Roger Ebert Home

Hashtag Activism and the #CancelColbert campaign

If you hadn't heard of Suey Park before last week, then you missed out on a short-lived hashtag activism in 2013: #NotYourAsianSidekick. That hashtag campaign might have put the Korean American feminist on the list of some people including The Guardian, which named her as one of the top 30 young people in digital media, but her more recent hashtag campaign #CancelColbert has brought her increased attention and not all of it good.

Before her #CancelColbert campaign, Park was number 12 on The Guardian's list and defined as a writer and organizer based on what the paper called "a much-needed debate about Asian-American stereotypes" because Park argued "she did not feel represented by white feminism." According to The Guardian, the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick "trended for days, demonstrating just how much it meant to so many Asian women."

And yet, at number 11 is an 11-year-old named Robby Novak a.k.a. Kid President. At number 1 is a Yemeni journalist, campaigner and columnist Farea Al-Muslimi. He has only 7 thousand followers and also has a YouTube channel. The Guardian may be biased toward journalists, because Park has 21.7K followers on Twitter. I am one of them, but a hashtag doesn't substitute for content or context.

When I saw the #NotYourAsianSidekick trending, I didn't think it particularly pertained just to Asian and Asian American women. Asian and Asian American women have to put up with stereotypes, but they seem to fare better than Asian and Asian American men who are often neutered wise men and helpmates. When we were still watching "Glee," my husband counted the number of lines Chinese American Harry Shum Jr. got as the character Mike Chang and my husband noted that the Asian American woman Tina who was played by Korean American Jenna Ushkowitz got more lines. Moreover my husband is often discouraged by the romantic pairing of white men and Asian women in movies and TV.

Suey Park has taken her cue from the popular Angry Asian Man and named her Twitter account Angry Asian Woman. Angry Asian Man is Phil Yu, also a Korean American. His Internet blog launched in 2001. He's still angry and he's educated—he received an MA, as I did, from USC. Park is listed as a freelance writer.

Anger is something I know a lot about. The Monji temper is a legacy of a past that includes battles, a castle, samurai and daimyo. Anger can be a good thing if it is channeled into social activism and steadied by thoughtful research and analysis. There's always a need for anger management and that's something Park may need if she wants to be taken seriously.

Park doesn't want to talk about context, but I think it would give some perspective on the issues. I'm not sure that young women want a place at the table of feminism—white or otherwise. Even when I was an undergrad, feminism seemed to have become a distasteful word and feminists were pictured as shrill, lonely women. A study published in 1987 noted that the female subjects were "highly aware of gender inequality and supportive of the women's movement, although they were also reluctant to identify themselves as feminists." A more recent 2004 study noted that "Many women, even as they embrace feminist principles, are loathe to be labeled feminists." Both studies would seem to indicate that even white American women don't want a seat at the feminist dinner table and obviously this isn't because of the racial tokenism Park complains about.

We forget that historically, the first feminists, the people who fought to give the American women the vote also gave time and space to minority women to speak, most notably to Sojourner Truth in 1851, before the Civil War (1861-1865). Surely in the 1860s there were women and men, eager to get the women the vote, who also didn't believe in freeing the slaves and there were probably those who also didn't believe people of Northern European descent were equal to people from other areas, particularly Africa and Asia. Yet they came together for a single cause.

Today, there are many causes and even feminism differs from country to country. Women in Japan do not necessarily want equal pay for equal work because some work schedules inspire the word karōshi (過労死) or death due to being overworked. Asian Americans are often minorities in their hometowns, but not always (e.g. Monterey Park, CA or the state of Hawaii) and some groups have been in the U.S. long enough that we are several generations in—fifth, sixth generations. This means they have different issues that need to be addressed.

While I can support some causes and write about them, I can't support the #CancelColbert campaign and am disappointed that Suey Park took it on. She writes that she is off of Facebook. Her Twitter account does let one know she is available for speaking engagements, but what will she speak about? Hashtag activism and free form conversations that are only 140 characters deep? Fleeting alliances? Gathering trolls and whipping them with words into a frenzy? Is this her solution to racism?

Recent dog-related events on FB have shown me that people are quick to assume guilt, without waiting for a trial. Suggestion of violence followed. The mob mentality quickly takes over what might have begun as a civil discourse in many instances on social media. In the case of the short-attention span required for avid Tweeters, some Twitter users couldn't even take 22 minutes to watch "The Colbert Report."

My husband and I are both fans of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central. Stephen Colbert portrays himself as a fictional character who is more bluster than brains and is "factose intolerant." "The Colbert Report" is a parody of news commentators like Bill O'Reilly and his show, "The O'Reilly Factor."

"The Colbert Report" on Wednesday, 26 March 2014, had a segment poking fun at Daniel Snyder. Snyder has defended the name of his team, the Washington Redskins, against claims it was racist, and decided to improve his image by founding the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Colbert countered with a Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation For Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." It wasn't this segment that raised the ire of Park. It was the Comedy Central Twitter account for the Colbert Report that on Thursday just furnished the punchline—"I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever"—that caused Park to jump into hashtag activism.

The topic trended on Twitter and showed the best and worst of social media. By Friday, Park had an interview with the Huffington Post. Park's interview with HuffPost Live's Josh Zepps didn't make Park sound any better from my perspective. Zepps asked, "Why Cancel Colbert?"

Park's reply distanced me even more when she said, "Unfortunately people usually don't listen to us when we're being reasonable." She said she didn't appreciate that Asian Americans are always a punchline.

Such sweeping generalizations make weak arguments.

Zepps asked Park if she understood satire, to which she replied, "Of course I understand satire; I'm a writer." She also said, "I don't really think we're going to end racism by joking about it." That's her opinion. I don't share it.

To be fair to Zepps, it was Park who first interrupted Zepps as he was reading a comment by Colbert. Zepps has the confident speech pattern and quick delivery you'd expect from an experienced broadcast commentator. Park does not. Zepps is from Australia and worked on radio.

Park chose to close down the argument by telling Zepps that "as a white man I don't expect you to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying with regards to CancelColbert." She began to say something that sounded like "he has a history" but didn't complete the sentence. She did complain saying that "white men definitely feel entitled to talk over me" and said that Zepps was "offensive and patronizing."

To be fair to Zepps, in most languages, men tend to dominate conversations. That's not just white men talking over women of color. Sociolinguistics have also done studies that show difference styles and practices between native English speakers from different ethnic groups and regions that can lead to misunderstandings. The classic sociolinguistic examples were series of white and black interviewers and interviewees in and out of sync.

Park had an opportunity to explain, but decided it would be "unproductive" and that's a shame. Park's words alienated Caucasians that might have been sympathetic. She's probably already alienated white women as well as men and women of any color who feel that reasonable argumentation and humor are good tactics in eliminating racism.

I might be faulted as I sometimes am when I discuss Korean and Korean American celebrities and issues, because I am Japanese American. So in my defense, I will point out that other Korean Americans did not agree with Park, including Deadspin's Tommy Craggs and Kyle Wagner, who wrote "Gooks Don't Get Redskins Joke", and Jay Caspian Kang, who spoke with Park and posted the blog entry "The Campaign to 'Cancel' Colbert" for The New Yorker.

Kang spoke with Park and she told him, "There's no reason for me to act reasonable, because I won't be taken seriously anyway. So I might as well perform crazy to point out exactly what's expected from me." That statement seems to trivialize not only Park and her indignation over her interview with Zepps, it also trivializes all those who tweeted to support her. I want to ask (I did attempt to contact Park), if by performing crazy and doing what's expected of her if she isn't being a stereotype? We rarely see the authentic Stephen Colbert. How can we know when we're seeing the authentic Park?

For me, the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever is not offensive (but I also wrote a letter to a publication claiming to be a dog from the Scottish Collie Anti-Defamation League). It's a shame that the #CancelColbert took attention away from Snyder and the issues of Native Americans. That makes Park's hashtag activism seem thoughtless at best or at worst, self-serving. Park had previously helped with Native American hashtag activism such as #NotYourTonto and #NotYourMascot. Yet Park's behavior has lost her friends among the Native American community according to an account by Jennie Stockle. Stockle notes that she and others hadn't originally seen the show and after seeing it Stockle became aware that many Native Americans felt betrayed. Stockle also noted that Park reacted to a Wall Street Journal article about "weaponized hashtags" by childishly declaring that the writer, Jeff Yang, should be fired. Is this a trend? Anytime one disagrees with a public figure, one should start a hashtag campaign?

The debate did make for exciting TV. Colbert and his writers had to come up with a response and they did, while reminding his viewers of the real issue was being overlooked. "The Colbert Report" for 30 March 2014 began with employees leaving its offices and a collage of images that included the faux Native American (Italian American Iron Eyes Cody) crying from that famous "Keep America Beautiful" PSA, and Colbert waking up dressed in Washington Redskins wear to find B.D. Wong ready to analyze his dreams.

During the 22-minute show, Colbert destroyed the offending Twitter account, fired his supposedly only Asian American employee whose name he repeatedly mispronounced (Ja-mes instead of James), made a crack at a high profile supporter of the #CancelColbert campaign (Michelle Malkin), and noted that there was more of a frenzy about a non-existent organization than the one he meant to skewer.

Colbert also upheld free speech and good manners by calling for an end to personal attacks and threats of violence against Park saying, "She's just speaking her mind, and that's what Twitter is for, as well as ruining the ending of every show I haven't seen yet."

Yet Colbert kept in character, saying, "I just want to say that I am not a racist. I don't even see race, not even my own. People tell me I'm white, and I believe them, because I just spent the last six minutes explaining how I'm not a racist. And that is about the whitest thing you can do."

Colbert's special guest was not Park, but Twitter co-founder Biz Stone who helped Colbert terminate the Colbert Report Twitter account. It was a good choice, considering Park's stated intent and continued behavior.

Like Angry Asian Man, I don't agree with Park in her stated intentions or in her way of attracting attention. Playing the race card should be saved for when it counts and it's unfortunate that her hashtag activism took attention away from the real issues. You can't really fault the news media, including printed publications. News—broadcast and printed—is a business. What attracts readers is controversy. I used to be annoyed that too often the feminists or whomever was chosen to comment on an issue was so extreme and alienating, but I understand from a business point of view, people with extreme opinions are more likely to spark passionate arguments and sell papers or attract clicks online.

When I write, I attempt to make a reasonable arguments and that might not attract as much attention. I want to be taken seriously which is something that women of any color sometimes have trouble with, particularly in the company of men. It saddens me that young women like Park still feel the need to "perform crazy" to fulfill expectations.

My husband feels Park has made it harder to be Asian American and that you can't really deny the power and popularity of satire.

Reality TV may have deadened us to the concept of people being fired, even in this economy, but we shouldn't call for the cancellation of a TV series or the firing of a person for minor mistakes, particularly if the reasons that aren't heartfelt or as minor as differing opinions. Democracy is built on free speech and lively debate.

Hashtag activism has its limitations and depth is one of them. To resolve the problem of racism, I believe we need to engage and not alienate people of all races and if we want people to understand the reasonable and logical points we put forth against racism, then we need to make reasonable arguments and eschew mob mentality campaigns. Women would not have won the vote without men and racism can't be resolved without men and women of all races becoming engaged in earnest conversations and life is too short not to laugh at our shortcomings. Laughter is the best medicine and it is one that I believe will ultimately help us find a more peaceful way of life.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sweet Dreams
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game
Sasquatch Sunset


comments powered by Disqus