Joanne Knight

March 28, 2014

Asian Stereotypes on “The Colbert Report”: Racism and Political Satire

The eruption of outrage in the last 24 hours over the Colbert Report skit featuring a racist Asian stereotype raises interesting questions about the nature of race as a category of discrimination in Western liberal societies.

In the sketch, Colbert draws a parallel between the racism of the Redskins team using a stereotyped name and logo of Native Americans and the Asian stereotype of Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation, a charity to increase “Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

“The Colbert Report” was drawing on a long history of political satire which dates back to Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Swift’s satirical piece recommended that the Irish eat their children to stave off starvation after the collapse of the potato crop. Swift’s point was that the outrage created by this idea should actually be directed at English policies which produced the famine in Ireland. Much of Steven Colbert’s humour works in the same way.

The outrage expressed by the Asian-American community on Twitter against Colbert’s character parallels the way that Native Americans feel about the Redskin’s logo.

The force of the Asian-American community’s response draws attention to the difference with the ability of the Native American community to have its voice heard over the Redskins issue. People in the Native American community feel just as passionately as Asian-Americans about the use of racist stereotypes. However the Native American community is a much more oppressed community on every index of development than the Asian-American community. They score lower on income, health, life expectancy, and education.

This phenomena points to the complexity of racism as a category of discrimination in Western liberal societies. Race is affected by history and other categories of discrimination such as class. Taking the category of race in isolation ignores this. The Asian-American community is clearly able to defend itself against overt racist slurs in a way that the Native American community cannot do.
As Stephen Colbert said in a previous show “We now have an African-American President so racisms over, right?”

The responses on Twitter demonstrate the differences between the two communities.
“I just dont understand whats so hard about admitting @redskins is racist, without throwing other groups under the bus?” wrote Dani. She is claiming political solidarity with Native Americans but does such solidarity exist in reality?

“#CancelColbert because white liberals are just as complicit in making Asian-Americans into punchlines and we aren’t amused,” wrote Suey Park.
Park argues that white liberals are just as likely to exclude Asian-Americans from privilege as white conservatives. Liberalism promotes formal institutional measures to combat racism, such as anti-discrimination laws, while in many ways ignoring other forms of institutional racism. At the same time, Asian-Americans work very hard to be accepted into systems of white privilege without challenging the racism inherent in those systems until it affects them personally. This seems to be borne out by the Twitter storm.

The Native American community is fighting to maintain its unique heritage as a distinct cultural group whereas Asian-Americans seem more concerned with maintaining the privileges they have gained in the globalized economy. Maybe Stephen Colbert was mistaken in attempting to equate the two issues. But given the paucity of political satire on American television, I definitely support the continuation of The Colbert Report and will continue to watch it.

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