#CancelColbert was the Twitter protest movement that spiked last week in response to an allegedly racially insensitive tweet made by the official account of The Colbert Report. That tweet was a relay of a joke Stephen Colbert made on his show, skewering Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for trying to counter criticism of the "Redskins" name--which many consider a slur--through his new Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Colbert demonstrated the absurdity of using offensive language in the group's very name by comparing it to an Asian-focused group called "The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever".
So when the anti-Colbert backlash arose, I paid it little attention, figuring this was another unfortunately-common-on-the-Internet incident of undue outrage being whipped up due to context unconsidered, or worse, willfully ignored in order to advance an agenda. Surely, anyone familiar with Colbert's work would not consider him a racist, and seeing the clip would no more lead a person to conclude he wished to denigrate Asians than reading "A Modest Proposal" might convince a person Jonathan Swift advocated cannibalism to keep the numbers of poor Irish in check. Further, I feared such unwarranted outrage would give ammunition to true bigots who often hide behind claims against an overzealous "P.C. (politically correct) police". A comment on one blog cheekily captured my fear: "This is why liberals can't have nice things."
The protest movement's backers soon coalesced around the narrative that they understood satire, but were against making Asians "collateral damage" to prove a point about racism. The ever-insightful Jay Caspian Kang wrote in the New Yorker, “If I were to predict which minority group the writers of a show like The Colbert Report would choose for an edgy, epithet-laden parody, I’d grimace and prepare myself for some joke about rice, karate, or broken English.” In Salon, Brittney Cooper wrote "If Colbert had used the N-word instead to prove his point about Natives, we would have been outraged." Now that this episode had revealed the different standards our society has for treating different groups, my attention was piqued.
The uproar showed mainstream America is not particularly sensitive to potentially offending Native Americans, but with other groups there is much more caution. I concur with the #CancelColbert folks that it is impossible to conceive that such a joke would have ever been made about blacks. Nor do I suspect Colbert and his largely liberal audience would go for that joke about Arabs or people of Muslim descent, given the contemporary Islamophobia of the extreme right-wing in this country. Asians, on the other hand, stereotyped as academically and professionally successful, make a safer target.
Where I differ vehemently from Colbert's critics is the lesson to be learned. Whereas they want to protect Asians from being exposed to insulting language, I feel that marking off certain words as "taboo" gives bigots a powerful tool they do not deserve to have. Far better to defuse those of their loaded significance instead. I once argued with two dear Asian-American friends after watching Gran Torino that "slant-eyed" was only a "dehumanizing" term (as one of them characterized it) still if they really believed that was a negative characteristic to possess, as opposed to the natural appearance of literally billions of people.1 Meanwhile, "nigger" is rightly considered a horrifying and filthy word, given America's shameful history of slavery and oppression of blacks. But constantly euphemistically referring to "the N-word",2 while maintaining that the word can be reclaimed positively as "nigga" or celebrated in rap music--but only by blacks--is not logically sound. It keeps the word ultra-controversial and divisive, allowing it to scandalize and continue to cause hurt, rather than it just being seen as an ugly vestige of a less-enlightened past.
The only way to change this, and move on to a better, "post-racial" society is to see these taboo words as stupid, not destructive. One of my favorite quotes from my favorite TV show of all-time, The Wire, is "You cannot lose if you do not play." Applied here, that means, you will not be victimized if you do not allow yourself to be hurt by idiotic, antiquated bigotry. Every right-minded person knows that race -- or gender, or sexuality -- is a construct that has no importance when it comes to a person's worth as an individual and their capabilities. Did someone call you a "turbanhead" or make monkey noises or crudely refer to your sexual preference? Demeaning words and slurs lose their power if you do not let them affect you, if you see them as outdated relics of a backward society, if you see people who use them are sad and desperate. In short, don't feel like a victim. And let's save our outrage for the still innumerable instances of real bigotry -- codified discrimination, conscious and unconscious biases, even physical violence -- that hurt people whether or not they choose to feel hurt by it.
1. In a previous blog post, I noted how I saw while living in Peru people with traditionally Asian features are routinely referred to as chinos or chinas or having "Chinese eyes", with no offense intended nor taken.
2. As Louis C.K. has brilliantly pointed out, "When you say 'the N-word' you put the word 'nigger' in the listener's head. that's what saying the word is... Don't hide behind the first letter!"