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).

Prism, Fordham’s First LGBTQ Retreat

Image courtesy of Mike Prescia.

Originally published at the Fordham Observer.

For the first time in its history, Fordham is offering a spirituality retreat, Prism, specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students. Prism, free of charge to its participants thanks to an anonymous alumnus donor, is scheduled for Feb. 28 through March 2 at Fordham’s McGrath House of Prayer in Goshen, N.Y.

Created in collaboration with Campus Ministry, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, Prism offers a “safe and welcoming place for LGBT students to explore and to deepen their relationship with God,” according to Campus Ministry’s web page.

On whether or not there is a conflict between the Prism retreat and Catholic teaching, Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), said, “[Prism] is certainly not trying to go contrary to Catholic teaching, promote things that are contrary to Catholic teaching, but to really meet students where they are and help them to understand and unpack who they are and who they’re becoming.”

“For folks who are raised in the Catholic tradition, why should we tell them—because of gender identity or sexual identity—you’re not welcome to participate in retreats, or have you participate in retreats but it’s going to be about condemning you or telling you that something’s wrong?” Eldredge said. “Our focus is always, as a Jesuit Catholic institution, to respect the dignity of every individual student.”

According to Juan Carlos Matos, assistant director of Multicultural Affairs and a member of the Prism planning committee, participants will hear reflections from student leaders and engage in large group discussions, individual reflection, meditation, prayer and small group sharing. Students will have the opportunity to express themselves creatively in the form of arts, crafts, music or through whatever other outlet they choose.

Several students and faculty members shared their thoughts about the importance of Prism for the LGBTQ community and their personal experiences as a part of that alliance.

“I definitely hope that students have a better understanding of the conflicts they have between their faith and LBGT identity, and that other people are going through something similar, that it’s not a unique experience, and ultimately that there is community,” Matos said.

Referring to the struggle that some individuals face between faith and identity, Matos said, “We’re trying to create a space for those who feel that there’s a conflict for themselves and to better understand that through the retreat.”

“We want students to know that they are loved and cared for—by God and by Fordham,” Erin Hoffman, assistant director of Campus Ministry, said.

Mike Prescia, Fordham College at Rose Hill ’14, said, “We need to make it possible for everybody to explore their own faith. It’s important because being LGBT and being a person of faith is like coming out of a second closet.” As student director of the retreat, he said that one of his main hopes is to foster a strong community.

“We want to live up to the Catholic doctrine that every person deserves respect and love, and everyone is made in the image of God,” Prescia said.

Chris Hennessy, FCLC ’15, a participant on the retreat, echoed his peers’ sentiment. “It’s important for LGBT students to have a retreat specifically for them simply because it allows you to be more included in the general Fordham way of life and community as a whole,” he said.

“I have a lot of healing to be done with the Catholic Church. But events like this and making more spaces within the Fordham community to feel accepted definitely helps,” Hennessy said.

As to why he needs healing with the Church, Hennessy said, “There are certain people in power in the Catholic Church who have had a problem with my identity. My identity has never had a problem with the Church.”

Hennessy is glad that the retreat is free to students due to the generosity of an anonymous donor. “I wish I could thank them and they didn’t feel the need to be anonymous. I think that really says something,” he said.

“It’s hard to be an LGBT person and not have fear toward religious institutions,” Charlie Martín, FCLC ’14, a student leader for Prism, said. “You can renegotiate your relationship with your faith if you want to hold on to it. That’s an even bigger challenge because you have to confront how important this religious tradition is to you.”

“I’m looking forward to graduating from Fordham having been a part of founding this retreat, that I was a part of this movement on campus toward LGBT solidarity,” Martín said.

Retreat participants said that straight, cisgender students can show their support by liking the Prism Facebook page, spreading the word about Prism, attending Rainbow Alliance meetings and speaking out against homophobic and transphobic language.

“We all have a role to play in this,” Erin Hoffman said.