Is it satire critiquing racism or more racism?
Recently The Colbert Report ran a segment mocking Dan Snyder’s attempts to woo Native American support as controversy surrounding his team’s name (the R*dskins) has increased significantly in recent months.
However, the segment itself referenced and incorporated Colbert’s “Ching-Chong-Ding-Dong” character, a racist and orientalist caricature of Asians. Many Asians took offense to this, as many did the first time Colbert employed this caricature. Suey Park, a Korean activists, called out the Colbert Report on this issue and started the hashtag #CancelColbert which quickly trended.
The segment can be viewed in full here (the part in question starts at 4:56).
I have seen a number of arguments defending and criticizing the show. Some people defending the show have suggested Asians who are offended are “not smart enough” to get Colbert Nation’s use of satire. Others have insisted that the true target was Snyder not Asians, and therefore Asians who get offended are just being uptight. Park and others have already addressed these arguments so I will not repeat them here.
Regardless of what one makes of this, I do agree with Park (and others) who point out that making fun of racism is not the same thing as dismantling racism. Mocking racism makes us feel like we are good people (specifically, better than people more racist than us) while not actually changing anything about our society.
We can mock racist trainwrecks like Snyder until we are blue in the face from laughter, but that is not the same thing as organizing and working together in solidarity to end the culture of white supremacy in the USA.
Throwing Each Other Under the Bus
The most troubling thing I have seen in this whole situation, and what I want to draw attention to, is how some Indigenous people have criticized Park and other Asians for speaking out against this segment on the Colbert Report.
While I am grateful to the Indigenous people who have expressed solidarity with those in the Asian community who spoke up, a number of Indigenous people have suggested that by criticizing Colbert, Park and other Asians took away attention from a moment of national attention on the issue of the R*dskins mascot, and by doing so have undermined the efforts to end the practice of Indigenous logos and mascots.
I see two problems with this criticism. First, this accusation inherently puts Asian concerns below those of Indigenous ones, suggesting one matters more than the others. Second this makes Park and other Asians into the villains as opposed to Snyder and Colbert.
Perhaps most alarmingly many of the Indigenous defenders of the Colbert Report, in dismissing the concerns of Asians, have employed the exact same rationalizations, arguments, derailments and tactics used by others to dismiss Indigenous concerns about Indigenous representation in movies, art, fashion, and sports mascots and logos. (“You’re being too sensitive.” “It was just a joke.” “There are more important things to be concerned about.” etc.)
Overall, this response is a prime example of one group of minorities throwing another group of minorities under the bus in the pursuit of their own gains or justice. The sentiment is that Asians shouldn’t have been offended or should not have spoken up in deference to the “real” issue at hand (the Indigenous one). This “rats-in-a-barrel” mentality pits marginalized groups against each other, ultimately to the detriment of both groups. Such thinking and behavior has plagued many efforts aimed at addressing various forms of injustice over the years. Fundamentally, I think this problem is rooted in a failure to recognize the complex nature of oppression.
Oppression and Intersectionality
Those of us who are faced with oppression and work to end it often intuitively but falsely think of oppression in overly simplistic terms: there is our group (the oppressed) and those oppressing us (the oppressor) and justice is addressing and ending this one dynamic.
In reality, oppression exists in many ways, at many levels and on many axes at the same time. Drawn out with some sample axes, oppression might resemble something like this:
When we think about the different forms of oppression that co-exist and how they intersect, influence and interact with one another, we are thinking intersectionally. The concept of intersectionality has been around since the 60’s and 70’s and was first explored by black feminists, in particular bell hooks.
Thinking about oppression and pursuing justice from an intersectional framework is the best (only?) way to avoid moving forward by throwing other marginalized groups under the bus. When we think in this manner a number of things become clear, of which I want to highlight a few.
First, communities or groups that experience oppression can at the same time benefit from and be complicit in the oppression of other groups.
Second, while the severity, lethality, and historical length of various forms of oppression can be recorded, measured and debated, all oppression is bad and we should be worked against to establish a more just society. Engaging in the “Oppression Olympics,” (where oppressed people argue among each other about who had it worse, and whose causes should get the most attention) is counter-productive and takes energy and attention away from actually addressing oppression.
Third, pursuing the end of one type of oppression by employing, supporting, condoning, ignoring or otherwise enabling another type of oppression is unjust, hypocritical, and privileges your group above others. Ending oppression is important, but how we end it also matters.
Finally, oppression thrives on divisions and in-fighting between the oppressed. When oppressed groups dismiss or diminish the experience of oppression in other groups and focus only on our own experience of oppression we are playing directly into the hands of those truly responsible for creating, maintaining, and benefiting from the racist, sexist, classist, (etc.) systems that govern our society. One article from Salon on #CancelColbert exemplifies this well: it features a black writer criticizing and dismissing Asian offense at Colbert because it undermined Indigenous offense at mascots. In this article, two marginalized groups criticize a third marginalized group, while the writing staff at the Colbert Report and Snyder are defended or go unmentioned.
Solidarity is the Solution
A man who has increasingly become one of my personal heroes, Fred Hampton, once said, “We gonna fight racism not with racism, but we gonna fight it with solidarity.”
The Colbert Report’s segment was at best problematically trying to fight racism with racism. This isn’t what we need to move forward towards a more just society.
Incidents like this and intersectional thinking point us to the solution Hampton and others have identified for years. What we need to move forward to a more just society is a long-suffering, humble and thorough solidarity among oppressed groups.
For the future, my hope is that we center our work around a categorically condemnation of all oppression, not just against the oppression that impact us. My hope is that we commit to supporting one another, instead of working in isolation or only on our interests. My hope is that do not think of our own communities or contexts as somehow categorically incapable of treating others unjustly, even as we ourselves are experiencing oppression. My hope is that we non-defensively listen to other groups, humbly admitting where we are complicit in their oppression and working to correct our communities, even as we patiently help them see and address issues in their communities that impact ours. My hope is that we do not tolerate gains for our group when they come at the expense of others.
Such robust solidarity will take time and it will be difficult, but it is the only way to avoid stepping on others as we pursue justice for our communities and the only hope we have to create and sustain a just society.