Stephen Colbert landed in hot water this week for a Tweet that read: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The tweet soon started trending, leading some Asian-American rights activists to “#CancelColbert.”
The tweet was quickly deleted, and it was revealed that it originated from a Comedy Central account (which airs the Colbert Report), and that Colbert had no control over what was tweeted from the account. Additionally, it was pointed out that the quote was a reference to a satirical segment making fun of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for starting The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Editorials, including one from Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, have defended the Tweet and satirical segment, observing that the intent of the segment was to skewer Daniel Snyder for token gestures of sensitivity.
The problem with the rather rabid defense is that it’s not clear that Colbert or Rosenberg actually understand what passable satire is. The thing is, in order to pull off satire effectively, you have to actually be in a position to authentically make the satirical point in the first place. In this case, Colbert needs to actually be someone who can authentically claim that he gives a damn about Asian-Americans at all. Otherwise, he can’t convincingly use Asian-American stereotypes in portraying how Snyder is insensitive to Native Americans.
The proper comparison here is the now-classic Nerd PSA with its preening, bespectacled model proclaiming “I think I’m a nerd, you know?” What’s wrong with her statement? The problem is, she can’t make the statement in a non-offensive way unless she authentically partakes of nerd culture. She’s simply a poseur wearing the guise of nerd-dom in order to gain some benefit–in this case, an association with nerd-culture, which is rising in popularity in the mainstream. The offensive nature of her statement rises and falls with her authenticity. And so it goes with Colbert. Colbert is essentially a poser putting on the guise of caring about Asian-American issues so that he can use the caricature as part of a satirical skit.
I’m willing to be convinced that Colbert actually gives a damn about Asian-American issues, but I’ve yet to actually see it. Sure, he cares generally about “minority issues” in just the way that any good liberal does. But broadly caring about “minority issues” doesn’t translate into caring about Asian-American issues. It turns out that issues of importance to the Asian-American community are different than those of the African-American and gay communities; it turns out that minorities are different from one another.
Rosenberg observes: “In the overall conversation, Colbert seems fairly strongly aligned on the side of everyone who finds Dan Snyder ridiculous.” It’s a rather presumptuous statement. Looking at the Nerd PSA, I imagine that’s exactly what the model thinks too. “I’m on your side! I’m a nerd just like you!” It’s an easy thing to say, but if you’re curious about whether she’s on the same side as the nerds, you should probably just ask the other nerds in the PSA. Likewise, if you want to find out if Colbert is on the same side as Asian-Americans, you probably shouldn’t be asking a bunch of white people like Rosenberg. I highly doubt Colbert is anti-Asian-American, but I bet he barely gives their issues much of a thought at all, and that’s a far cry from being on the same side.
The real question: If someone uses insensitivity towards Asian-Americans as part of a satirical skit, but they aren’t really authentically interested in Asian-American issues, is it really satire in the first place?