What we can learn from #CancelColbert

The debate about Stephen Colbert’s segment satirizing Dan Snyder’s racist attempt to make up for his racist sports team name has been complex, sometimes fascinating, and sometimes exhausting. It has split off into a hundred different threads of argument.

I want to focus on some lessons we can take away from the experience, regardless of whether you think the satire was effective or not, or what you think about hashtag activism in general or this campaign in particular.

White people don’t get to be the ultimate arbiters of what’s racist. There are white people (and people of color) who have stepped up to defend Colbert’s segment as satire that was exposing racism rather than perpetrating it. It’s important to check your privilege and realize that you aren’t experiencing the world in the same way that people of color are. It’s fine to disagree, but you also need to leave room for the fact that your opinion isn’t the ultimate overriding one, and to hear the perspectives of people of color rather than automatically shutting them down.

Intention is only one piece of the puzzle. Some people have dismissed the hurt that people feel in hearing racist terms because Colbert’s intention wasn’t to offend people. But if you are offended by racist terms, perhaps ones you’ve had thrown at you throughout your life, it doesn’t matter the reason they were used. Just because someone isn’t trying to be racist doesn’t invalidate another person’s experience of it. Whether you think this was a case of relying on lazy racist tropes or clever satire, it should generally be accepted that white liberals who oppose racism in general don’t get a free pass from criticism. 

We need to change how women and people of color are treated on the internet. As happens too often, Suey Park, the activist behind the campaign, and other defenders of it, have faced racism, sexism and threats of rape and other violence (Feministing chronicled the reaction and how other women of color have been treated for controversial statements here). I don’t need to explain why this is despicable. But we need to step up and hold people accountable because apparently some people still think it’s appropriate. You’re free to disagree and challenge the premise or the strategy for addressing it. If you can’t win an argument on its merits, then don’t try to have it. You’re not advancing your cause and you’re providing a real-time example of the racism and misogyny these people are often criticizing.

Nuanced, open-minded discussion is important. These issues are complicated. There aren’t easy answers. We need to come to the table willing to entertain perspectives that challenge our initial response to an event or our usual outlook. As a fan of Stephen Colbert, the easiest thing to do is just to dismiss any objections outright. I watched the segment before I heard of any backlash, and I laughed and interpreted it as making a point by invoking obviously racist terms to highlight how offensive Snyder’s stance is. However, I want to listen to what other people are saying about this campaign. It’s worth challenging ourselves when it comes to debates dealing with the tangled history of oppression in this country. Whichever side of the argument you’re on, it’s helpful to understand the emotions involved, the history, and be willing to shift your perspective. Whatever you think about Twitter as a place to start the conversation, it can obviously be a challenge to continue it there in a productive and meaningful way.

What do you all think we can take away from this as the sturm und drang around #CancelColbert dies down?

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