#CancelColbert, and “I don’t see race”

If you haven’t heard of “#CancelColbert”, find some recap or analysis of it before reading this. (Try Brute Reason‘s.) I’m too impatient and tired of recounting the events at this point and just have some thoughts to express about it.

I’m pretty frustrated with the entire situation. But I’m just now realizing that my frustration is tiered for different groups, and for different reasons. So the best way to describe it all is to list them, from most infuriating to least objectionable.

People on Twitter and online calling #CancelColbert tweeters “idiots” who “don’t get Satire”.

Rage level: Fuck you.

I cannot stand the people ridiculing those who criticized Colbert’s bit in this way. I have no patience for those who presumed that people who took issue with the Asian joke must not realize that Colbert is playing a character. That he’s not really racist. That he was making a point. I was very disappointed in people like Mike Birbiglia parroting that same easy line, too.

A less annoying point is the “out of context” qualification. I certainly agree that the joke, out of context, is way worse. But it’s incredibly presumptive to assume that those objecting necessarily didn’t have the context, either. It’s entirely possible to be offended by the joke with the knowledge that it was punching at the Redskins owner. I still think it’s iffy.

Put simply: even in satire, jokes can sting. Everyone’s taken sarcasm too far at some point in their lives; this is the same issue. Even satire can use stereotypes improperly and hurt people, and especially so when the comedian hasn’t built the credibility to say it.

I like to point to Louis CK in these situations and his dives into controversial territory. He tells jokes about hating his children, but they are after a lengthy time on stage where he has built rapport with the audience. He talks about how great it is to be white, but he couches it carefully in concepts of privilege. Colbert didn’t do that or simply doesn’t have the time between commercials. And so he cut a bit too deeply into an easy target, even in the name of, and under a thin veil of, satire.

Colbert and his staff

Rage level: Betrayal!

When Colbert addressed the controversy this week, he repeated a joke about his character that for the first time I heard in a new light.

He said, “I don’t see race.”

Colbert likes to joke that he doesn’t see color or race, and that he believes he is white because he’s told so. I always found this hilarious, and a humorously perfect way to view race: just pretend it isn’t there! (Isn’t that what equality is about?) I took it as an aspect of Colbert’s character’s stupid (but poignant) side, not the conservative side.

But this week, it registered in a new way. His joke is exactly the same as those who say they “don’t care” what color you are, they’ll “treat you equally”.

The reality is that while you shouldn’t judge someone prematurely based on their race (or other category), you should understand how when different people share their experiences, they will be colored by how society treats the groups they belong to. People are likely to have very different paths and challenges through life that you won’t know without recognizing aspects of who they are. So unfortunately for Colbert and fans of this idea, being blind to race just doesn’t work that way. It’s a vice, not a virtue.

This idea clued me into another fact, which is that Colbert’s writers are heavily weighted white and male. So you aren’t always going to get the best perspective (or attention) on issues of racial sensitivities. Like Colbert’s character, comedian Colbert says he doesn’t look at names or pictures when looking at applications for writers. But either he has a bias towards subjects white men write about more often, or people demographically like him primarily apply to work for him. Whichever way he would be well-served to attempt to resolve the catch-22 and create a more diverse and therefore widely-capable team.

People who called others “oversensitive”

Rage level: Frustrated

This is a common response to any public outcry about insensitive humor. Clearly if some people were able to weather the joke and whatever baggage came with it, everyone should be able to, right?

Not really. The existence of some people who aren’t bothered by Colbert’s Asian joke does not invalidate the sentiments of those who were. Same with the Redskins as a professional team name. That’s not to say that we can’t make rough claims about a situation’s severity based on volume of outcry and the ratio of these two groups, for example, and make judgement calls on harm done.

Often claims of oversensitivity come from people who aren’t quite imaginative enough or aware enough to know about the experiences of ethnic minorities in the United States. They don’t hear of the constant, slight incline that comes in the forms of microaggressions, stereotypical or offensive popular misrepresentation, and jokes like Colbert’s that get an easy pass.

This gets worse when phrases like “professional victim” get thrown out, because then the implication that people relish being offended comes up. I really don’t buy that this is as much of an issue as people make it out to be, if it is one at all. It screams to me a grasping at straws for other excuses to continue believing all speech is acceptable. Also, consider the amount of backlash and hate people who speak up on these issues receive from the very same crowd that claim they’re doing it attention or some personal benefit. How much sense does that make?

The hard answer about various forms of speech is that it turns out it’s really not all acceptable. There are some words, phrases, or actions that are too deeply laden in harmful meaning from one group to another that, for now, there are few, if any, ways to express it without hurting someone.

This doesn’t have to be a huge concern for people, but I believe the idea that something is generally off-limits is especially difficult to grasp for those of privilege, like white males. The first brush with social limitations is like a shock. Though ironically I doubt it even compares to the burden other groups face daily based on their background.

People who insisted on a simplistic view of racism

Rage level: Irked

Many people have a limited view of what racism is. They’ll say certain hate groups, slurs, laws, and stereotypes embody the idea, but not the more subtle, amorphous issues that cause the deck to be stacked against certain ethnic groups. Unfortunately, these less visible issues are probably more frequent and more pernicious.

In this debacle in particular, the situation isn’t as simple as comedian Colbert being knowingly racist or not. Colbert is obviously in support of many progressive issues. But people make casual mistakes or microaggressions all the time against marginalized groups. Often they don’t realize it.

To be more explicit, it’s possible that Colbert has in his head a rough limit to how far he’ll go in making disparaging jokes about Asians to prove a larger point. And Asians feel he is willing to go too far. That he digs a little too deeply for another purpose.

It’s not this binary of “He meant it” or “He didn’t mean it”. It’s about his tolerance levels for different types and subjects of humor in the pursuit of satire. We have to move away from the binary to understand the complexity of the issue.

Activists who went too far

Rage level: Eh… :/

Apparently there were activists who actually wanted Colbert’s show to be cancelled, rather than simply using a catchy, alliterative hashtag in name only. Once you add the context, I find it difficult to see the joke as bad enough to call for Colbert’s end. Suey Park somewhat admitted that the call was a step beyond what was perhaps literally necessary to get the attention it deserved, which is a common tactic for any idea or piece of content vying for attention online, of course.

In watching Park talk about these issues in the most popular video interview I’ve seen, I’m again met with frustration at the entire exchange towards the end:

First of all, the host and his co-host were being obtuse in their framing of what Park said and in general disrespectful of her appearance on the show. They went down the same tired lines of argumentation I’ve already discussed, and my frustration lies with them first and foremost. They also reacted in the worst possible way to the concept of privileged myopia by casting it as racism, an all-too-convenient tactic to keep from recognizing the actual reality of inequality.

But Suey Park didn’t present that part well at all, either, in my opinion. I understand it was something of a hostile environment, but she tried to dig into the host’s and Colbert’s audience’s psyche. She might be very much accurate in the internal motivations that those people don’t notice or won’t admit to themselves, but that’s an extremely difficult point to justify in 30-second soundbites. It’s also one that I get a little bothered by when applied too liberally (excuse the pun).

In ending on this topic I must reiterate that my issues with Park in the interview and with the activist side in general are miniscule, almost insignificant compared to my intense frustration at those who insist that these activists were stupid or petty. To presume that of them demonstrates the height of arrogance and close-mindedness.

I do not wish to appear as casting a plague on both houses, either. Even though I like his show, Colbert’s joke even with context is annoying to me. I want more visibility for people who are unfairly and lazily targeted when Colbert punches down (including transphobia).

Let us not also forget the original point: I think the Redskins would be wise to move into the 21st century.

And finally, I wish those new to these ideas didn’t reactionarily close off their compassion, empathy, and understanding in favor of maintaining the illusion of the acceptability of their privilege.

Edit: I got reminded of other groups I was mad at after I posted. People who threatened Park or were vulgar to her are even worse than my first group. Obviously. (Fuck them)^2

And people who insist on harping about “free speech” are just annoying. The issue has never been about legal rights to say what Colbert said. It’s about the consequences for speech, and what should be appropriate and inappropriate.

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