the American consciousness much, and so some people aren’t going to get the satire, since they think it’s okay to say “ching chong.”

    But Colbert clearly was well-intentioned in all this. Personally attacking him–which is what Suey Park is doing by calling him racist–is not only wrong, but it also undermines the message that she is trying to convey.

    In my opinion, people need to stop throwing around the “racist” term lightly. It’s poisoning the much-needed dialogue in this country.

    That’s my two cents.


  • Hey Byron,

    Thanks for your comment! I think you and I agree that targeting Colbert here is absolutely wrong, and in my post, I’m pretty clear (I hope — the post ends up being a little disjointed as it got edited with new information coming in) that there should be no blame focused on Colbert. The full segment is clearly satirical; I don’t have to love the segment to think it’s an appropriate use of ethnic slurs to make a necessary political point about slurs.

    And I agree with you on attacking Colbert being unreasonable. Ms. Park has stated in an interview with Huff Po Live, and later on, that the intention of the hashtag was to create controversy, not to actually call for the on, cancelling of the show. She has argued that demanding something extreme and irrational calls for attention. I disagree with this approach on its face. I believe that as aggrieved minorities, if we actually want to enact positive social change, we need to agitate and protest, but in so doing build inescapably reasonable arguments to convince the mainstream of the validity of our cause. When we protest for voting rights, for an end to mass incarceration, for the end to police brutality, etc. we do so because we can win the argument on the merits.

    It makes no sense to me to protest to put forward an argument we don’t actually believe in.

    To, tl’dr: we agree here. 🙂 I agree with Ms. Park that the tweet — not Colbert’s bit — crossed the line from satire into racism. I believe a rational course of action would be to demand Comedy Central not tweet satirical segments out of context which could be reasonably mistaken for the hatespeech Colbert is satirizing. I do NOT agree with the rest of the strategy surrounding this particular hashtag.

  • The tweet did have an appropriate context. Its authorship is the context. The tweet contains its authorship. The authorship clearly refers to the TV program and is clearly used to present tiny excerpts of the program. The context of the program is the context of the tweet. The context and intentions of the tweet are clear. It’s possible that someone could read the tweet and not understand the context and misinterpret it, but that’s not the failure of the tweet, because the tweet does present the context. Your argument fails.

    And there is nothing remotely problematic about the bit in the show itself. It’s an effective use of satire to combat racism by showing one ridiculous stereotype is similar to another ridiculous stereotype. The fact that both stereotypes have been very harmful doesn’t invalidate a comparison to each other.

  • ************
    @Jenn: “if we actually want to enact positive social change, we need to agitate and protest, but in so doing build inescapably reasonable arguments to convince the mainstream of the validity of our cause. When we protest for voting rights, for an end to mass incarceration, for the end to police brutality, etc. we do so because we can win the argument on the merits.

    It makes no sense to me to protest to put forward an argument we don’t actually believe in.”

    YES! This is awesome and well-stated. This is the crux of the whole episode..

  • @Otis

    I disagree. When the tweet provides neither a link to the full segment, nor indication that the tweet is an excerpt from the segment, the simple fact that it comes from the CR account does not provide sufficient context of the full joke to explain or excuse the use of a racist trope and slur. It’s a punchline without a joke. Satire is a highly contextual form of humour; it (more than any other genre of comedy) requires context to render it satirical.

    As I said, the full satirical segment does not bother me because the punchline arrives fully contextualized. The tweet lacks the context on its face, and further lacks any reference TO the context so that confused followers can go find the full context. This isn’t the fault of the reader, this is the fault of the poor Comedy Central intern at the heart of this controversy. Tweets are — by definition of the medium — stand-alone microblogs. It is not unreasonable to find this tweet problematic because when filtered through the medium of Twitter it necessarily loses its context.

    And incidentally, you may find my argument lacking. But it is an argument that swayed the host and star of the Colbert Report show (who I think you and I can both agree is a talented satirist), so I don’t think it comes wholly without merit.

  • YES! This is awesome and well-stated. This is the crux of the whole episode..

    Thanks. That is the crux of my position on #CancelColbert. I fully agree with the decision to stop tweeting context-less punchlines from the show, because this is only going to serve as a breeding ground for misunderstanding while diluting (and even completely undermining) the humour of the show. But I disagree with the assertion that Colbert should be cancelled for producing satire that points out contemporary racism because he uses satire. Satire is, in my mind, a perfectly acceptable and often highly effective tool for pointing out social iniquity.

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  • jo blakely

    You might be interested in this podcast. Malcolm Gladwell discusses how what Colbert does isn’t satire at all, and in fact he is thought of by both left and right as ‘their’ guy.