Race, Power, and #CancelColbert: A Conversation with Matt Bieber

Matt Bieber over at The Wheat and Chaff is a funny, almost absurdly brilliant human being. We went to graduate school together and have engaged in some terrific discussions about gender, race, love, and more through the last two years.
Over the past couple weeks, Matt and I exchanged messages about how the media handles race, through the lens of the #CancelColbert controversy. It spawned a great conversation. I invite you to take a look.

Matt Bieber: You have some really interesting thoughts about the whole #CancelColbert episode. Can you briefly recap the sequence of events? And what did you make of Colbert’s response?

Kenny Wiley: The Colbert Report Twitter account put out a tweet referencing the bit they did lampooning Dan Snyder’s “Original Americans Foundation.” The bit used stereotypical Asian/Asian-American words, and it quickly garnered a great deal of attention. Activist Suey Park, previously known for her #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, took issue with what she viewed was the racism and white privilege latent in Colbert’s words, both in the skit and on Twitter, and criticized the show by, among other things, starting the #CancelColbert hashtag. It took off and became a huge story.

There are two things that make this story noteworthy to me. First, Suey Park quickly came under fire for starting #CancelColbert. She received heat from white liberals, fans of Colbert, and also from many people of color. There were several journalists and other people of color who leapt at the opportunity to dismiss Park’s claims that Colbert’s satire was ineffective and racist.

I am a Black American. I found this “ganging-up” on Park by Asians and other people of color on Twitter and other forms of social media to be fascinating and thoroughly disconcerting. I know that there exists for many of us a desire to come across as ‘reasonable’ and ‘measured’ when it comes to racial issues. We don’t want to seem angry, and mainstream America rewards those of us who maintain our composure. I argue that many writers of color used Suey Park as a device to prove their “reasonableness.”

I’ve done that in the past, and really regret it. Suey Park simply strove to begin a dialogue about the appropriateness of a rich white person, even in character, using tired stereotypes about one ethnicity to score political points. It’s been said that “good satire points up [in terms of power structures], not down.” I believe tearing down other people of color for the benefit of white people proves that these power structures exist, and also maintains them. I’m disappointed, not that people of color had the temerity to disagree with Park’s analysis, but that many did so viciously. They seemed more interested in challenging Suey Park than in analyzing Stephen Colbert’s work.

That brings me to my second thought. A narrative emerged, from white folks and people of color alike, that Suey Park and those who agree with her were “fighting the wrong battle.” Dan Snyder was let off the hook, so went the conventional wisdom, because Park directed her energy at Colbert and not at the absurdity of having an NFL team named the Washington Redskins.

This is a dangerous argument, especially coming from those white people who self-identify as liberal. Telling Suey Park and others, “I’m on your side,” while simultaneously discrediting their views and opinions, seems incongruous. However one feels about The Colbert Report actually being canceled, Suey Park spoke to a very real pain for many people of Asian descent and other people of color: being used as a punchline over and over and over hurts. Watching a white male profit off of racial humor, even in character, pains us. The “I’m on your side” response discredits such a viewpoint, and says, basically, “get over it.”

As someone who has heard the same tired, worn racial jokes throughout my life, I can tell you that getting “over it” just isn’t that simple. Many people believe racism, and other forms of discrimination, to be limited to isolated, horrendous actions by individuals. When one comes to see that racism is a system that involves and impacts everyone, it becomes crucial to critique everyone – because we’re all complicit. I am a black male and I think prejudiced things against my own race, and others. I’m not a bad person. Harboring racial prejudice doesn’t make anyone a bad person, because we all have it. It’s out of our control.

What we can do is listen to those people who harbor opinions we are taught to discount – women, and people of color. We can fight the urge to immediately dismiss their claims.

I now turn to you with a question. I’ve often heard it said that people like Suey Park are “injecting” race and gender into a particular situation such as the Colbert controversy, and that they need to “learn to take a joke.” How would you respond to the view that sensitivity is weakness, and that we need to stop injecting gender, race, etc. into the public discourse?

MB: People dismiss sensitivity as ‘weakness’ so that they don’t have to listen to what others are sensing, experiencing, and living through. In other words, disparaging sensitivity is the true act of weakness. It’s a declaration of indifference (and underneath, fear).

This whole controversy has been confusing to me, in part because of something I went through as a teenager. My high school’s mascot is a Native American ‘warrior,’ and a group of my friends and I sought to get it changed. As we made our case, I sometimes asked people how they would feel if the mascot were of a different race or ethnicity. I would give examples. What if a student dressed up to look like a stereotypical Jewish person – yarmulke, big nose, curly hair, long beard and payot? And what if that student then danced around the football field with sacred Jewish religious paraphernalia? What if we sewed those same stereotyped images into our wrestling uniforms and plastered them on our scoreboards?

I was trying to make the same point Colbert was making – that we would never feel comfortable taking some other group of citizens and turning them into caricatured symbols for sports teams. But we’ve been doing that to Native Americans for decades, and relatively few people seem to notice.

I’m wondering, then, whether you think there’s any difference between what I was up to and what Colbert did. One thought that comes to mind is that, save for a few letters to the editor, we were mostly trying to persuade people in one-on-one situations. And that meant that we could approach things differently depending on our audience. Generally, I was wary about using examples that implicated the person I was talking to, because I didn’t want to risk hurting them in the name of making my point. On the other hand, though, this sometimes felt like it was the only way to make the point real to people. (Either way, I’m sure I made mistakes: I was 18 and full of self-righteousness.)

I’m wondering if it works differently on TV. The target of Colbert’s satire was Dan Snyder, but he was broadcasting to millions (including many Asian-Americans). He had no way to get a sense for his audience, because he had no way to know who was watching or to gauge how they might feel.

I’m wondering if this is related to your point about privilege – that by just going ahead with his joke, Colbert was expressing a kind of indifference to the possibility of hurting Asian-Americans (and others who are tired of being caught in the crossfire of white people’s humor).

But perhaps this is another difference – that Colbert wasn’t just trying to illustrate his point using a provocative analogy. He was also trying to be funny. And if he hadn’t been so interested in getting laughs, he might have been more sensitive to the hurt his words might cause. (He’s certainly overlooked this kind of thingbefore.)

In his response to the controversy, Colbert suggested that the furor only started when one of the jokes got taken out of context in a tweet. But you’re saying it’s more than that – that plenty of people were already frustrated, and that the joke wasn’t okay even in context. And I think it feels that way to me, too.

This leads me to wonder – would it feel different to you if he hadn’t made a joke? If he had used the same example, but in a way that expressed more overt solidarity with Native Americans? If he had done something like what a Native American group did in this recent ad?

KW: To your last question: I believe using the premise of the joke as sober commentary would feel quite different – but it also wouldn’t feel like Colbert. Colbert pokes fun. That’s what he does, and now he will apparently be doing it as CBS’ new host of The Late Show. So your actions in high school also strike me as far different from Colbert’s joke. Using equivalence as a debating strategy can be tricky, because the other person(s) may just not see anything wrong with racial humor in general. I have seen it be effective, however – provided the other person has some appreciation for anti-racist rhetoric.

In a way, Colbert-to-CBS feels inevitable. Another white guy moving on up. While some people of color (and some others) argue for the cancellation of Colbert, he gets a massive job upgrade.

Media in our society exists to entertain; even more fundamentally, media aims to make money and perpetuate itself. CBS sent a message loud and clear that using people of color as props is profitable and acceptable, and as long as you toe a racial line, getting critique from “fringe groups” doesn’t matter.

Media coverage of the Colbert controversy and of race more generally deeply frustrates me. I came across a quote from Elinor Tatum, editor-in-chief of the New York Amsterdam News, that deeply moved me. She said of race-related stories in America, “There is no such thing as objective journalism. There’s always a point of view.” I buy that. When too many of us don’t understand power dynamics, we fail to see that the privileged position is seen as the default or ‘objective’ stance. So only white folks can be unbiased about race, only men are unbiased about gender, and so on.

Such viewpoints stymie us as a society. White viewers of Colbert and/or the Colbert controversy could simply dismiss out of hand Suey Park’s claims instead of doing any sort of introspection on their own thoughts or biases. She is a woman of color, and therefore had two ‘inherent’ strikes against her credibility even before she said anything. People – indeed, not just white folks, but also people of color more interested in respectability politics than in asking tough questions – tuned her, and those like her, out.

Somewhat relatedly, I recently learned that people we would now consider die-hard racists – Bull Connor and other white supremacists – told media outlets that they weren’t racist. I believe, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry does, that we need not equate the systemic racism of today to brutal Jim Crow segregation of the past in order to make our point. It is frightening, though, to consider that “I’m not racist” is as old as racism, and perhaps nearly as insidious.

I’ve started thinking, then, that maybe we ought to stop using terms such as “sexist” and “racist” when discussing systemic prejudice and supremacy, because they cause such a visceral reaction. People essentially stop listening as soon as you suggest they have prejudice against women. “I’m not sexist – I love women,” some men say. Media and individuals focus on horrific, isolated, seemingly outdated instances of overt prejudice. I believe that lets us consumers off the hook, to point fingers at “those racist people” or “those homophobic people” without examining how we help perpetuate these invisible (yet super-visible) systems of inequality and discrimination.

How do you think we move the conversation away from “Look at those sexist people!” to “Look at this system of sexism”? Relatedly, I saw a poster this week that said “We need feminism because our campus teaches ‘How not to get raped’ instead of ‘Don’t rape.’” The poster deeply moved me. I’m interested in moving conversations and more accurately analyzing systemic realities. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how we do that, and anything else.

MB: Thanks for being so honest about your feelings here, man. I often feel a kind of exhaustion with the sheer level of callousness and meanness in our popular culture. I have a sense that the fatigue you experience is deeper, though, because you’re a target of much more of that meanness. It takes courage to share those feelings, and I admire it.

In general, I think I agree with you about the terms ‘racist’ and ‘sexist.’ They seem helpful for describing systems and situations, but they’re often counterproductive interpersonally. Not always, though. When I was growing up, my mom stopped me short several times by suggesting that my casual adolescent slang was sexist. If you’re talking to someone who’s both concerned about uprooting their own racism or sexism and capable of taking that kind of direct feedback, those words can work. But probably not on TV (where people are much more likely to get defensive).

As for how we have the kinds of conversations you’re seeking, I think the answer is to just keep having them! Because the more we do it, the easier it is for everyone else to jump in. We do our best to point out the shortcomings of the existing narratives, and we push as far as our courage and insight will take us. And then we sit back and hear what others think. Speaking of which, perhaps we should do that now!

KW: I also believe in the power of conversation. What I think matters is that we’re all striving to improve, rather than just marginalized groups carrying most of the load when it comes to conversation, education and activism. About a week ago a white friend reached out to me wondering if I’d share my thoughts with him regarding the Steve Utash mob beating in Detroit in early April.

My friend wasn’t coming from an overly negative space, yet the request still rankled me. To him, I believe the Utash tragedy was an example of “reverse racism,” of angry blacks beating a white man nearly to death. He wondered why I hadn’t written about it, and why black activists hadn’t made a big deal of the situation.

As with most things regarding race, the case wasn’t that simple. Indeed, Steve Utash was horrified that he’d hit a black child with his truck, and stopped to check on him. Utash was beaten by black people – and a black person saved his life. If anything, the case showed how messy any and all of these issues can be. But I was struck by my friend’s demand that black activists speak out against the violence, yet there was no mention of retired nurse Deborah Hughes’s heroics.

The more I read about the Utash/Hughes tragedy and the more I read my friend’s message, the more I thought of W.E.B. Du Bois’ words in The Souls of Black Folk. In 1903, Du Bois asked a set of questions that, for all our progress, still remains unanswered today:

“Here, then, is the dilemma…What, after all, am I? Am I American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?”

The people who attacked Utash are described as young black men. Deborah Hughes, a black woman, is described as an “American hero.” They are all black. They are all Americans. That disconnect in description saddens me deeply, and it concerns me. I don’t know what to do about it. Talking about this discrepancy, and so many others like it – with race, gender, sexual orientation and so many others – is of the utmost importance.

Let’s keep talking, my friend.

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Reflections on ‘Getting Better’

“I’m so glad you’re better.”

A year ago I found myself in the midst of a severe depression. It wasn’t until September 2013, about seven months ago, that I showed signs of improvement. It took leaving graduate school, moving two time zones away, and incredible gestures of friendship and empathy to get me to this point.

Emotionally, where am I now? I’m “better.” That’s what I tell people—because it’s true.
Sort of.

In the last couple months, I’ve reconnected with old friends in person, by phone, through Facebook, and in other ways. I went back to the east coast in early February to see people. I was pretty public about my depression (not that I could have hid it anyway—I’ve got a pretty bad poker face) and people wanted to know, understandably, whether things were better for me out west.
Better—there’s that word again.

Depression, at least in my experience, isn’t like a sprained ankle. Generally speaking, things have improved a great deal. A year ago I barely functioned. Eight months ago my deepest desire was to disappear. Two days ago I went to a Denver Nuggets game and laughed and cheered with my best friend.

But am I “better”? It depends on the day. Last week I spent three days barely able to get out of bed. Shame of past ‘failures’—grad school troubles, falling short of my best in friendships and other relationships, not being the family member I know I can be—sent me on a rapid spiral downward.

The spiral felt worse because of how often I’ve said that I’m “better.” That inner dialogue went something like this:

How much have people done for you? You have this job you like with fun people and this week you can’t even get everything done. People go out of their way to help you and you still fail. You have so many gifts and you screw them up, time and time again.

You’re a failure. These five months in Denver were a fluke. You’re going back to the person you really are—and that person is useless.
Just give up.

The Harry Potter book scene that stuck most with me seemed, at first glance, to be a throwaway. Harry and his classmates learn about the Imperius curse, a spell that allows the caster to control the recipient’s mind and body. A person under the Imperius curse will do whatever the caster wants—unless she/he learns to throw off the spell.
The first time Harry experiences the spell, in the classroom, he feels that blissful urge to submit—but his mind has other ideas:

“And then he heard [the] voice, echoing in some chamber of his brain: Jump onto the desk . . . jump onto the desk…

Harry bent his knees obediently, preparing to spring.

Jump onto the desk…  

Why, though? Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain.

Stupid thing to do, really, said the voice.

Jump onto the desk…

No, I don’t think I will, thanks, said the other voice, a little more firmly . . . no, I don’t really want to . ..

Jump!  NOW!

The next thing Harry felt was considerable pain. He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping—the result was that he’d smashed headlong into the desk, knocking it over.

“He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping.” 

That feeling of conflict, of inner turmoil—that’s what it feels like to battle depression, and that’s what it feels like to stand up to that hateful inner dialogue.

I’m not sure I will ever defeat depression. Some days the inner voice seems to come out on top. Even now, with a job I enjoy in a city I love, despair still has its day, or its hour, or its week.

But as long as I keep going, I stay in the fight. Getting out of bed is a win, however small. Brushing my teeth is a win. Reading that email I’m terrified to open is a win.

Fighting off that voice means experiencing considerable pain—but as long as I’m fighting, it means I’m feeling, and I’m living. Last week was rough. This week has been great. Both weeks are part of this long, grueling process.

Mostly I want to give myself permission, and give anyone reading this permission (or the permission to give yourself permission) to have days that don’t feel like better. Have moments and hours and weeks that don’t feel like better. As I continue this struggle through depression and grief, I am coming to learn that getting better means the presence,and not the absence, of pain.

Keep battling that voice, even if you knock some desks over. Keep hurting and keep struggling. Know that I’m right there with you, getting better—thanks to the bad days, and the good ones.

 

Race Corners and American Heroes

Three days ago, a white friend of mine asked for my thoughts on the brutal beating of Steve Utash, a white truck driver who inadvertently hit a preteen boy who dashed out into the street less than two weeks ago.

Steve Utash hit a black preteen boy on a Detroit street. When Utash, horrified, got out of his truck to check on the boy, several upset people attacked him, verbally and otherwise. Among them were a group of black teenagers. Utash was brutally beaten by the mob and only regained consciousness very recently.

Some social conservatives, frustrated with what they deem the “race-baiting” tactics of sociologists and other social liberals, have noted that the story–black teenagers viciously attacking a white man–hasn’t captured much national attention or outrage. My friend wondered why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (apparently) hadn’t weighed in. He also sought my thoughts on the matter, as I write and think frequently about race.

I know what I’m supposed to say. From one end, I’m supposed to say that violence is violence, and that this is a horrific crime. I should be every bit as angry when this happens as when a hate crime happens to a black person by a white person.

In the other corner, I’m supposed to point out that there isn’t the same legacy of mob violence against white men that there is against black men. I should say that the black teenagers, yes, overreacted, but that they responded to long history of violence–and that Utash hitting the boy struck that chord for them.

When I read my friend’s message about the Utash tragedy, sadness overtook me. I’m sad because an innocent kid got hit. I’m sad because a group of people let anger overtake them, and responded with hate instead of love.
I’m sad because people retreated to their corners.

Some used Steve Utash as an excuse to berate Jesse, Al, and others who view racism as prejudice+power. Some anti-racist activists explained away black folks beating a white man nearly to death because such violence is “not systemic.” Both types of responses are understandable and contain elements of truth. Neither response helps, nor feels particularly human.

But this is not a (false) equivalence essay.

In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. DuBois asked in 1903 a set of questions that, for all our progress, still remains unanswered today:

“Here, then, is the dilemma…What, after all, am I? Am I American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?”

In 2014 we are often told we ought to strive for a “colorblind” society. Most people of color, particularly the less affluent, know that such rhetoric is unrealistic at best and harmful at worst. For centuries we have been defined and segregated by our race. We have found ways to adapt, to look out for each other, to band together–and suddenly we’re told things like “”You shouldn’t have BET because a White Entertainment TV would be racist,” or asked, “Why don’t we have a White History Month?”

After being rejected and denounced for so long, we are now welcomed into mainstream society–conditionally.

Black folks and other people of color are welcome if. We are welcome if our name doesn’t sound too black, a truth sociologists still find despite our having a president with a “funny name.” We are welcome if we are incredible athletes or entertainers–as long as we remain humble and avoid seeming arrogant. We are welcome if our diction sounds white. We are welcome if we ‘ask’ for things instead of ‘aksing’ for them.

We are welcome if.
And we know it.

And if not?
We’re just another nigger.

And even if we are welcome, even if we are seen as full American citizens, we are still seen as accountable to one another.

When those black teens attacked Utash, black America was, in some way, held responsible. It felt like my friend was saying, “Why aren’t you all doing something about this?”  That my friend felt comfortable suggesting I, and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, ought to be organizing protests and speaking out against the teens who committed those barbaric acts–that says something.

It says: You are only allowed to be upset about racial violence if you’re upset about all of it, equally. If not, shut up.

All of us live lives of inconsistency. We wear “Boston Strong” shirts while ignoring the 49 murders that have happened in greater Boston since the attacks at the Marathon a year ago. We call overbearing men confident and confident women overbearing. At sporting events we applaud soldiers who protect our freedom, even as we question or fear the existence of peaceful Muslim centers near Ground Zero.

In high school, as I watched footage of Emmet Till’s disfigured face, I thought, “his skin tone is like my father’s.” I grew up reading books and watching tapes about people who looked like me being brutally beaten or enslaved. Those images haunted me. I was not alone. And so yes, news stories of a black person being attacked does things to me that a white person’s similar predicament does not. I wish that were not so.

And yet.

None of that excuses the actions of those teenagers against Steve Utash.

Social liberals and anti-racist scholars may not exactly be in Steve Utash’s corner about the controversy (though Jesse Jackson did speak out Monday against the attack); he did have a black person in his corner when it mattered most.

Deborah Hughes, a retired nurse, heard the crash and rushed out to see how she could help. When she saw the agitated mob and the beatings, she barged into the chaos to save Utash. Hughes said, I laid over the top of him, I put my arms around him and I said, ‘You are safe. Nobody’s going to hurt you no more.”‘ 

Deborah Hughes saved Steve Utash’s life.

I don’t know Deborah Hughes. Maybe she’s a black conservative, tired of Melissa Harris-Perry’s ‘divisive rhetoric.’ Maybe she’s a social liberal, exhausted by white America’s ‘inability to truly understand race.’ It doesn’t really matter. Deborah Hughes is an American hero.

Maya Angelou famously quoted Terence, the ancient Roman playwright, who said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

I hope we can follow Deborah Hughes’ example: Steve Utash’s suffering was not alien to her, because Steve Utash is not a talking point; he is a human being. Marissa Alexander is a human being. Trayvon Martin was a human being.

When Deborah Hughes saw Steve Utash being attacked, she didn’t see a talking point. She didn’t see a sociological study or proof of blacks’ reverse racism. She saw a fellow human in danger, and she moved to help.

May we do the same. May we do the same whether it’s a middle-aged white man being attacked, a  middle class black girl being left out of advanced classes, or a middle school boy trapped in a system that has forgotten about him.

May we move to help.