The Mistakes (and Failure) of Suey Park and #CancelColbert

You already know the story.

Stephen Colbert, who plays a conservative pundit caricature on his television program The Colbert Report called out manager Dan Snyder for creating a racist charity sponsored by the Washington football team with a joke that involved an even more heinously racist fictional charity organization “for Orientals, or whatever.”

The punchline was tweeted out of context by someone who is neither Stephen Colbert nor anyone involved with the show Then, a Twitter campaign called #CancelColbert happened, started by a woman named Suey Park.

After #CancelColbert, Suey Park was given a chance to speak and clarify the intent of her campaign. What ensued was a flurry of backpedaling, contradictory statements, and botched interviews. Two of the most important pieces to note are Park’s interviews with Salon and HuffPo Live. Neither of them are perfect—both interviewers lack a bit of tact, but what they reveal about Park’s ideas and approach to discourse are crucial.

Park kicks off her Salon interview by dismissing the first question she’s asked as “irrelevant… because you’re still trying to understand my context.” This should be an obviously unwise move when the issue is all about context: the context of a joke, its reception, and the social problems the joke referenced. If Park refuses to recognize the argument against her, she doesn’t make a very good case to be taken seriously.

Her next step is to assert that the #CancelColbert campaign was “just an opportunity to use hyperbole in a way to make social commentary.” Funny how her use of hyperbole is acceptable while Colbert’s satirical hyperbole (used to make social commentary) is somehow not. Also, it’s very easy to bemoan being misunderstood on Twitter, but it’s another thing entirely to claim that you never meant what you said in the first place.

If you’re running any social awareness campaign, making sure those that promote it actually understand what’s being said ought to be your primary consideration. Instead, spamming social media with a call to cancel a show does a horrible job of explaining the nuances behind your ideas, if that isn’t what you really want. Grossly distorting your message so that people will come to you to challenge you to clarify it doesn’t make your movement strong, unless of course your movement is about yourself.

Park adopted a similarly defensive stance in her interview with Josh Zepp of HuffPo Live. The first and most basic question, “What were you hoping to achieve with [#CancelColbert]?” she accused of being “a loaded question.” Park’s hostility toward others who dare to challenge her views is immature and a poor way of winning support, as is the notion that she is somehow above explaining herself.

The pivotal moment in the interview is when Zepp calls Park’s opinion “stupid.” It’s brash and not exactly a shining example of good journalism, but Park’s refusal to dispute Zepp’s accusation on ideological grounds puts her further away from making any progress in promoting her ideas.

Zepp’s comment was neither personal nor racial, though Park seems to take it as both. It’s understandable to be flustered when someone calls your opinion stupid to your face, but to not engage is a huge mistake. When someone disagrees with you, it is the time to speak up and not remain silent and resentful.

It’s also unfair to discount what somebody says because of their privilege, without evaluating their actual ideas in any way. A Caucasian man should be able to challenge an opinion as wrong or even “stupid,” even if that opinion is held be a Korean woman. It would be more offensive to treat the opinions of minorities as sacred cows that cannot be debated by the privileged class “just to be fair.”

What Suey Park really needs to do is pick her battles, because in her fight against racism she’s decided to try silence voices that are really working with her.

Park asserted that Colbert’s joke was part of a tradition of white liberals using racism to condemn “worse racism.” This would suggest that she believes that Colbert thought that the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation” was a less racist title than Snyder’s Redskins foundation, when the structure of the joke hinges on the idea that Colbert is equating the two, that both titles are equally disturbing.

The reason the joke had to be made is that many people still don’t understand that “Redskins” is an offensive name, largely because Native Americans are such a historically ignored culture. So, in order to illustrate his point, Colbert creates a fictional organization with a name that is offensive in a way that more people understand, because bastardizations of Asian culture are much more recognized. The name is blatantly offensive, and that’s the point.

What’s concerning is that Park doesn’t see the original Colbert joke as a tool in fighting racism. How else is comedy supposed to attack racism other than by mocking it? Racism, though it seeps into our institutions and our daily interactions, is rooted in our thoughts and words. Why would anyone want to limit the use of thoughts and words in the fight against it?

Calling out racists for being racist and turning them into objects of ridicule is not something that should be silenced. Comedians like Stephen Colbert draw attention to things like a faux-conciliatory charity organization and force us to consider why they are racist. It’s the same thing Suey Park is doing when she trends a hashtag about the oppressiveness of a Native American mascot—getting people to think about things that are backward in our society. It’s a shame that she doesn’t seem to be able to recognize when somebody is on her side.

The whole kerfuffle has also shunted aside the issue the “offending” joke sought to highlight in the first place: marginilization of Native Americans. Stealing the spotlight from other issues isn’t how progress is made.

So yes, Suey Park, understanding your context is important.

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