I watched a clip of Colbert trying to remain in character as he talked about anchor babies, of women in Mexico giving cannonlike births to have their children anchor them over to the other side with the umbilical cord. I didn’t laugh. I was thinking of the 3,000 dead people found up in the border of the United States and Mexico. The parts of bodies found. Of families dead in the desert.
I had stopped watching the Colbert Report years before this, and now was watching it because it was on at my brother’s house. Samuel L Jackson came on. The topic turned to racism, with Colbert denying he was racist. Jackson said something like “You sure? That anchor baby thing seems pretty f***ing racist to me.” Usually quick on his feet, Colbert paused. Maybe it was his white culture quickly rising up to feel scared anytime a white person is called racist. Or another defense - doesn’t Jackson get that this is satire? - or maybe a fart, who knows. After skipping a beat he answers in character - racist??? I’m colorblind…I don’t see color…
This was the moment when I realized why I didn’t think Colbert was funny anymore.
Comedy Central and Nick At Night were the mainstays of my adolescence. The ironic racism of Colbert wasn’t lost on me, even as a tween. I thought by watching and laughing that I was so enlightened. Satire has an important place, I think. I wouldn’t know this was racist unless he pointed it out!
It was funny as long as I didn’t know anyone actually died from stereotypes, from prejudices held by those in power.
I’ve been in the places where migrants and undocumented people languish in prison, torn apart from their “anchor babies”. I couldn’t go back to ignorantly laughing. People who had “anchor babies” are targets in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Arizona. Some of them die from the systemic oppression of this very prejudice - crossing the desert after deportation, trying to get back to their “anchor babies” who were now orphans.
Satire is important. I think of myself as a humorous person. I didn’t watch Archie Bunker or Blazing Saddles, but I imagine the satire was done so that no one wanted to be Archie Bunker.
The problem with Colbert is that most get why it’s racist before he makes it satire. We already know that buying part of a backhoe and giving thousands of coats to Native tribes doesn’t solve the problem of having a team with a name like the n*word for native peoples. It doesn’t ridicule Snyder to pretend to be a bigger racist than he is. It gives a free pass to be harmful.
People want to be Colbert. They want to be ironically racist. Cue the kids from my generation using the n*word casually, wearing head dresses made of feathers, and engaging in whatever stereotype they felt like because: yea, it’s wrong. I’m raising awareness, yo, that this is racist, by being racist. Never getting to the root of racism, they end up as a general citizen that shoots first to “stand their ground”. Or the banker that denies a loan, a relator that shows a specific part of town, an educator that unconsciously believes only some kids are destined to make it.
It’s been said that calling for #CancelColbert is asymmetrical to its offense, that it doesn’t “build relationship”. This sounds a little bit to me like “Well, if you only say what you need to say in a nice way, then people listen!” Because Suey Park decided to call something out angrily doesn’t invalidate her critique - ironic racism to show how something is racist is wrong. Colbert’s own response that #CancelColbert focused on the Asian American insult rather than the racism of the R—skins owner invalidates the width swath of support from Native Americans and First Peoples who said that using one stereotype to help another was throwing them under the bus, and they wouldn’t have it.
Calling for #CancelColbert exposed the effect of the powerful in our society. Colbert is allowed to go around saying whatever he wants - as long as it’s funny. He gets paid to do it. People protect his entertainment. When Suey Park says it ought to be canceled, they are more concerned with hurting and silencing her than they are with learning why she wants it canceled, or how stereotypes kill. If Colbert were to ask for the Daily Show, or any other show he felt like canceled no one would care. We’d join the campaign without considering his social moors. But if someone with no power asks Colbert to do something different, they are silenced, dismissed, threatened, harassed, and laughed off. Racists and enlightened people alike rush to his defense. Apparently, Colbert’s free speech - his own television show - is more important than the lives of marginalized communities he ironically mocks.
There is a rule of thumb about boundaries: those who can not respect boundaries have an unhealthy relationship. Why is it easy to accept a boundary from Colbert than it is from Suey Park? What kind of relationship do we really have with the wealthy and with the systemically disempowered? If we are so noble in laughing at racist satire, why is it so difficult to respect the wishes of the people whose stereotypes are the subject of our laughter?
Call me shrill, oversensitive, annoying, a social justice misanthrope without a sense of humor. It doesn’t matter if it’s true - it’s silencing all the same. You’re still reacting to #CancelColbert. If I’m overreacting then why are you still bothered by it?