Since Thursday evening, when 23-year-old writer and activist Suey Park sent out a tweet to her 19,000-odd followers—“The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.”—America’s media has been in the grips of some sort of Suey Park-derangement syndrome. Park’s call to action came in response to a tweet from The Cobert Report’s official account that contained the punchline of a segment from last Wednesday’s program. In the bit, Colbert lampooned Dan Snyder, the owner of Washington DC’s football team, by comparing the racist name of the team to racist language used against Asians. Dozens of articles have been written about the hashtag campaign. Writers at The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, the Washington Post, Time, the Daily Beast, Jezebel, CNN, USA Today, Huffington Post, the BBC, Mediaite, Entertainment Weekly, and many, many more have all weighed in. Almost without exception (Brittney Cooper at Salon is one of the few) these articles, essays and blog posts agree that Suey Park and the hashtag she spawned are misguided, ill-informed, unable to take a joke, unaware of the meaning of satire and/or just plain stupid.
In addition to the flood of media critiques, Park and others who joined the hashtag have faced a deluge of criticism and abuse from other Twitter users. At some points, dozens if not hundreds of tweets per minute were being addressed to Park. Many followed the script of your typical patronizing mansplainer confronted with a woman he disagrees with and is unable to resist engaging: “Don’t you understand what satire is?” etc. But many others contained racist and misogynistic slurs, rape threats, death threats and every other conceivable kind of invective, all directed toward Suey Park.
The mainstream media response to #CancelColbert has been more genteel than that which emerged from the underbelly of the internet. Two exceptions were HuffPost Live and Deadspin. On HuffPost Live, host Josh Zepps came out and said to Park’s face what much of the commentariat couched in less offensive language: “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Deadspin published a post entitled “Gooks Don’t Get Redskins Joke,” a cravenly cynical ploy to garner traffic and court controversy. (White liberal writers have shied away from criticizing Deadspin, citing the fact that the two authors of the post are Korean-American as some kind of excuse. I don’t share their sensitivity. People of color will always find someone willing to pay them money to sell out other people of color. Just ask Amy Chua.)
But for the most part, talented writers have (mis)applied their skills of logic and persuasion to explain why #CancelColbert was a bad idea. I find most of the arguments against Park (and yes I think many of the arguments are aimed directly at Park, even more than at her hashtag) to be fundamentally weak. We have been reminded again and again that Colbert’s offensive language against Asians was deployed as satire in order to attack the racism of Dan Snyder, and that the context of the statements are critical to “getting” the joke. This is obviously true, and did not need to be explained to Park, but how this invalidates the concerns of real people who feel real pain when they hear stereotypes about Asians is left unaddressed.
We have been told that, even if Colbert’s joke hurt the feelings of some Asian Americans, it was all in furtherance of a greater good—the education of people within his audience who did not realize that the name “Redskins” is an offensive slur until it was compared to anti-Asian slurs. This narrative strikes me as particularly specious. It rests on weighing the education of a group of people who have been hypothesized into existence as more important than the experience of a group of people who are actually speaking out to express their discomfort. If any journalist wants to present evidence of a single person who was moved to change their opinion of Dan Snyder by Colbert’s routine, then perhaps we can assign it a social value. I’ve yet to see any such evidence, and while I would never deny that Colbert’s performances are entertaining, there’s a difference between entertainment and enlightenment.
We have been told that Colbert’s joke was aimed at the abhorrent racism of the name of the Washington football team, and that bringing up the question of racism aimed at Asian Americans is a distraction that will hurt the cause of Native Americans. This is a charge that would be easier to swallow were it not that so many of the writers putting forward this argument have never written about changing the name of the team themselves. Park and many of her fellow #CancelColbert tweeters have a history of engaging in Twitter activism against the team’s name alongside Native American activists: See #NotYourMascot as one example. Meanwhile, the idea that Colbert is more valuable to the fight against racism than people of color who are engaging in anti-racist activism on their own terms comes perilously close to a white savior argument that deserves serious scrutiny.
Even if all these arguments against Suey Park were convincing, however, none of them explains why so many members of the mainstream media felt so irresistibly compelled to make them. That’s the question that I find most striking about this entire brouhaha. I’ve spent this past weekend considering the relative comfort and power of columnists at mainstream publications as compared to the 23-year-old activist and asking (in my best Veronica Sawyer from Heathers voice), “What is your damage?” You may not agree with her campaigns or her tactics (I have frequently disagreed with her myself) but do you really need her to shut up so badly?
I think that the real problem most people have with Park is that she has power. Over the past few days, writers with larger platforms than Park have suggested #CancelSnyder and other variations on the theme to much lesser effect. And yet when Suey Park told her followers to trend #CancelColbert, they complied, and kept the hashtag trending for hours.
The power to direct thousands of people on social media and drive a narrative without permission from any editor, publication or other form of traditional media gatekeeper is one that many in journalism wish they had and (I suspect) believe they deserve more than Park. Who the hell is she, after all? Who gave her permission? We are not used to women of color, and especially supposedly submissive Asian women, acting with such brash disregard of their elders and “betters.”
I hope that all the writers who took to their platforms to condemn #CancelColbert and Suey Park ask themselves what they had to lose by supporting her, or at least by remaining silent. From where I stand, the distinction between the internet trolls who want Park to be quiet and the media commenters who want Park to be quiet is narrower than the media commenters would want to admit. Park’s influence challenges the traditional power structure of a mainstream media born of and endlessly reinforcing a system of white supremacy. The sheer volume of her detractors says more about their fear of losing influence than it does about anything else.