Stephen Colbert's 'ching chong ding dong’ joke

A screen shot of the offending Stephen Colbert skit.

A screen shot of the offending Stephen Colbert skit.

Last week, American political satirist Stephen Colbert found himself at the centre of a social media storm thanks to the following tweet: 

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. — @ColbertReport”

On its own, the tweet was inarguably offensive.  So when freelance writer and activist Suey Park started the hashtag #CancelColbert, it felt like a perfectly understandable (if slightly earnest) response to the off-colour joke. That is, until you looked into the back story.  

The offending line turns out to be an excerpt from a much longer segment on ‘The Colbert Report’ –mocking the racist nature of the ‘Washington Redskins’ football team name. The skit took aim at billionaire team owner Daniel Snyder, who – while refusing to change the team name – offered to make amends by starting a Native American charity that also contains the racial slur ‘redskins’.

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On the show, Colbert poked fun at Snyder by suggesting that perhaps he too should start his own absurdly named charity "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."  Like any satire about race, it was tricky territory. And as Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan points out, “The bit only works as a whole; it doesn't work in parts.”  

 

 

Without proper context, it’s rather like tweeting some of the most cringe-worthy quotes by Chris Lilley’s Ja'mie King (“There’s this app called Asian Persuasian that turns you into an Asian person. I look like a REALLY hot Asian when you do me”), in the blind hope that fans will simply ‘get it’.

In Colbert's case, it's worth noting that the offending 'joke' wasn't actually tweeted by the actor himself (who owns the account @StephenAtHome), but @ColbertReport, which is run by Comedy Central. This means neither Colbert nor any of his writers had anything to do with the gaffe -- a fact that he clarifies in a personal tweet.

Confusion aside, it’s easy to see why the poorly executed tweet would’ve sparked outrage. And that’s where  ‘hashtag activist’ Suey Park comes in.  The 23-year-old was behind the globally trending #NotYourAsianSidekick movement late last year-- a highly publicised hashtag that prompted thousands of Asian Twitter users to air the everyday microaggressive grievances they faced .    

In fact, this isn’t the first time Park has taken aim at a TV show. Just this year, she has launched the hashtags #HowIMetYourRacism and #SaturdayNightLies to hit back at the use of yellowfacing successfully.  An apology was issued by the producers of HIMYM shortly after the anti-racist hashtag started trending.

But does a bad tweet (by Comedy Central, not Colbert himself) warrant the firing of one of the best satirists on TV? After all, Colbert is known for his knack for poking fun at the sexist, racist, homophobic side of conservative media. Doesn’t that make him ‘one of the good guys’?  And would it have made a difference if, for example, it turned out that Asian American Sam Kim, one of Colbert’s 18 staff writers had penned the offending joke?

 

 

In an interview with Southern Californian Public Radio, Park says that the #CancelColbert campaign was deliberately heavy-handed in order to be noticed. “I don’t think it would have gotten attention if not for such overt, pushy demands,” Park said. “It wasn’t like ‘Apologise Now, Colbert.’ I don’t think it would have really caught on.”

As it turned out, within a matter of hours #CancelColbert lit up Twitter feeds, and mainstream news outlets started publishing op-ed after op-ed on the merits (or lack thereof) of the ensuing firestorm.   The hashtag was emotive, catchy and easy to understand – a power trifecta that kept the campaign viral.   “The problem isn’t that we can’t take a joke. The problem is that white comedians and their fans believe they are above reproach,” Park explained in a TIME opinion piece.

So can a white comedian ever make fun of racial slurs? It’s tricky. Louis CK, the comedian extraordinaire oft quoted for ‘getting rape jokes right’, has managed to made fun of Asian stereotypes in his celebrated stand-up special, 'Hilarious'. It’s a cleverly executed conceit if you listened to the whole skit fromhere. – since the joke is clearly on him.  But anyone happened to have only caught this would find it no doubt highly offensive.

Here’s the thing about racial parody, like Louis CK, Colbert is incredibly skillful at what he does. But even when a joke is completely watertight in theory, you can’t stop people from being offended just because it's considered legitimate 'satire'.

As SMH columnist Waleed Aly points out last week, “plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn't find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call.”

On the flip side, it could prove worthwhile to be selective about our Twitter rage. In a Colbertian-twist, Park revealed in a recent interview that Suey isn’t her real first name. It's an online pseudonym playing off the name of the Chinese dish ‘Chop Suey’.  Is that racist? Is she hijacking another culture’s oppression?  Given her body of work, it’s highly unlikely. And yes, we could debate the finer points for hours, but let’s leave it this time, shall we?