I knew something was up when my Twitter and Facebook news feed blew up a couple days ago regarding a tweet from @colbertreport. The account sent out this tweet:
As an Asian American, I had thoughts on the subject and so did many of my Asian American friends and my "liked" Facebook pages. Some siding for or against Suey Park's #CancelColbert hashtag. I have respect for Suey Park in that she she's willing to say things that others aren't. It's like they always say "It's the squeaky door that gets greased." and Suey's squeaky tweets have done much to raise awareness on issues that would otherwise not be on the forefront of anyone's mind.
With that said, in the scheme of picking choosing your battles, in many ways I thought this was a dumb battle. For one, the tweet was taken out of context, Steven Colbert was taking a jab at Dan Synder's staunch stance on his franchise's name, The Washington Redskins. Steven Colbert's personality mockingly says that he will create an organization called "The Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." He was making a mockery of Dan Synder's racist franchise name, by making his own racist name. Also, to call for the cancellation of the entire show is a bit extreme. Is it worth it to cancel the show and jeopardize people's jobs and livelihood for a joke, that didn't intend to be racist to begin with? So with the context of it all... yea let's pick and choose our battles.
Then I read all the articles on the subject saying to "calm down" and I watched Steven Colbert's sketch on the whole thing for a second time, in light of the articles and comments. I came across countless comments saying things like, "Asians can't play the race card, they need to get back to the back of the line!" and "Asians can't drive, or take a joke." and lastly, "Asians, go for a walk, take a drive, actually never mind the last one." .... and the list goes on. I'm not saying that the show should be cancelled and I don't think we need to draw hard and fast lines in the sand to have an opinion. If anything, I felt little about the actual tweet and the actual bit that Colbert did, but I felt much about how the battle played out.
For one, many of these articles saying to "calm down" and "learn to take a joke" were not written by Asian Americans. Most of them have no personal link to a phrase like "ching chong ding dong," they are people that have never had to be subjected to being called a "chink" or had the stereo type of a squinty-eyed-obtuse-ignorant Asian caricature that Colbert portrays in the bit, imposed upon them. Then there was Deadspin's article titled, Gooks Don't Get Redskins Joke. Great. Was that suppose to be a "satirical" play on the whole situation? For the sake of controversy and shock value must we use a war-time derogatory term used to dehumanize Asians? Yea, let's remember how these names started before we hastily throw them into the webosphere and allow them to come up on a cursory Google search. Also, in the bit Colbert does, he plays his Ching Chong Ding Dong character and says that he's a Chinaman. "Chinaman" was a term used commonly in the 19th century for all people who came to America of Chinese decent. They had no Western names so they were given the blanket John or Jake Chinaman, as a pseudonym. Mary Paik Lee the famed Korean American writer, wrote about how kids taunted her in 1906 by singing this ditty :
Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a wall.
Along came a white man,
And chopped his tail off. (1)
The term was used commonly at the time, but the derogatory way people felt about the Chinese made plain in the ugly caricatures they painted of them in on paper, (i.e press, songs, literature, plays) and eventually on TV, has made the term "Chinaman" a time capsule for those sentiments... very much like other racial slurs of our day.
Watching the actual clip of Stephen Colbert's Ching Chong Ding Dong character made me think, why did he pick Asian's to jab at Synder? Is it because he knows doing it to another minority group would cause more of a stir? Let's say the joke had "The (pick ethnic slur of another prominent minority group in the U.S.) foundation of (ethnic slur) or Whatever." I think, even thought it wasn't intending to offend whichever minority, those slurs, names, stereotypes mean something. It stirs up the sea floor of all the dregs, for people that were actually subjected to those names.
That is why I think Suey had to go extreme. Does she actually want to the show to be canceled? Or did she have to go that far to have people think there needs to be some reaction and some stir in the Asian American community for throwing around those words, without thought or regard for the history behind them, and the history of those who suffered under them. We need to be mindful that people have been affected by those words, as individuals and as a race. Reading the many articles out there, many are making it into a "liberals vs conservatives" thing. Where conservatives are saying liberals are getting their "just desserts" in the #cancelcolbert hashtag. But that is not the issue here, the issue is how those words and stereotypes affect the Asian American community. I think the battle was more revealing than anything else, in showing how much our work is cut out for us, as Asian Americans, in painting the picture on what the world looks like for us, in having people understand who we are, and what we've been through. Let this be a cautionary tale, for what it's worth, that behind every racial stereotype or slur, there lies a deeper meaning to those it offends. That those words carry weight in it of itself, regardless of the intention behind which they are thrown. That throwing them around, will cause people to throw back, and the Asian American community is no exception.
(1) Paik Lee, Mary (1990). Sucheng Chan, ed. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press. pp. 16–17.