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Duly Noted

Friday, Mar 28, 2014, 6:16 pm

By Ridiculing Redskins, Colbert Made Racism ‘Truthy’

By Lindsay Beyerstein

In the March 26 episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert satiricized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's 'Original Americans Foundation,' proposing a 'Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.'  

Stephen Colbert is not a blowhard right-wing cable news host, but he plays one on The Colbert Report. The Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report is a sexist, racist, egomaniacal jingoist, whom Stephen Colbert the comic describes as a willfully ignorant idiot.

A recent episode of the Report included a bit mocking Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins football team, for setting up a bogus “Original Americans Foundation” in attempt to distract the public from the fact that his team’s name is a racial slur against the aforementioned original Americans. Despite widespread public revulsion, Snyder has refused to change his team’s name. Apparently, he’s okay with the fact that some high-profile sports reporters pointedly refuse to use the R-word in their coverage of the team.

To ridicule Snyder, Colbert revived the character of Ching Chong Ding Dong, a yellowface caricature. Ching Chong debuted on The Colbert Report in 2005 in a sketch in which Stephen the Conservative Talk Show Host got “caught” doing his racist Ching Chong impression on a live satellite feed:

Ching Chong has always been identified as unacceptable within the world of the show. He’s an expression of the main character’s racist id. Scratch a tough-talking right-wing pundit and watch a bigot bleed.

In his monologue, Colbert expresses solidarity with Snyder and makes the same bad arguments in defense of Ching Chong that “Redskins” defenders use to defend their mascot: It’s harmless, it’s a tradition, and uptight anti-racist activists just don’t get it:

Folks, this move by Dan Snyder inspires me, because my show has frequently come under attack for having a so-called offensive mascot, my beloved character Ching Chong Ding Dong. ... Offensive or not -- NOT -- Ching Chong is part of the unique heritage of the Colbert Nation that cannot change. But I'm willing to show the Asian community that I care by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. ... I owe all this sensitivity to Redskins owner Dan Snyder. So Asians, send your thank-you letters to him, not me.

When seen in full, the point of the sketch couldn’t be clearer: Colbert is mocking Snyder for insulting the nation’s intelligence and our sense of decency with a “charity” that’s almost as racist as the team name it’s supposed to distract us from. Which is why there was no controversy until an unnamed staffer at Comedy Central tweeted the following excerpt on The Colbert Report's Twitter feed: "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Stripped of its context, the tweet seems to mock cultural sensitivity and/or Asian people. Before long, the #CancelColbert hashtag was trending on Twitter.

As is typical in the TV business, Colbert the comic doesn’t write his show’s Twitter feed. The comic stated on his personal feed that he was offended by the tweet. It was deleted by Comedy Central.  

Some people wonder why it was necessary to evoke such an ugly and hurtful stereotype in order to make an anti-racist point. Here’s why: There are defenders of the “Redskins” name who had their consciences pricked by Colbert's routine who couldn't have been reached by earnest anti-racist entreaties. These folks have convinced themselves that the team name is a non-issue and no amount of rational argument is going to make them realize what's wrong with it. Sometimes, you can change someone’s mind by making them feel something, even when rational argument fails. One of the functions of social satire is to engineer those kinds of epiphanies.

The Ching Chong Ding Dong routine is supposed to make people uncomfortable. Such depictions of Asians are universally recognized as offensive in mainstream American society. The average apolitical parent would wash their kid’s mouth out with soap if they caught him talking like that. Hell, the average racist would be ashamed to be caught making Ching Chong jokes in public.

Even if you’re the kind of bigot who secretly thinks that shit is funny, you know enough to keep it under wraps. You wouldn’t sport a Ching Chong decal on your car or on your jersey, like many Redskins fans do with their mascot.

The comparison between the Redskins mascot and Ching Chong Ding Dong is supposed to make Redskins defenders feel ashamed of themselves. Colbert is trying to make them realize at a gut level that their beloved mascot is redface to Ching Chong's yellowface.

He's making it truthy for them.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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