Power to the Hashtag Activists

#CancelColbert has fueled a firestorm online about race, and Suey Park may have been right all along

“Sure, hashtags come and go, and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place.” —Writer David Carr in The New York Times on March 25, 2012

IN THE INTERNET AGE OF TODAY, it is simply impossible to deny the power of online activism. Countless debates over racism, sexism, homophobia, as well as other widespread social concerns have been provoked over the years, with stinging words and calls for action being waged like bullets on a global battlefield of social concern.

Public information supplied by social networking websites have played key roles during paramount moments of modern-day activism, most famously being utilized during the Arab Spring of 2011 and the “Occupy” protests across America. The simple ability to share immense amounts of accurate, uncensored information through the Internet has given ordinary individuals the power to overthrow powerful dictatorships, spark protests, voice their opinions, and expose corruption.

But out of the vast array of social networks, the platform of choice for many appears to be Twitter. With its simple user ability to subscribe to a diverse network of voices and its useful hashtag system, it has quickly become the go-to tool for journalists, tech lovers, and activists alike. The social network’s popularity has given birth to a phenomenon known as “hashtag activism,” where a hashtag focusing on a specific cause is amplified and trended.

Hashtag activism is a relatively young phenomenon, with Twitter’s founding back in March of 2006. But already, we are seeing, often in real-time, the wide impacts it can cause, as well as the conversation that it can provoke, whether it be positive or negative, constructive or unproductive.

Hashtags such as #hoodiesup and #rapecultureiswhen have helped shine the light on instances of injustice, or have created a space where marginalized groups could speak openly about problems often disregarded by mainstream media organizations. Best of all, this method of generating discussion has, on occasion, led to real action, real change, and real results.

The most recent hashtag to catch the world’s attention has spurred passionate conversation on race, sensitivity, and the definition of satire, as well as utter hatred for the woman behind it. But what it also does is reveal the true power of hashtag activists, and their role in ultimately making the world a more moral and better place.

Ridicule Accomplished

Redskins owner Dan Snyder was mercilessly mocked by comedian Stephen Colbert, but a tweet containing a quote from the segment would spark the viral hashtag #CancelColbert by activist Suey Park. (Photo via USA Today)

IT WAS JUST ANOTHER WEDNESDAY, and just another day for millions of Americans to watch Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” to get their daily dose of biting humor. Host Stephen Colbert — in his regular persona as an extremist and ignorant right-wing pundit — aired a segment lampooning Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his decision to launch a nonprofit foundation designed to “help address the challenges that plague the Native American community.”

While the creation of the foundation may appear as a heart-filled gesture, the Native American community has in the past taken issue with the word “Redskins,” which is viewed as a corrosive ethnic slur and a reminder of a centuries-long history of death and broken promises. Dan Snyder’s move to name the foundation the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” has rightfully angered many Native American activists.

“[Colbert] was taking a public and vocal stand in support of the Native American community. So what went wrong?

The foundation’s work of distributing winter coats and shoes to several tribes, and as Colbert mentioned, their “assistance” in purchasing a backhoe for Nebraska’s Omaha Tribe, was mocked mercilessly in the show’s segment. Dan Snyder’s foundation claims to have over forty other projects which they say will help to build a brighter future for Native Americans, but as Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang noted, for a franchise worth nearly two billion dollars fueled by operating profits of over one-hundred million dollars annually, “handing out shoes and buying a $100,000 backhoe is a cheap price to pay to defray ongoing negative PR from the many Native Americans who have been pushing for the team to change its 77-year-old name.”

Colbert, in his usual loud-mouthed conservative character, stepped in, declaring that he was inspired by Snyder’s actions and announced that he would be launching the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” He then aired a clip referencing his fake Asian stereotype character, “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong,” in which he engaged in satirized mockery of Asian dialect. (The last time the character had appeared was during a segment highlighting conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s string of pure gibberish to mimic the speech of former Chinese President Hu Jintao during his White House visit in 2011.)

The purpose of Colbert’s segment was clear. He was criticizing Dan Snyder’s racist and patronizing response to the public’s insistence that the team change its offensive name. He was satirizing racial stereotypes and exposing hypocrisy when he joked about creating the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” And finally, he was taking a public and vocal stand in support of the Native American community. So what went wrong?

A Tweet Gone Rogue

(Photo via NBC News)

THERE IS SOMETHING IN COMEDY KNOWN AS THE “COMEDIC SIN.” If you deliver a punchline without its setup, however clever it may be, it instantly becomes a failure.

An unknown individual running “The Colbert Report’s” social media feed did just that, tweeting the punchline from the Redskins segment without its buildup or context, reading: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” With Twitter’s limit of 140 characters, it seemed to be a random and racialized attack on Asians.

It was a disaster waiting to happen. The unaccompanied punchline, free from its context, quickly sparked a firestorm of full-throated fury and escalated into a full-scale campaign demanding that Comedy Central cancel the show. The hashtag #CancelColbert instantly became one of Twitter’s top trending topics across America, and would remain there for over 36 hours. Comedy Central, in the face of the building digital heat, hastily deleted the offending tweet in question (although it was captured by many Twitter users) and pointed out that it was not tweeted by Colbert himself.

Leading the social media outcry was twenty-three-year-old writer and activist Suey Park (@suey_park), who had previously trended the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, which aimed to encourage Asian-American women to voice their frustrations with traditional feminism. Additionally, she started and facilitated several other successful hashtag campaigns, including #NotYourMascot, #BlackPowerYellowPeril, #SaturdayNightLies, and #POC4CulturalEnrichment, and was named one of the British Guardian’s “top 30 young people in digital media” for her work.

“It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Park, a veteran of “hashtag activism,” launched the campaign with a simple tweet: “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.”

The response was swift and deafening. Millions of tweets featuring the hashtag flooded the Twittersphere, and tens of thousands of stunned fans came to Colbert’s defense, many infuriated at the outrage itself. Soon, Twitter’s troll population began sending vile personal attacks to Park, threatening rape and even death. Finally, numerous Native American activists expressed their shock after seeing their own issue being totally eclipsed by the high-volume of rage spewing out from both sides.

By Friday afternoon, the sports website Deadspin had published a post by two Korean-American writers with the headline “Gooks Don’t Get Redskins Joke,” while Jebezel declared the trend an embarrassing “sh*tstorm.” Dozens of opinion columnists from the biggest news and entertainment sites weighed in, creating an endless stream of repetitive commentary. #CancelColbert had dissolved into a confusing frenzy of outrage, attracting much-heated debate and commentary from anyone and everyone who had any basic thoughts about race in America.

The Face Behind the Hashtag

Hashtag activist Suey Park was the driving force behind #CancelColbert, and has received rape and death threats from Twitter trolls. (Photo via Suey Park)

WITH EMOTIONS RUNNING HIGH IN THIS DEBATE, it is ultimately critical to understand Park’s reasoning and where she came from.

Raised by conservative immigrant parents in Chicago, Park’s father worked as a sales executive, while her mother took care of the children. She recalls her parents feeling helpless against discrimination, recounting how her father came home from a golf course one day “so mad,” telling her that a group of white golfers had been swinging balls at his head.

“I remember being so upset for him and knowing that he did nothing,” Park told immigration and emerging communities reporter Josie Huang of 89.3 KPCC Radio.

“[Suey Park] appears intelligent, soft-spoken, and informed about the topics in which she champions constantly.”

Interestingly, “Suey” is not Park’s real first name. Instead, it’s an online pseudonym playing off the name of a Chinese dish, changed from the original Korean first name she held in grade school.

“My own elementary teacher said, ‘Your name sounds like what would happen if I dropped a bunch of silverware onto the ground: ‘ching chong,’” she said. “It was supposed to be a joke and I remember being horrified.”

Park also struggled with an eating disorder lasting nine years, and her activism work only began after she began to attend the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She, along with fellow friends, shamed the school administration for failing to crack down on the use of an Indian chief mascot that had been retired, but was unofficially featured at university sporting events. Since then, her campaigns against racism and sexism have continued with the same spirit.

While her Twitter persona comes off as brash and chock-full of expletives, (she occasionally focuses her ire on “white liberals,” who she says believe that they cannot be racist simply because they hold progressive viewpoints) she appears intelligent, soft-spoken, and informed about the topics in which she champions constantly.

Rallying behind Park is an active base of supporters, predominantly feminist activists and women of color, many who can relate to her experiences.

However, her activism has earned her many enemies online. After #CancelColbert took off, separate hashtags, including #CancelSueyPark and #CancelSuey also followed. Many called her racist, opportunistic, annoying, as well as a host of slurs that simply cannot be published.

A prime example of disagreement occurred in her disastrous interview on Huffington Post Live, where Park accused host Josh Zepps of asking “loaded” questions and failing to see the perspective of minorities as a white man. Zepps responded by saying she was missing the point of Colbert’s satire, and that her opinion was “stupid.”

While many believe that Park’s efforts have been flawed, she says that she never thought there was ever a real chance of the show getting cancelled. She perfectly understands satire, and constantly mentions her experience as a creative writer. However, she simply wants an apology.

“I don’t think [the hashtag] would have gotten attention if not for such overt, pushy demands,” Park told Huang. “It wasn’t like ‘Apologize Now, Colbert.’ I don’t think it would have really caught on.”

#CancelColbert’s True Meaning

AFTER READING NUMEROUS TWEETS FROM PARK, I believe I now understand the true meaning of #CancelColbert.

Park’s previous hashtag, #NotYourAsianSidekick, was an innovative step in helping Asian-American women discuss diversity in America. She often uses social media to begin insightful and often meaningful conversations, and #CancelColbert should be seen as a similar attempt to do good.

There is a long and concerning tradition in American comedy of dumping tasteless jokes that insult the millions of Asians and Asian-Americans. Yellow-face, sad attempts at karate moves, rice jokes, and broken English continue to be featured on mainstream comedy shows, while many in the Asian community often sit and silently accept the ridicule.

There’s a fine line to draw when it comes to humor, with complex factors determining which jokes land and which ones crash and burn, and Park makes the point that comedic culture is dangerously morphing into a flawed understanding of identity, oppression, and individual justice.

In a conversation with the New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang, Park said she saw #CancelColbert as a way to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism. “Well-intentioned racial humor doesn’t actually do anything to end racism or the Redskins mascot,” Park told Kang. “That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.”

“Maybe Suey Park is right. Our response to #CancelColbert should not be dismissive, and we should eventually wake up and see the difference between miming intolerance and mocking it.”

Park also said that the point of #CancelColbert was to expose how white liberals who routinely condemn what she called “worse racism” will often turn a blind eye to, or even defend, other forms of prejudice, especially when the prejudice originates from someone who shares their progressive views. “The response shows the totality of white privilege,” Park said.

Now, I am an unapologetic fan of “The Colbert Report.” I watch Colbert’s show every single day alongside “The Daily Show with John Stewart,” and I even have autographed editions of every one of his books. I found Colbert’s segment on Dan Snyder and the Redskins hilarious and non-offensive in any way, but I often find myself agreeing with Park’s points. In an opinion piece written with writer Eunsong Kim (@clepsydras) for TIME aiming to explain the movement, Park offered up some points on satire that we can all learn from:

—Satire Lesson 1: If you need to explain whatever it is that you were trying to do, it’s not working. Your audience is telling you that it’s broken, it’s old. It needs to be reworked.

—Satire Lesson 2: Tone is not a shield. “Tone” is one element in a larger construction.

—Satire Lesson 3: If the only people who “get” your satire are racists — might we suggest some soul searching on your end?

“The problem isn’t that we can’t take a joke,” Park and Kim wrote. “The problem is that white comedians and their fans believe they are above reproach. The standard at ColbertNation for comedy is apparently the throwaway caricature for cheap laughs. We see no reason why this standard must be honored or protected.”

Maybe Suey Park is right. Maybe American comedy should start to reflect on what she really has to say. Our response to #CancelColbert should not be dismissive, and we should eventually wake up and see the difference between miming intolerance and mocking it.

The tweet from the official “Colbert Report” Twitter account was unfortunate, and we’ve all seen corporate social media screw-ups before. Park was calling out the deeply rooted racism in the media toward Asian-Americans of which the Colbert punchline, tweeted out of context, was admittedly an excellent example.

Over the next few days, many will argue about the efficiency of hashtag activism and whether acts of reason can be undermined by the often frivolous Twitter protests. But one thing is clear: Twitter activism interrupts our usual online socializing with serious questions, and the upsetting fact is that we won’t want to answer to some of them.

So let’s learn our lessons from #CancelColbert, and let’s start talking again about how Dan Snyder made our jaws drop by starting a charity for Native Americans with the offensive word “Redskins” in it. Maybe from there, we’ll eventually make some genuine progress and have some open conversation about the issues that really matter.

(For additional reading on #CancelColbert, there are many thought-provoking opinion pieces out there, including from the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, the Nation, Model View Culture, Slate, Black Girl Dangerous, the Huffington Post, Salon, and TIME.)

UPDATE — Stephen Colbert has responded publicly to the #CancelColbert movement in two separate segments on “The Colbert Report” and has called on Twitter users to stop “attacking” Suey Park. You can watch the segments here and here. Additionally, Comedy Central’s corporate Twitter account for “The Colbert Report,” @ColbertReport, has been deleted. You can find Stephen Colbert’s personal Twitter account here: @StephenAtHome.

Raised in California and now based in New Jersey, Andrew Peng is an editor and columnist at Byline, as well as a political journalist and longform writer with an eye for global innovation. He contributes content to Medium, K-Pop One, and a variety other sites, and has launched multiple humanitarian social media projects, including @TyphoonHaiyan. You can follow him on Twitter at @theAPJournalist.