It surely says something about our culture that a single tweet can turn into a major racial incident.
You've likely heard the flap over comedian Stephen Colbert's send-up of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's new foundation to help Native Americans.
The controversy erupted when a Twitter account associated with Colbert's show, The Colbert Report, took the joke too far — away from its original context.
"I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," read the tweet from @ColbertReport.
That's not Colbert's Twitter handle, and Colbert himself had nothing to do with the tweet, but a lot of people — specifically Asian-Americans — didn't think it was funny. They thought it was straight-up racist.
Not Jay Caspian Kang, an Asian-American who wrote a piece about the controversy for NewYorker.com. Where some saw racism, he tells NPR's Rachel Martin he saw a big misunderstanding.
"When the tweet came out, without the sort of context of the first part of the joke, then it does seem a little bit shocking," he says.
One of those offended was activist Suey Park. Park re-tweeted in outrage, and the #CancelColbert campaign began. Kang understands where the anger comes from.
"Some of what Suey Park was saying [was] Asian-Americans who are second-generation, it's sort of ingrained in our heads to always protect that idea of assimilation and upward mobility," Kang says.
"One of the things that upsets us," he says, "is when somebody comes and agitates in a way that would reflect badly upon us."
But Kang defends Colbert. It's also upsetting to "reflect badly upon the people who we would consider our allies, who are trying to help us have this sort of assimilation, post-racial dream," he says.
In his article, Kang writes, "There's a long tradition in American comedy of dumping tasteless jokes at the feet of Asians and Asian-Americans that follows the perception that we will silently weather the ridicule."
"I think the writers in Hollywood know that it's just not going to be an issue the way that it would be if the joke was on another minority group," he says.
Kang is no fan of Twitter brouhahas — he confesses he's deleted his account more than once because trivial things are so easily blown out of proportion in 140 characters. This time, though, Kang is pleased that Asians didn't silently weather it.
"When you look at it from somebody like Suey Park's perspective, the whole point is to be heard," he says. "And if it takes a tweet about a TV show to be heard ... in that sense, it's sort of hard to argue with her that she's not advancing her agenda."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It surely says something about our culture that a single tweet can turn into a major racial incident. You probably heard about this - "The Colbert Report" sent out a tweet that was basically a joke without the set-up and a lot of people, especially Asian-Americans, didn't think it was so funny. They thought it was a straight-up racist remark. We've been wondering whether there are lessons to be learned from this whole Twitter episode. So we called Jay Caspian Kang, who wrote a piece about it for the New Yorker. Hey Jay, thanks so much for being with us.
CASPIAN KANG: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, can you quickly recap the events? I mean, it started with this tweet that Stephen Colbert's corporate account sent out, which said what?
KANG: The tweet itself said I am willing to show the Asian community that I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever, which was a reference to an organization that was set up by Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, in what many thought was sort of a dubious attempt to get in front of a lot of the negative attention that the team's name has been receiving - in which he set-up like a foundation called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which, you know, still had what many considered a racial epithet in the title.
MARTIN: So, Colbert thinks he is calling out what he sees as racist behavior, but then he became the subject and the target of some ire. What happened then?
KANG: I think that when the tweet came out without the sort of context of the first part of the joke, then it does seem a little bit shocking almost to see if somebody's just sort of scanning through their Twitter feed. One of the people who was scanning through their Twitter feed was a 23-year-old activist named Suey Park, who responded by replicating the tweet and saying that she was outraged and trying to whip up a storm through Twitter that would sort of raise awareness that this was not OK.
MARTIN: So let me ask you this - as an Asian-American, did you find Colbert's tweet to be offensive, even considering the context of the joke?
KANG: No, but I would also say that, you know, I think some of what Suey Park was saying - Asian-Americans who are second-generation - it's sort of ingrained in our heads to always protect that idea of assimilation and upward mobility. One of the things that upsets us, I think, a lot of times is when somebody comes and agitates in a way that would reflect badly upon us and reflect badly upon the people who we would consider our allies, who are trying to help us have this sort of assimilation, post-racial dream.
MARTIN: You write that Asian-Americans, in particular, are often the target of tasteless race-based humor in this country. Why is that?
KANG: If you can find a group that isn't going to make a big stink about it and you can sort of slip a somewhat offensive joke past, then you will always choose the path of least resistance. And I think that's why a lot of these sorts of jokes get cast-off on Asians and Asian-Americans. I think the writers in Hollywood know that it's just not going to be an issue like the way that it would be if the joke was on another minority group.
MARTIN: Does Twitter help or hinder our national conversation about race?
KANG: That's a difficult question. There've been times when I've deleted my account because it becomes so maddening and where it seems that little things are pointed at and attempted to make a huge deal out of, but I don't know. I think that when you look at it from somebody like Suey Park's perspective, the whole point is to be heard and if it takes a tweet about a TV show to be heard. You know, aside from my piece there are quotes from her. There are interviews with her that have appeared in a lot of major publications. She wrote something for Time. She was interviewed for Salon. You know, in that sense, it's sort of hard to argue with her that she's not advancing her agenda.
MARTIN: Jay Caspian Kang is a writer and a contributor to NewYorker.com. Jay, thanks so much for talking with us.
KANG: OK, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.