On Thursday the Twittersphere blew up over the “Cancel Colbert” hashtag started by “hashtag activist” Suey Park. The campaign was in response to a Colbert Report joke that was tweeted out of context from the Comedy Central promotional account (not affiliated with Stephen Colbert).
The offensive tweet (now deleted) was the punch-line Colbert used to demonstrate the ridiculousness of Daniel Snyder’s real-life “The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” For any who don’t know, “redskins” is a slur for Native Americans.
The joke aired on the Wednesday night show, but the outrage did not surface till the offending tweet was published the following day. The hashtag sought to promote conversation of “safe racism” (would this be debatable if he had used the N-word?), and the tendency of white comedians and white activists to hide their racist remarks/tendencies under the Progressive label.
Long story short, as the hashtag gained popularity, the conversation derailed into: “Don’t you understand satire?” “Yes, I know satire!” “Stop being sensitive!” “Stop defending racists!” And the always expected death/rape/go-kill-yourself threats otherwise known as the “dark matter” of the internet. (Ok, so I made that up… still fits.)
Amongst the back-and-forth tweets between the pro-hashtag and anti-hashtag camps very few gems of criticism were available.
When this ends, there really won’t be much of a concrete pay-off in terms of this battle, so everyone seems to be scrambling to find a “take-away”. (If you think smart, successful, and riskier activists such as MLK didn’t pick and plan their battles you need to watch the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”)
Some look at the practicality of “hashtag activism” (and yes, I personally do separate hashtag and “click” activism from activism), some comment on how to conduct yourself in a twitter debate, some comment on the effect of in-fighting for larger movements, and some wonder whether all voices should be equally heard in a debate (I don’t take kindly to white tears either), or what it means to have Michelle “pro-Asian internment camps” Malkin as an ally, etc.
One problem that was overlooked was Stephen Colbert.
I’m saying this as a fan, who does not–as a woman of color, Muslim, non-American–get offended by his show. And for future reference, of course I mean the character not the man.
Colbert is a caricature of neo-con, conservative media. His show is a mirror to that of Bill O’Reilly’s on Fox News. He extends the assumptions, beliefs, actions, and talking points of conservatives to their logical extremes. When I laugh at his jokes, I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, they [conservatives] would totally say that! How stupid! How outdated!” etc. I’m exercising my sense of superiority.
For argument sake I’ll call this “White Conservative Caricature,” WCC for short (not to be confused with the White Citizens Council).
In demonstrating WCC there is inherently a problem: how do you approach the caricature of white conservative beliefs without drawing upon the ideas (or -isms) that have historically made up that identity?
In plain English, how can one play a racist without saying something racist? How can one play a sexist without saying something sexist? How can one pretend to be homophobic without saying something homophobic?
The history of conservative White America is not a pretty one. When taking on WCC you’re incorporating a history of colonialism and chattel-slavery, and more domestically: “Black Face,” “Yellow Face,” Cold War hysteria, McCarthyism, etc., frankly a lot of bad crap. (Please spare me the white tears, I know not all white history is bad.)
In Colbert’s case, it’s true that some instances have been more successful than others. For instance, when “defending” Bill O’Reilly’s racist remarks (about Asians), Colbert used “technical difficulties” and his lawyers as a moment to highlight key problems with stereotyping (even as a compliment), and Twitter did not explode.
Many have criticized that Colbert doesn’t walk the line between satire and oppression, he “tramples it” when it comes to topics such as transphobia.
The topic of “safe racism” fits well in this observation. It is safe to say that Colbert will probably never come out on set with black paint all over his face. Certain acts of racism will never be deemed acceptable in any context (though it doesn’t stop some from trying). This then begs the question for some groups who don’t have that level of “protection” why some acts of racism are always unacceptable and not all.
Ultimately one wonders if a character such as a WCC is always inherently harmful because of the history, privilege, and oppression it must draw upon.
I still enjoy the show, but #CancelColbert did succeed in making me think more about the toll a caricature like this may have on the oppressed peoples it tries to lift up through satire.