Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Irony Of Failed Satire

More On The Suey And Colbert Saga.

It has been a few weeks since Twitter erupted in a storm of frenzied outrage incited by Suey Park in response to a tweet published by the Comedy Channel's Twitter page that quoted - out of context - a line from a Stephen Colbert skit. In short - since most readers will probably know both the contents of the offending tweet and the response to it - Colbert did a skit on his comedy show that satirized the use of the term "redskins" by an NFL team by parodying its insensitivity using terms and slurs which are derogatory and dehumanizing to Asians thusly......
I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.
The background to this is that the target of the satire - the NFL team's owner Dan Snyder - had voiced his intention to start a foundation to help native people and that he would use the term "redskin" naming it. So, the satire is obvious; mocking the absurdity of claiming to respect and help a group whilst simultaneously using a term that implicitly demeans them. Simple, fun, and obvious, with no hint of racism targeting Asians on Colbert's part. Of course, the terms and slurs used in the skit and tweet are derogatory terms for Asians but the context here is obviously not to attack or demean Asians.

Now in the aftermath of the "blow-up" in which Suey Park came out strong to condemn liberal racism (well, somebody's got to do it), and was subsequently beaten down by both the mainstream media and a flurry of Asian responses seemingly embarrassed that she had gotten her criticisms so wrong, I think that it is worth stepping back and examining the events because I think that we can glean some insights into the Asian experience of race in the US.

I will begin by saying that accusing Colbert or the skit as racist towards Asians is pointless and as I suggested here  (and here) using the language of accusation is a flawed approach, although it might be reasonable to wonder if the guys who published the tweet - which Colbert had nothing to do with - might have been looking to create controversy, or troll Asian-Americans. So, although there is no racism directed at Asians, I would argue that the skit was still potentially damaging to America's dialogue on race in general, and harmful to both Asians and Native Americans in particular, simply because the satire was poor and unconscious.

To understand why, let's look briefly at the meaning and components of satire.

Via Wikipedia.......
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.[1] Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.........A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—"in satire, irony is militant"[2]—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration,[3] juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This "militant" irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.
From the above we can see that Colbert's satire parodied Snyder by using strong, sarcastic irony, to caricature (burlesque) Snyder's racism by utilizing an exaggerated analogy of his position. All pretty classic seeming stuff. The problem is that Asians are almost as invisible as Native-Americans in American culture, and anti-Asian racism is not taken that seriously by Americans to such an extent that it might be true to say that it is taken less seriously than racism against Native peoples.

What this suggests is that what should have been the most powerful component of Colbert's skit - the caricatured exaggeration - was actually no such thing. Where is the exaggeration in analogizing two groups who share similar invisibility? In fact, Colbert does a disservice to Native Americans by comparing their experience of racism to a group whose claims of racism are most often met with skepticism, indifference, or just plain old denial. If dehumanizing Native people is as serious as the Asian experience of racism, and our experiences of racism are typically downplayed, then that can only mean that Snyder's racism is not that bad. Do you see the problem?

In order to use exaggeration to satirize racism, you would have to actually utilize a racism that people would be outraged by and one that is an actual exaggeration, and anti-Asian racism is not it - how do you exaggerate a racism that so many people are just plain comfortable living with?. The irony is all on Colbert. It is even the liberal media whose cultural products in film and television contribute greatly to the normalization of dehumanizing ways of conceiving of Asians and the demeaning behaviours that follow. We hear "Ching Chong" all the time being broadcast nationwide in film and television, if not in deed, then certainly in sentiment. Characters like Han Lee from 2 Broke Girls are merely the Ching Chong taunt with added dialogue.

So, because we live in a culture that views mockery of Asians as the norm and racist behaviours towards Asians as well within the bounds of what is socially acceptable, Colbert may have actually diminished the perception of the severity of the racism experienced by Native Americans and consequently the dehumanizing nature of using the term "redskins". The term and the racism that fosters it just cannot be that bad if anti-Asian racism is an exaggeration of it. Clearly liberal America has gotten itself into a bind - anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism is out of bounds, and anti-Asian racism is tolerated and even brings the mainstream enjoyment (thanks to our liberal friends in the arts), so where will the liberal hipsters get their racial satire fix to make them feel that they're with the program? It is a dilemma.

In some sense, there is an element of what I would call the "Charlie Chan" treatment about Colbert's use of the trappings of anti-Asian racism. The Charlie Chan caricature is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that his depictions - at least in the films I have seen - allude to racism, but diminish the severity of anti-Chinese racism at the time, effectively whitewashing it. If you bear in mind that Chinese people were not allowed to testify in courts against white people, the whole idea of a Chinese cop arresting white men - albeit criminals - is an absurdity.

Likewise, the implication in Colbert's skit that anti-Asian racism is taken seriously, also effectively whitewashes the fact that it absolutely is not - do I want mainstream America patting itself on the back because they believe that their society abhors anti-Asian racism when we all know that anti-Asian racism is almost celebrated as a beloved and subtle means of defining what America absolutely is not? My sense is that Asian-America missed an opportunity to point out the ironic absurdity of Colbert's inadvertent misrepresentation of perceptions of anti-Asian racism and the irony of a liberal pretending to be a conservative trying to point out the severity of racism by utilizing anti-Asian racism that no-one takes seriously because of dehumanizing representations produced in the liberal bastions of Hollywood and the studios of New York.

Colbert's satire failed simply because his skit seemed to be out of touch with America's tolerance for derogatory representations of Asians. If he wants to put himself forward as a commentator on America's race then he owes it to the people whose experiences he seeks to contextualize to actually understand the context of their experiences and acquaint himself with those dynamics. As such, Colbert's skit did absolutely nothing to further mainstream  understanding of the experience of racism outside of the black/white narrative, except to suggest that dehumanizing Native Americans is as morally problematic as America's dehumanization of Asians - which is something America seems to be very tolerant of.


  1. "Colbert's satire failed simply because his skit seemed to be out of touch with America's tolerance for derogatory representations of Asians"

    Flawless victory.
    -Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat

  2. Thank you for this excellent post, you done a good job of conveying the important ideas behind this whole controversy. There are continually those who accuse us of making mountains out of molehills,... but guess what? If you have an infinite number of molehills because people just can't or won't stop making molehills, what do you get in the end?

  3. Damn, why didn't I realize this sooner. Even though I 'got' the satire of Colbert's piece, it still irked me for reasons I didn't understand. Now I know why. Colbert's character is supposed to be lampooning a hypothetical conservative racist, but the problem is that right wing talking heads aren't actually that openly racist towards Asians as they are against Blacks and Hispanics. Anti-Asian racism is perpetrated just as much if not more by the left as the right, including liberal institutions such as Hollywood, as well as the Democratic party itself. Thus, Colbert's satire doesn't achieve the hyperbole it's aiming for, because the use of race to denigrate Asian Americans is much closer to reality than he (or his writers) think it is.

    1. Anonymous

      Yes precisely. Colbert's satire fails because it is fundamentally ignorant of the not so subtle nuances of the American race experience - satire without nuance is not satire.