I don’t think I even need to describe the chaotic spectacle that happened last week when #CancelColbert started trending on Twitter. If you’re active on social media or you read blogs or maybe you watch The Colbert Report on a regular basis, then you might already be familiar with the unfortunate events that have been occurring due to a out-of-context tweet delivered by the @ColbertReport Twitter account, which has been deleted. What started as a misguided satirical joke, ultimately opened up pandora’s box for online organizers and hashtag activists to flood Twitter with their thoughts on Asian American activism, white savior politics, and on using POCs as the butt of jokes.
I’m going to spare you the long-winded and confusing details of how this whole debacle started because you can read it on so many different venues already. And that’s just a short list of what’s been published by both mainstream and independent media outlets. Activist and writer, Suey Park, well known for her work behind #NotYourAsianSidekick, which I’ve previously written about here as well, was again behind the #CancelColbert hashtag phenomenon. What started out as a call to action for Twitter followers to recognize the out-of-context Tweet from the @ColbertReport account, turned into a heavy and often times problematic discussion of racism and satire.
What fascinated me the most was not necessarily the core issue that Colbert was trying to make a satirical joke about (which started with the Washington Redskins name and led to a, what I think, as a bad comparison to his running joke of the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”) but rather, the discussion that arose from the #CancelColbert hashtag. 23-year-old Korean American activist, Suey Park, made it clear in her tweets and in interviews afterwards, that the intention was never to literally call for a cancellation of the Colbert Report, but rather to emphasize the very idea that satire isn’t the most helpful form of activism. Several articles have debated about Park’s intentions behind the hashtag, but I believe this is counterproductive.
It’s no secret that Asians and Asian Americans have long been the butt of jokes, and continue to be due to our complacency and unwillingness to interrupt oppression as it is occurring. When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, and away from the comfort of my multiracial neighborhood in Southern California, I can’t tell you how many times I heard racist jokes hurled at me with the expectation that I just be OK with it because, of course, no offense, right? Satire! This is what Park touches on behind #CancelColbert – that the liberal white person has had a pass on racism because they: voted for Obama, have had authentic Asian food at PF Changs, have a sanskrit tattoo and oh the list goes on.
Which leads me to the discussion that took place on HuffPost Live with host Josh Zepps and a panel of POC activists and writers, in response to #CancelColbert. From that discussion, a key point to recognize is the white liberals failure to understand the oppression of POCS. Case and point: Host Josh Zepps reveals that he is a gay Jew and that he has experienced oppression in ways that gay Jews would, and that he “doesn’t throw his ethnicity or sexuality into conversations usually because victimization isn’t (his) primary way of directing in the world”. Ok so a point here, that I think some white liberals may miss with racial justice issues is that unfortunately, white privilege is a power that you will always have in this society. Unlike with POCs where, we can NEVER understand how it feels to be white and to have that specific type of privilege. Sure there are areas where POCs can gain class privilege, sexuality, gender, age, ability and so forth – but white privilege, is a privilege that can never truly be obtained for POCs.
But I digress; my main point here is this: no one’s winning this #CancelColbert debate. Suey Park and her followers have been regarded as divisive within the Asian American community, with a newer hashtag that sprang up #BuildDontBurn in a attempt to try and bring the community back together and to shift the focus back on issues that will advance APIs. However, in response to the #BuildDontBurn hashtag, Park and several other activists struck back with tweets that showed how the API community is working with mainstream liberal white activists, attempting to demonstrate that change cannot be enacted if we are working with those who oppress us.
I myself don’t have a particular stance with #CancelColbert because it became such a hot mess that the main focus of the conversation, Native American representation, became lost in the midst of the chaos. I’m still a firm believer in hashtag activism though, mainly because I’ve seen amazing things happen around the world due to platforms like Twitter. We need to remember and acknowledge that it’s necessary, in order to agitate and make noise, to meet the general public where they are at. Sure, Twitter is not the ideal platform for everything politically and socially conscious, but it’s a great place to start. And Suey Park just so happens to be really good at agitating. I ain’t mad at her though because, honestly, the API activist community has been complacent for way too long.