A couple of years ago, HBO aired a conversation between comedians Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK about comedy as craft. Among the topics discussed was the use of racial slurs–particularly the use of “nigger”. Explaining why he, unlike Louis CK, had never used the word in his act, Seinfeld said “Well, you found the humor of it. I didn’t.” (relevant conversation starts around 15:23 at the link).
Perhaps reasonable people can disagree over whether Stephen Colbert successfully found the humor in anti-Asian slurs in his takedown of Dan Snyder’s insulting attempts to placate critics. I’ve heard comedians like CK invoke slurs and stereotypes against African Americans successfully (meaning it was more funny/engaging than offensive). I’ve also heard some who I thought were trivializing a painful, ugly reality in order to make themselves seem edgy. I wish there were some three point test I or anyone could offer to show people how to end up in the former category rather than the latter. Unfortunately, this is one of those pornography vs. art distinctions–you know it when you see it and not everyone agrees on how to categorize what they’ve seen.
What I can say is racial slurs are not shibboleths, words whose use in and of itself is enough to define the speaker regardless of context or intent. And discomfort at a joke that’s tripped and fallen over the line is not necessarily cause for condemnation or demands for an apology. We are still learning how to speak to each other. We are still learning how to offer respect and support while also being able to tease and chide. Reacting to every failed attempt at one of the latter, including the completely unintentional and the totally inconsequential, with the same ferocious level of outrage is counterproductive. It both empowers opponents to dismiss more substantial critiques and wastes energy and resources that could be used to bolster those same critiques. To oppose #cancelcolbert is not necessarily to dismiss the discomfort or hurt felt by those who saw the offending tweet but to ask whether we can’t do a smarter job of picking our battles.
All that being said, however much I disagree with Suey Park and her supporters on this, I have no problem with her speaking her mind. What I find far more offensive than Colbert’s bit on Snyder, Comedy Central’s tweet, or Park’s hashtag activism is the argument that being a woman of color gives Park immunity from dissent.
Blogging for The Nation, Julia Carrie Wong argues that those disagreeing with Park—not the sociopathic trolls making death threats, but those writing reasoned, civil pieces explaining their positions—are only doing so because they fear “women of color, and especially supposedly submissive Asian women, acting with such brash disregard of their elders and ‘betters.’” Wong writes:
Even if all these arguments against Suey Park were convincing, however, none of them explains why so many members of the mainstream media felt so irresistibly compelled to make them…I hope that all the writers who took to their platforms to condemn #CancelColbert and Suey Park ask themselves what they had to lose by supporting her, or at least by remaining silent.
So, even if the writers disagreeing with Park are making compelling, well-founded arguments they should be asking themselves why they didn’t just support Park anyway, whether through positive agreement or withholding disagreement.
As Wong points out, Park has enough social media clout to get and keep a hashtag trending for several hours. That clout made it possible for her to spark a discussion about the limits of satire, the shortcomings of white liberals and the norms for the discussion of race and racism in our society. That’s great! And yet, Wong insists that actually having that discussion, rather than granting Park full control of the stage for an outraged monologue, is some kind of slight.
I’ve seen versions of this argument repeatedly in other spaces; that questioning the positions of members of a marginalized group, however respectfully, is an attack and a symptom of the fear of loss of privilege. I’ve also seen that questioning met with a declaration that it is not the job of the marginalized to educate those in the mainstream.
It’s certainly true that there are those whose questions are less sincere acts of disagreement than lashing out at the source of uncomfortable truths. It’s also true that privilege is generally invisible to the privileged, requiring an exhausting (and, at times, degrading) explanation of premises that would be taken as a given among members of the un-privileged group.
But when taking to twitter or a public blog or Facebook page you are not engaged in a private conversation. You are speaking to the world and the world will respond. Sometimes the world will tell you you’re wrong. Sometimes the world will be right. Either way, engaging those who disagree will make you smarter and your arguments sharper.
And while “it’s not my job to educate you” might be a perfectly reasonable position to take if someone demands explanations from you while you’re minding your business living your life, it’s a piss poor excuse when we’re already in the middle of a discussion you started (again, to be absolutely clear, I am not referring to those too dumb to come with anything more than “dood, can’t you take a joke?” or rape threats but genuine, reasoned responses).
What’s more, that kind of intelligent honest engagement is a compliment. It means that your position, your level of influence, your words were compelling enough to be worth the time and energy of a response (and that the writer expected her readers to agree).
Attempting to carve out a safe harbor from engagement for women of color on issues of race or gender is a condescending denial of our ability to be our own advocates. Plenty of women of color can take a joke. Plenty of us can also speak our minds when a joke goes awry. And plenty of us are both smart enough to defend the positions we take and intellectually honest enough to admit when we’ve made a mistake. Implying otherwise cheapens our contributions far more than an errant tweet.