Last week, a Tweet from the official account of “The Colbert Report” that repeated a line from a long bit about Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder without providing context for it set off an outraged call on social media to #CancelColbert. Stephen Colbert, who plays a character of the same name on his late-night show, returned to the airwaves last night to address the controversy. And while he leaned into the joke that had caused so much trouble as a one-liner (and that I argued might have been more revealing had it gone in another direction), he got a lot of things right. Here are the five sharpest points from the segment.
1. Nobody needs to protect Stephen Colbert, or any other major media figure: Colbert may have been in character when he explained the origins of the hashtag, but on one point, he seemed entirely serious. Noting that Suey Park has received not just reasoned criticism in response to the hashtag but also ugly, personal attacks, Colbert tried to call off the frenzy. “If anyone is doing that for me, I want you to stop right now,” Colbert said. “She’s just speaking her mind, and that’s what Twitter is for, as well as ruining the ending of every show I haven’t seen yet.” That is not a call to shut down conversation or probing introspection into comedy. Instead, Colbert was reminding us that he has the platform, the life experience and the manifest comedic ability to handle himself and his emotions, thank you.
2. Language is one issue in diversity debates. Employment and social comfort are something else entirely: At the end of the segment, Colbert, in character, announced that he would be shutting down his fake foundation and, as a result, firing its director. That employee pointed out to Colbert that he was the only Asian (and, presumably Asian American) person the Colbert character knows (and presumably, his only Asian employee). The point? Sensitivity about language cost a person of Asian descent both his job and a chance to do good in his community, and it gave Colbert an excuse not to get to know his Asian employee better and not to have to learn to pronounce the man’s name correctly. It was a sly illustration of potential unintended consequences and the need for a broad conception of racial justice.
3. Conservative support for certain progressive campaigns is not to be trusted: #CancelColbert attracted the support of Michelle Malkin, who has quite the Twitter following of her own, and Colbert was quick to put Malkin’s opportunism on blast in the segment. “I learned everything I know about sensitivity to the Asian American experience from reading Michelle’s 2004 book ‘In Defense of Internment’,” Colbert explained. “It turns out they had it coming.” If your goal is to amplify a provocation, it may not matter which allies you attract as long as their megaphones are big enough. But if you want to to advance a more nuanced message, a test of how well you articulated it may well be the allies it attracts.
4. Insisting you are not a racist is a pretty quick route to seeming racist: The very origin of the schtick that provoked such discussion is the idea that the Colbert character is physically incapable of seeing skin color, an idea Colbert returned to last night. “I just want to say that I am not a racist. I don’t even see race, not even my own,” he mused. “People tell me I’m white, and I believe them, because I just spent the last six minutes explaining how I’m not a racist. And that is about the whitest thing you can do.” Defensiveness is never a good look.
5. “White male is American neutral.” Do I even need to explain this one?
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