By Timothy Fong
I would prefer to resolve disagreements with mutually respectful dialogue. But when that fails, I’ll take fear.
On Thursday, the Colbert Report did a skit where the punchline was “I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The editor of the show’s Twitter account then tweeted the joke. In response, Suey Park, a writer and activist instigated the hashtag #CancelColbert. That same evening, the tag trended, and received wider media attention, with Park appearing on HuffingtonPost Live. Park’s follow up tweets attracted positive and negative attention, including the all too predictable misogynistic psychos. Some prominent Asian American bloggers and celebrities thought that Park was going too far.
I think her callout of Colbert was completely appropriate.
I despise the entire “ching chong” routine. When I was a teenager, my family moved to a town that had very few Asian residents. Sometimes I was the only Asian kid in the room at school and I had to hear that shit constantly. Most of the time there wasn’t much I could do, other than take it because I was outnumbered. Too many people I know have similar stories. There is a persistent perception in American society that Asian people are submissive, safe targets for their aggression, and the repercussions of this belief extend into adulthood as well. In my professional life I often have interactions with white attorneys who seem to think that I am going to simply back down to their childish attempts at talking over me. I am more than willing to verbally assault another attorney until their voice wavers. A couple of years ago I had an attorney chase me out of a courtroom and assault me in the corridor, which ended in a way that was severely embarrassing– for him. And I’m not sorry.
Other people I know report similar situations, with coworkers who seem to be under the impression that they are just going to lie down and accept whatever treatment they dole out, meekly. When describing an especially contentious meeting, someone I know said “I never thought I would use so many f-bombs in a professional setting.”
I can’t even say that I see the worst of it either, as my female friends report that they face everything I do, with a side helping of sexual harassment.
Asian Americans are not viewed as people by American society. Some might call me paranoid, and claim that I (and my friends) are overly sensitive. Well those people can go stab themselves in the eye, because, like a good Chinese son, I have numbers. First, let’s look at school bullying, where over 50% of Asian students report being bullied. We can also look at another indicator, dating preferences. There are two interesting sets of data on the topic– the 2009 OkCupid post, and more recently, the “Are You Interested” data from 2013. Both data sets confirmed what has long been conventional wisdom in our community– that America views Asian females as desirable, and Asian men as invisible. This is again, because American culture codes “Asian” as submissive, considered a desirable trait in women and an undesirable one in men. While some Asian men (including a younger version of myself, for whom I apologize) view this as an “advantage” for Asian women, it isn’t really. Instead it is another way in which American society dehumanizes Asians, refusing to grant us the same humanity that it grants white people.
After looking at the data, it seems like we have not made much progress in getting the media to stop dehumanizing Asian Americans. I understand that commentators like Jeff Yang may think that Park went too far in eliciting a ferocious response to Colbert. I am sensitive to Yang’s argument that online activism is not a replacement for other forms of organizing. In fact, I could actually take that one step further, and say that organizing around problematic media is inadequate to transform the profoundly unjust political economy that pervades our lives. I’ve felt that way for a long time, and it is the reason that most of my organizing and writing has been around issues of political economy. Arguing over identity and privilege often feels to me like a fool’s errand when humanity is staring down ecological collapse and an ever widening gap between rich and poor. I’ve grown cynical too, about an Asian American politics that simply asks for a chance to lean in on the neo-liberal deal. From my reading of Park’s tweets, it seems she is not enthusiastic about that either. I suspect, though, that our politics are different. Park has tweeted about dismantling the state, while my focus is on harnessing the tools of the state to serve socialist goals.
I could take it a step further and argue that discussions about media representation are a waste of time. But I won’t. Because very clearly, media representations set the baselines of conversation for millions of Americans. And that conversation is hurting women and people of color generally, and Asian Americans specifically. Given that, I see the value of continuing to challenge those representations.
I have no doubt that after viewing the Colbert Report, some jerkoff 12 year olds went to school and repeated the skit to the only Asian kid in their class, and if the kid complained, they asked her “why can’t you take a joke?” Stephen Colbert and his writers, on the other hand, are well-to-do media personalities and they can take the heat. Park isn’t going to get his show cancelled. But if this makes annoyingly stupid comedy writers back off of their stupid because they are afraid of being the victim of an Asian American Twitterstorm, then I’m fine with it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Timothy Y. Fong is an attorney and occasional political organizer. Sometimes he commits acts of journalism. Follow him on twitter @tyfong919.