When I first saw the “#CancelColbert” movement filling up my Twitter dashboard, my initial reaction was to defend the host. “But it’s satire!” I cried at my monitor. “It was a joke about racism, not a joke about race! There’s a difference!”
“The context! You have to think about the context!” I said to absolutely no one. “You can’t cancel a show over one joke! Why are they wasting their time?!” (My computer has to hear a lot of exclamation points over the course of a social media check.)
I was more or less over what I saw as a non-controversy until I heard about a “disastrous” interview of the hashtagged movement’s founder, Suey Park, conducted by Josh Zepps of the Huffington Post. The interview was, in fact, pretty disastrous, but not for the reasons that her detractors across the web were mocking her.
What I realized was that “#CancelColbert” has less to do with a Comedy Central tweet, and much more to do with the silencing of people of color in the mainstream media.
Park’s social media movement has been belittled by comments like “the chronically offended strike again” (YouTube user xreturnwthhonorx), “the #cancelcolbert hashtag [is] faux outrage at its finest” (Twitter user @WorldofIsaac), and “there’s a large overlap in the Venn diagram of “likes to get outraged” and “not very bright” (Twitter user @RonMarz), but that disrespect was not nearly so appalling as what ensued when she appeared on HuffPostLive.
The five-minute interview stands as a very real symbol of exactly what Park is working to fight against.
Host Josh Zepps opened by recapping the controversy for the audience, ending with a screenshot of a tweet written by Park: “White people — please keep #CancelColbert trending until there’s an apology. This is NOT the burden of people of color. Fix it. Do something.” His first question for Park: “Why cancel Colbert? What did you have to achieve with that?”
His condescension is apparent from that very first question. He doesn’t ask, “What was your mission?” He doesn’t ask, “What do you hope to accomplish?” He doesn’t even ask, “Tell us more about the hashtag.” Why not? Because he already know how his audience feels about Suey Park, and he has the power to corroborate their feelings. He knows that he can paint Park as anti-white, as whining, as unjustly critical, because he is in a position of privilege and credibility as the white male interviewer, and she is in a position of vulnerability as the Asian-American female interviewee.
It gets worse from there. Zepps infantilizes Park by asking her if she “understands satire,” and taking the time to explain Colbert’s joke to her. When Park explains why Colbert’s brand of satire does nothing to “end racism” or help people of color (watch the interview; what she says is important), he again attempts to delegitimize her and her contributions to the conversation, calling her stance “misguided” and interrupting her several times.
The big moment comes when Suey Park makes the most important statement of the segment: “I feel like it’s incredibly patronizing for you to frame these questions this way, especially as a white man. I don’t expect you to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying with #CancelColbert.”
Zepps: “No one’s minimalizing your right to have an opinion; it’s just a stupid opinion.” He then closed the interview when Park declined to explain to him why this was a patronizing thing to say, leaving him and his correspondent to joke that Suey Park had just stripped them, as white men, of their rights to an opinion.
What was supposed to be an intelligent conversation about a culturally-relevant online phenomenon was instead a disgusting display of the silencing and bullying of a woman speaking out against being bullied and silence.
No one actually thinks that The Colbert Report needs to be cancelled over this joke. That was never the point. The point is that laughing at racism doesn’t change a thing, and when the person telling the joke, and those of us laughing at it, do so from a position of privilege, it’s actually part of the problem.
Update: Since this writing, Zepps has conducted a follow-up segment, featuring Joslyn Stevens, Kristina Wong, and “Jenn Reappropriate.” Coverage will be posted tomorrow.