On Ron Burgundy, #CancelColbert, and White Racial Satire

Today I finally saw Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. It was an okay-ish movie, I suppose. I certainly didn’t see anything spectacular enough to warrant the two-hour run time. Back for another go-round, loveable doofus Ron Burgundy rounded up his merry band of newsmen to begin broadcasting on the nation’s first 24-hour news channel. Some jokes were made, and I smirked here and there, but for the most part, the movie simply retread the same territory that was covered in the first film.

Ron Burgundy, as played by Will Ferrell, holds up his fist.
Black Power Is For White Men, Am I Right?

Except for Linda Jackson.

Linda Jackson, played by Megan Good, is Ron Burgundy’s new boss in the film. She is also black.

Much is made of Burgundy’s disbelief that he is in the presence of a black woman, and he uncontrollably repeats the word “black” several time upon first meeting her. The audience is meant to laugh. Later in the movie, after Ron and Linda have begun dating (because of course) she takes him to dinner with her family where he proceeds to heavily rely on racial stereotypes to “relate” to her family. When Linda asks what he’s doing, he says he’s “addressing the white elephant in the room.” Despite clear indications that he is offending them, Ron continues, and his antics culminate in a beat down that occurs off-screen. In the next scene Ron tells Linda that he thinks the night went well. When she points out that her family beat him up, he replies that he thought he was “being jumped into a gang. Only with dinner guests!”

You can probably tell that I didn’t find the scene to be particularly funny.

Ruminating on the movie, I was starkly reminded of the events of the last week concerning Suey Park and #CancelColbert, and the dozens of arguments that were made in defense of Colbert’s joke. When it was pointed out that invoking anti-Asian sentiments to defend Native Americans only served to engender more racial discord, (ironically, using a satirical hashtag that was itself meant to demonstrate that satire is often not an effective means of activism) Colbert’s defenders (and later Colbert himself) dismissively asserted that what Colbert said was meant as satire, that Colbert played a character that parodied things the Right would say in earnest, and that finding fault with the tasteless execution of his well-meaning sentiment in defense of Native Americans and against Dan Snyder demonstrated a lack of understanding of the concept of satire, and was a symptom of “rage addicted social justice warriors.”

And in watching the offending scene in Anchorman 2, I thought about why this particular brand of racial satire didn’t sit well with me. After all, I have watched The Colbert Report for years, and generally consider Stephen Colbert to be “one of the good guys.” This is not the first time he has invoked stereotypes to make a point about the ridiculous nature of some of the genuine positions held by conservative American lawmakers. Additionally, years of Family Guy has normalized white racial satire for me. It is certainly not a new concept.

But I realized that what bugged me about the execution of Ron Burgundy’s lines in that dinner scene was one of the same things that bugged me about Colbert’s joke. I was unsure of who the audience was meant to be. Who was supposed to be laughing here? Because it certainly didn’t feel like me.

“You clearly don’t understand satire!” is something that I heard a lot in the last few days. Colbert’s defenders insist that the very nature of satire is such that it swings into absurdity, effectively acting as a shield against consequences for offensive statements. “Satire is supposed to be ridiculous!” I was told, over and over and over again. When I asked how, in a structural sense, racial satire, differed from actual, racially offensive things, said in earnest, I once again heard the refrain “it’s satire!” and it was implied that the intent of the satirist trumped the actual impact of his words.

Well, as we say on the Internet: “Intent is not magical.”

Television personality Stephen Colbert

One of the things that makes satire so difficult to do successfully is that it takes not just a skilled satirist, but an audience who is knowingly complicit. In order for the satire to be effective, the audience must understand and appreciate the absurdity of the comments being made, or else they will be received in earnest. It takes a communion between comic and audience to collaborate in their understanding that a third, outside party is deserving of ridicule. That Colbert meant to be racially insensitive only in jest does not detract from the fact while he meant to target a man who deserved it, his offensive remarks made collateral damage of the Asian American community. In framing the joke in the manner that he did, he made it clear that his “solidarity” with minority communities was in fact, performative, and for a decidedly white audience. By dredging up racial slurs in an effort to make his point, Colbert effectively demonstrated that his goal was in fact, “white education” and that he was placing the Asian American community firmly outside of his purview.

What white liberals often forget is that “ironic racism” is still racism. Liberal racism, in many ways is even more insidious because of its complete denial of complicity in upholding white supremacy. White liberals are “allowed” to nickname their black friend “Token” because it’s “not really racist.” Everyone is in on the joke, so with a wink and a nudge, the same tired old racial tropes are trotted out time and again, but this time cloaked in an impenetrable shield known as “satire.”

But satire is not a defense against racism and never has been. And when it comes to racial satire’s place in comedy, especially when deployed by a white comic, deference must be paid to the effect it may have on minority groups. Racial satire can and has been done well, but as with all comedy, sometimes the joke fails. This time, Colbert’s did. As Dr. Brittney Cooper says, writing for Salon:

Look. I suspect Stephen Colbert is one of the good guys. I just don’t know what that has to do with whether he messed up in this instance. Liberal political commitments do not make one’s race politics above reproach, because such arguments traffic in the fallacy that racism only happens if it is intentional.

And as Suey Park herself points out a Salon interview published today:

[…] it’s Colbert that lacks context. It’s Colbert that doesn’t realize how he’s using racism as a vehicle to end racism, which is really just circular logic and doesn’t lead to an end destination of liberation, […]

Simply invoking satire does not make a racially insensitive statement any less harmful to the minority group that it targets. Because I can assure you that if someone called me a nigger to my face, then expected me to giggle along with them because it was “just a joke,” they will no longer be giggling when they find that I’ve given them cause to pick their teeth up of the pavement.

Despite America’s post-Obama, post-racial pipe dreams, we are still very much in a time of global white supremacy. Black men and boys are still being shot because the colour of their skin is seen as justifying suspicion. Asian women are still being disgustingly propositioned by misogynistic men who dream of dainty, submissive wives. Muslim men and women are still being unjustly attacked and discriminated against for imagined involvement in 9/11. And black women are still being told that their very existence typifies hypersexuality. We are not yet in a world where these realities are a mere relic of the past. They are not easily made light of. For minority people, racism is an active and everyday part of our lives. Every time it is attempted, racial satire threatens to pick at a wound that hasn’t quite begun healing. If it works, it can be a salve. If it fails, it is salt in the wound.

This is why sensitivity is so important. Racism can be and often is, unintentional. The role of white allies in a situation like this is not to double down on the offense, and dismiss the feelings of the minority person in question, but to examine their actions, apologize for the unintended slight, and be wary not to repeat the mistake in future. Too often, white liberals forget that their intent does not erase the visceral feelings of hurt, resentment and confusion that can accompany being racially slighted by someone you thought would know better. And in the case of Colbert, who along with his fans insist that his slight is defensible because it is in service of “education”, Black Girl Dangerous’s Mia Mackenzie challenges this too:

Do we really think folks who defend that team’s name despite of all the harm it’s caused to Native people are sensitive to the stereotyping of Asian people? You’re telling me these folks exist? And, you know what, even if they did, why is their “education-in-the-form-of-racist-jokes-that-are-satirical-so-it’s-okay” more important than the people we know for sure exist who are harmed by these jokes?

The fact is, part of enjoying Colbert’s entire act is being in on the joke. Finding his comedy entertaining mandates that you share his politics. Sharing his politics means that you already know how ridiculous Dan Snyder’s charity is and how offensive the slur “R*dskins” is to Native People. Knowing how offensive the slur is means that you don’t need comparative racism to have the point made for you. 

So to circle back to Ron Burgundy at dinner with Linda Jackson’s black family, who exactly is the audience here? Between Colbert’s joke and his reaction to the backlash, and the deployment of the Anchorman dinner scene, it feels very much like these kinds of racial satire setups are less about commenting on the absurdity of white supremacy (which effective racial satire would do) and more about creating an excuse for totally not racist white liberals to laugh at racial stereotypes while affording themselves plausible deniability. And in the very worst cases, they provide more fodder for less enlightened folk to use to denigrate minorities.

I can’t say that I’m a fan of this trend of invoking racism ironically “to educate.” For people of colour who live the realities of racism every day, there’s no need to educate us on why racism is so problematic, and the education of dim-witted white people shouldn’t come at the expense of our sense of safety. There’s nothing about doing so that can in any way be considered solidarity.

If there’s one thing you won’t do it’s piss on my head and tell me it’s raining.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog BattyMamzelle. Republished with permission.

One reply on “On Ron Burgundy, #CancelColbert, and White Racial Satire”

Leave a Reply