In general, I don’t try to comment much on issues that confront People of Colour in the modern world. And I certainly don’t try to mediate disputes between media celebrities. A friend of mine asked me today what I thought of the #BuildNotBurn hashtag currently trending on Twitter, and by extension what I might have to say about the disagreement that eventually led to it, the #CancelColbert hashtag which was started by Korean-American activist and comedian Suey Park.
First let me say: I’m quite impressed with Suey Park, and by her use of Twitter as a medium for public debate and education. Her #CancelColbert hashtag and the issues it raises and the debate it sparks are good things, not bad ones, because this is a world that dumbifies us to DEATH. Opportunities to think, discuss, listen and learn are to be welcomed, not condemned. Suey Park achieved much the same level of discussion with her #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, and that was a good thing too.
As a writer who has created a few Asian characters in her fiction, not one of whom has been a sidekick, I feel pretty warm and fuzzy about Park and her hashtags. I like being able to pass a Privilege Check once in a while. In exactly the way that I used to feel good when the school nurse would check everyone’s head for lice, and I didn’t have any. No, perhaps it is not particularly to my credit, but it feels good NOT to have lice on one particular day anyway. Yay, hygiene.
So, take as a given that I have nothing by respect for Suey Park and her views. And I would further add that if you are the sort of person who thinks it’s okay to use terror tactics like rape and death threats to silence Suey Park, or any other person who makes you briefly uncomfortable by interrupting your lifetime of mental and physical masturbation for the five seconds it takes to form a rational thought, or feel a moment of empathy?
Then I think that you should be carried off by Winged Monkeys. And then recycled into pet food, to brighten the lives of small dogs owned by elderly NON-WHITE dowagers in Wisconsin.
It is an Absolute Fact that a lot of the “Supporters” of Stephen Colbert, and “opponents” of the #CancelColbert hashtag, are not rational human beings but completely insane shitweasels. Ms Park, like any persecuted comedian or intellectual, has my sympathy.
I still think that Stephen Colbert is not entirely to blame for the actions of those fans. In fact, I think he is sincere when he asks them to STOP attacking Suey Park, even though he cannot break character to do so. He’s asking them to stop being shitweasels, not just for her sake, but for his own. Because attacking her in his “defense” is by far the strongest evidence that his art has truly failed, and that people really, truly, do NOT get the joke–that his satirical comedy has failed to achieve its objectives.
Some of the supporters of Suey Park have posted interesting thoughts and reflections which are well worth reading. I read an essay today from Mia McKenzie, “On Colbert and White Racial Satire: We Don’t Need It”, which raised some interesting questions–albeit rhetorical ones.
“Whether you like The Colbert Report or not, whether you were offended by that joke or not, the question I’m asking is why anyone—particularly people of color—is invested in The Colbert Report in particular and in white racial satire in general. What is white racial satire doing for us that is so important? Important enough to outright dismiss, at best, and rail against, at worse, people who speak out when they are harmed by it?”
I think this is a valid question. And I think she has valid answers and arguments. I will not try to summarize them or claim that I hold any common ground with her, I will just let you read her essay, and then make my own points.
White Satire is not a sacred cow, or a perfect tool to end White Privilege. It can be a useful tool, but any tool is just tool: it is neutral, it has no innate value. You can take a hammer and nails and either build a house or commit a particularly gruesome murder–and if you don’t believe me, just ask Jesus. I hear his step-Dad was a carpenter.
What makes the difference between good use of a tool and bad use is the outcome. The outcome often depends on the skill and the intentions of the wielder–but in the case of comedy, the willingness of the audience to engage with the comedian’s true intentions also counts a great deal.
The fact that Colbert “supporters” are making rape and death threats against Suey Park are ample evidence that Colbert is FAILING AS AN ARTIST. A sizable percentage of his audience do not get the joke. Which means that he is, by definition…kinda bombing, as a satirist.
He has failed to make some of his audience see that HE IS THE JOKE. And by extension, THEY ARE THE JOKE. That White Privilege is bullshit. That racism is wrong. His comedy has failed to instill any understanding, and the associated respect for other people. And you can tell, because when he and his audience are challenged by an Asian woman demanding respect and empathy from them, the audience immediately acts like people defending their privilege–they’re angry, defensive, and violent.
Does this mean that White Satire has no value?
No. honestly I don’t think Mia McKenzie is right that White Satire is completely without value or useful purpose. I just think that sometimes, art fails in its intentions. And that when it does, the artist and some parts of the audience may need to face that failure.
And I say this as a person who actually enjoys White Satire, at times. And who engages in it quite a bit myself. I am not a professional comedian, but I do use my White Satire to make people laugh.
The difference is that I use White Satire jokes specifically to make People of Colour laugh. At me. And at my Whiteness, specifically. And at Whiteness in general.
A black male philosopher that I follow on Twitter (I do not want to link to him or quote him without his permission, because he has explicitly said in the past that he doesn’t appreciate it when white people do this) admits one day…that he is just plain uncomfortable around white women.
It isn’t anything they’ve done or said to him, it’s just the weight of the violence, the threats associated with connections between black men and white women historically. Lynching, antagonism, devaluation of black women, etc.. The whole package makes him feel weird and bad, and makes him not want to talk to white women or be around them.
My response: “But I have this chiffarobe that totally needs busting! What could go wrong?”
I consider this a successful White Satire joke. Not because a room full of white people laughed, but because ONE black man laughed. I know he did, because he told me so. As he put it, “You are a trip. I legit laughed out loud.”
That’s a win for White Satire.
A white guy standing up in front of a room of white people to tell race jokes about non-white people? Maybe not so much. Even if the white people in the room all laugh, if the non-white people in the audience don’t laugh too? YOU LOSE.
This principle actually inspired one of the few crimes of heckling that I’ve ever committed. (Yes, I know heckling is wrong. Patton Oswalt explained it to me later. I get it.)
Annoying White Guy comedian is standing up on stage at an open mike, and has just finished telling a bunch of annoying jokes about fat women. But then he launches into an extended joke about having sex with women of various ethnicities, and whether sex acts with non-white women will achieve some sort of magical result.
“If I have sex with a Jewish chick, will I get a raise at work?”
“If I have sex with an Asian chick, will she fix my cell phone?”
“If I have sex with a black chick–”
“Yeah,” I interrupted loudly from my table, my tone dripping derision. “Like THAT’S going to happen.”
Some of the people in the audience around me laughed, but that was irrelevant. What mattered to me was that the one black guy in the room actually cracked up. Because that one stupid heckle was one of the biggest laughs he had all night.
Yes, heckling is wrong in principle. But at the time, I was out of patience with Annoying White Guy. I was weary of his crappy privilege humor. And yes, I know the right answer if you’re not enjoying comedy is just to leave. But at the time, I didn’t feel like being pounded with “jokes” that were just more of the same white male abuse that I saw in the world around me every day.
Upshot is this: white comedians are not necessarily doing anyone a favor by making them the butt of a joke. And satire is a difficult art form. If you take on satire as a privileged person, you better make DAMN sure that you’re the punchline, and that the whole audience gets it. That you’re kicking yourself, doing “Whiteface” as comedy. Not taking yet another opportunity to kick other people.
Otherwise, as my friend Alex points out, you’re not a satirist. You’re just another bully.