Stephen Colbert Should Apologize: White Liberal Hypocrisy and the Power of Hashtag Activism

Originally published at the Fordham Observer.

Responding to a racist joke posted by the now-deactivated Colbert Report’s Twitter account, writer and activist Suey Park trended a hashtag: #CancelColbert, which remained one of the top five trends for 36 hours. Mainstream media outlets even took a break from talking endlessly about the missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner to cover the #CancelColbert campaign.

The offensive tweet? Parodying an attempt by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to appease the Native American community by creating the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation without changing the team’s name, the Colbert Report’s account (which was not monitored or run by Stephen Colbert himself, but rather by his team at Comedy Central) tweeted, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

We get it, Stephen. You and your pseudo-conservatism are appealing to your white liberal demographic by using racism to make fun of racism. But here’s the problem: you’re not helping the people you claim to be helping. If you want to end racism, don’t marginalize and otherize members of an oppressed community. Rather, actually listen to what they’re saying. If they’re telling you that you’ve offended them, you should apologize. Don’t tell them that they don’t understand satire. Suey Park is a writer. Of course she understands satire. If you actually want the Redskins to change their name, there are more ways to organize and get involved than caring about your joke.

Yes, people of color do recognize that white allies have a role in ending racism. But being a white ally requires an immense amount of humility. Other than Colbert himself, the best example of a bad white ally is the host of Huffington Post Live, Josh Zepps, who interviewed Suey Park a few days after the Twitter protest. After she explained that #CancelColbert was not literal, Zepps patronized her, defended his whiteness, mocked her, spoke over her, and even called her opinion stupid. After Zepps ended the interview (Yup! The white guy ended it!), he immediately asked for reaction of his co-host – another white dude.

Colbert’s on-air response to #CancelColbert was not only not surprising but also even more destructive. The show began with a montage of Colbert waking up from a bad dream about his show getting cancelled and token Asian B.D. Wong consoling Colbert in a parody of his role on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Instead of actually bringing Suey Park on his show, he interviewed the founder of Twitter, Bizz Stone – yet another white guy.

Notice a pattern here? When people of color criticize white liberal allies, the white liberal allies get defensive and double down. They hold on to their privilege. Hiding behind satire, they don’t listen to the people they claim to be helping. Their self-congratulatory liberal motivations to end racism are selfish. Their goal is to make their white liberal audiences feel good about themselves by using racism to combat racism in the name of satire.

Critics of #CancelColbert argued that the campaign failed because the Colbert Report wasn’t cancelled. But in fact, according to Suey Park herself, the intention of #CancelColbert was not to actually get the show cancelled. “I wanted to hit the irony and inability of the left to deal with their own racism… It’s kind of like pulling a blanket off the façade of progressivism,” Suey Park said in an interview with Salon’s Prachi Gupta. Suey succeeded. When the corporate-funded mainstream media covers your story, you have succeeded. You have spread your message. Hashtag protests give voice to people who are ignored by the mainstream media.

I like the Colbert Report. I watch it once in a while. I even laugh. But that doesn’t prevent me from criticizing him. Unlike partisan Democrats and Republicans, my affinity for an individual doesn’t prevent me from holding that individual accountable (I worked on President Obama’s re-election campaign, but I criticize him more harshly than do many conservatives). Stephen Colbert’s carelessness upset people. The correct response is not to talk down to critics and make fun of them. The correct response is to admit to your wrongdoing and apologize (and diversify your writing staff).

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