We Have Created A Monster!
It might be fair to say that in recent weeks the normally invisible Asian-American community - and one Asian-American in particular - has received an unusual amount of mainstream attention. I am referring, of course, to the media frenzy initiated by Suey Park via the platform of Twitter. Using the social media platform, Park has brought attention to some very real issues of stereotypes and prejudice experienced by Asians in the US, and in so doing raised some questions about the viability of Twitter as a meaningful tool for activism. A new phrase is even floating around to describe this kind of Twitter activism - "#hashtag" activism.
The first such "campaign" began under the hashtag of "#NotYourAsianSidekick", which received considerable support amongst Asian-American twits - is that the right word? - and was followed more recently by a campaign targeting noted liberal satirist - and apparent anti-racist - Stephen Colbert, under the hashtag "#CancelColbert". For this second campaign, Park was interviewed by the Huffington Post, and received quite a beatdown after basically spewing what could only be described as a racially antagonistic series of comments about white people. The interview did not end well.
Apart from being extremely uncomfortable to watch, the interview shows, perhaps, the limitations of Twitter activism. As Suey Park and the rest of Asian-America has discovered, tweeting can get you a lot of attention, in a short amount of time, and even propel you into the full glare of the mainstream media, but it is what happens once you have been given the space to expound on your beliefs that determines the effectiveness of Twitter. This means that Twitter should be thought of as a means of transport to get you to a place where - once there - one can seize the opportunity to win over the viewing public to your point of view. Clearly, Park faltered - but why?
First and foremost, the idea of "offendedness" that Asian-Americans often cite in their response to media racism has come back to bite us. As I have written about elsewhere - here, and here - this approach to engaging with mainstream America on its media and cultural racism is ultimately futile, because our being offended is ultimately our own problem. What, do we think that America should jump up and down and change its racialized attitudes towards Asians because we are upset? The problem with this approach is that there is an implicit privilege and childishness in this narrative - I am offended and upset, so you have to do something about it!
Of course the irony is that it is often Asian-American self-proclaimed justice activists who chide the Asian-American community for not "owning their privilege" who will display this privileged thinking that their offence should somehow be a great motivating force to create social change. Let them eat cake I say! In short, utilizing the mobilizing power of Twitter to earn yourself a spot on a mainstream show to say "I'm offended" might not be the stuff of social change.
But, strangely, at the end of the day, Park was actually correct about one thing; utilizing slurs that are typically used to demean Asians is the lazy and safe approach for comedians wanting to be edgy - if you want to use racial humor to show that you are not a racist, then utilizing anti-Asian slurs is the one means you can be guaranteed to get away with without being saddled with the stigma of being a racist. Furthermore, this comfort with utilizing these slurs speaks to a bigger picture of comfort with anti-Asian prejudices in American culture in general. Park's mistake was to wade in with fists clenched and swinging, making blanket accusations of racism against an entire group (which Park did against white males) which left little room for Park to actually talk about this very real issue of the tolerance for anti-Asian racism in American culture.
I wrote about the necessity to utilize language and communication in a way that inspires and unites in a previous essay. The gist of that post is that there seems to be a tendency to use combative language in intra-Asian debate and dialogue that typically fails to foster understanding, and more likely fosters mutual distrust and antagonism between various Asian-American demographics. This seems to have become the habit and means by which Asian-Americans engage with one another, and it is in this way that we have created the monster of combative engagement exhibited by Suey Park on the HuffPo show.
Asian-Americans might recognize the manner of Park's engagement as a resemblance to the manner of engagement between Asian-Americans on issues as varied as SCA5, "Asian sexism", and inter-racial dating. The lesson here is that if we hope to engage meaningfully and powerfully with mainstream America about our issues, then we would do well to raise the level of dialogue within our community so that we don't make a habit of coming at people who disagree with us with derogatory labelling or sweeping generalizations.
Meanwhile, one ironic moment to emerge from Park's Folly was that supporters of Colbert's anti-racist satirical approach poured forth in raging reaction with abuse for Suey Park utilizing the kind of anti-Asian racial slurs that America spews out with regularity and casual abandon - but only in the name of humor! In truth these supporters of Colbert seem to be genuinely raging that Park did not seem to comprehend the brilliance of their idol's satire, by utilizing the very behaviour that Colbert seems to genuinely abhor. Maybe the racist (and sexist) abuse being hurled at Park is all part of the joke?
Or maybe the satire is lost on the very people who support this genre of anti-racist satirical comedy, in which case, one has to ask if Colbert's own supporters fail to grasp his message of anti-racism that he delivers via clever satire, then perhaps we need to consider whether such satire in the context of America's racial mire is as harmless as the liberal media would like us to believe?
On a final note, let us spare a thought for the real losers in all of this - Native Americans. The skit on the Colbert show from which the offending tweet was derived was a satire on the ongoing, unapologetic use of a racial slur by the Washington NFL team. Naturally, Native peoples feel demeaned by the casual use of such a slur, particularly its usage in such a brazen manner. Read what they have to say about the whole thing, here and here - as you can see, #CancelColbert didn't help them much.