"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On Thursday night, a writer, comedian and activist named Suey Park saw an opportunity when “The Colbert Report” tweeted: “I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong, Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” It was a joke pulled out of context from a segment mocking Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. The 23-year-old jumped on it immediately, calling to #CancelColbert over the racial slur. Then, Twitter’s “peculiar distortion effect,” as Jay Caspian Kang described it in the New Yorker, took hold. Those outraged by Park’s call to cancel a show over an out-of-context joke amplified the hashtag and made it go viral.
But Park told Kang that she never wanted the show canceled, and that, in fact, she is a fan. “Instead,” writes Kang, “she saw the hashtag as a way to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism.”
Park has used Twitter to discuss feminism and racial stereotypes before, with #NotYourAsianSidekick, #POC4CulturalEnrichment and #BlackPowerYellowPeril, all of which have picked up steam on the social media platform. It would be reductive to dismiss Park as a troll who baited a show for her own personal profile as an activist, as some have done. #CancelColbert has launched conversations about the efficacy of Twitter activism, the limits of satire, the relevance of context and liberal racism — conversations that, on the whole, have likely made America more aware of how we use race in humor.
After reading Kang’s piece and witnessing Colbert’s response on Monday, I wanted to see what Park had to say about the conversation she started. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length:
Did you watch the Monday night segment on the “Colbert Report”?
No, and I think that’s an irrelevant question.
Why do you think that’s an irrelevant question?
Because you’re still trying to understand my context, rather than the reaction and the conversation that I was trying to create.
You don’t think understanding your context is just as important?
I don’t think so.
Why is that?
I think it was just an opportunity to use hyperbole in a way to make social commentary, which is what the [unintelligible] would want to do to begin with. So in that sense, it’s not about understanding context, it’s never about understanding nuance and complexity of a white man’s joke, when a woman of color is always read as literal, when to me it was never a literal hashtag. And so it’s all this like, “What can we do to get you to understand context,” like, “What did you know, what did you not know,” like, “You don’t understand satire, you didn’t see the show,” etc. … When the question is really, what is so complex about understanding someone who is both a writer and an activist, understanding how I use satire and hyperbole to make a political commentary.
So what do you want from this conversation?
I wanted to hit the irony and inability of the left to deal with their own racism. I think as a result of the white ally industrial complex, for too long people of color have been asked to censor whiteness, they have been asked to educate their oppressor, they have been asked to use the right tone, and appease their politics in order to be heard. And in an effort to just contribute to the self-improvement of white allies that are often times just racist. So I think it’s kind of like pulling a blanket off the façade of progressivism. It forces people to deal with those conversations about race that go beyond micro-aggression and that go beyond being politically correct, to what it means to uproot racism in its entirety.
In that case, do you think that “The Colbert Report” itself is oppressive or just that specific joke or comment was oppressive?
I’m talking about whiteness at large.
OK. But you used this specific joke as a platform to have that conversation. Why was that?
It’s a tool. [Our conversation was interrupted here. Park excused herself and called back a few minutes later.]
Do you want to continue your thought?
Yes, because I think this is important. A lot of white America and so-called liberal people of color, along with conservatives, ask, “Do I understand context?” And that’s part of wanting to completely humanize the oppressor. To see the white man as always reasonable, always pure, always deliberate, always complex and always innocent. And to see the woman of color as literal. Both my intent behind the hashtag and in my [unintelligible] distance, is always about forcing an apology on me for not understanding their context when, in reality, they misunderstood us when they made us a punch line again. So it’s always this logic of how can we understand whiteness better, and that’s never been my politics. I’ve always been about occupying the margins and strengthening the margins and what that means is that, for a long time, whiteness has also occupied the margins. Like, people of color get in circles with no white people in the room and we see that whiteness still operates. So I think it’s kind of a shock for America that whiteness has dominant society already, it also seeps into the margins. What happens the one time when the margins seep into the whiteness and we encroach on their space? It’s like the sky is falling.
Do you think race has a place in comedy? Is it OK to joke about race, and if so, under what circumstances?
I mean, I don’t think people realize what I write about. I write a lot of comedy myself, I write scripts, I write jokes about race all the time, but I think they’re supposed to make a social commentary. A cheap joke is hitting a trope of a minority in order to get a point across. I think a better joke is to point to the depths and the roots of white supremacy, not simply joking about the Ku Klux Klan, not simply joking about Dan Snyder. But actually, like, when are we actually going to have these conversations about how white supremacy has caused Orientalism, slavery and genocide? When will we actually touch on those big things? And I don’t think that we’ve seen that yet in comedy, and I do think it’s possible, but no one is ready to flip the switch to make the white person the subject of the archetype.
You’re a fan of the “Colbert Report,” and race-based humor is a common shtick that he does by adopting the right-wing persona. Do you have an opinion on his racial comedy?
Totally. I mean I think I was a comedian for a long time cause I said, “Hey, apparently being a comedian gives you a free pass to say whatever you want.” And the reason I did that was to show a double standard — anything I say as a joke or in all seriousness gets dismissed. I must apologize, I must X, Y, Z. I will get rape and death threats for not thinking Colbert is funny, or for trying to crack my own jokes about race. And I think that’s unfair, cause in the same way he thinks Orientalism is backward and old, but he still uses it to make a point. For every time he does that, it should be more than justifiable for me to actually target the system of structural advantage that is whiteness and to be able to make jokes about white supremacists, which I do all the time in my work. I always paint my white characters to be singular, to be ignorant, to reverse the gaze onto them instead when they are our subjects, instead of always constantly saying people of color are fucked and a way to kind of always reinforce our subject’s location in reference to white men as some metaphor. I think it would be a more realistic socially commentary if I were able to joke about the totality of white supremacy, but I don’t think that’s going to happen on national television.
Do you think white people can joke about other races?
Yeah, there is definitely a way to do that and I’ve seen it done well. The difference is that I didn’t take away attention from Dan Snyder or the Redskins. Colbert did when he chose to ruin an opportunity to make a point about racism in America by using more racism. So he’s the one that destroyed an opportunity to shed light on Dan Snyder and the Redskins the moment that he chose to use Orientalism and a foreign accent to make his point. And so, I think in that sense, it’s Colbert that lacks context. It’s Colbert that doesn’t realize how he’s using racism as a vehicle to end racism, which is really just circular logic and doesn’t lead to an end destination of liberation, so I think if you are going to do it, you can’t draw parallels. Orientalism and genocide are actually not relative or comparable in social location. They’re not comparative in social location. They’re relative, which means that the logic behind colonialism is a very different logic than Orientalism, which is a very different logic than anti-blackness, and that means to uproot anti-blackness, colonialism and Orientalism you need to uproot the logic that’s been occupied. And so it is not a successful way to uproot colonialism by using the tools and the tricks and the metaphor of Orientalism. It actually isn’t a [sic] accurate portrayal of history or of our current situation in understanding those three pillars of white supremacy.
So it sounds like you saw an opportunity to have a discussion about all of these issues and force America to think about our portrayals of Asian-Americans in the media.
We can’t individualize structures, but if I symbolize many, many people of color, and if Colbert symbolizes the many, many white liberals or conservatives out there, then it’s symbolic in meaning and not literal at all.
What is the best way to work with white people, to get them on our side?
I don’t want them on our side.
You don’t want them on your side.
This is not reform, this is revolution.
So what do you want to see happen in your revolution?
I mean, it’s already happening I think. The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are … that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure. But any example like that.
Wait, can you ask that question again, I got distracted real quick, there was a bird outside my window.
I was asking you about if you want white people — because they’re still the majority — if you want them to be allies in your goal to end racism?
Well, one, they won’t be the majority for long. And two, I don’t want any ally who is going to use my emotional labor with no guarantee of aiding my liberation. And so I feel like this question that white America asks of us, “Why can’t you be reasonable to get us to work with you?” And I keep saying, being reasonable has never worked in history. All other big racial justice movements, all of the big historical figures in racial justice were never reasonable. They were always painted as crazy during their time, and even afterwards now. And I think people forget that because they want to look at these things in the past and not the present, and I think people need time and space to understand the sickness of things that happen now, especially because they don’t understand digital lives and our generation.
Did you watch the Wednesday night segment on “Colbert,” or was it just the tweet that you saw?
I actually did see it. I think people keep wanting to pretend that I haven’t already said that. I saw it. I took time to respond to it. I told about like four of my friends that I was going to pull a hyperbole to make a point before I even started the hashtag. I think people want to believe it’s accidental, when it was always intentional.
Would it be inflammatory to say that you think white men are sort of the enemy?
Um. I mean I think they are, and we might as well label it. Whiteness will always be the enemy. It’s not like I want to hurt them, it’s not like I want them to have any pain, but like, I just want them to realize what they have, and to honor the advantages. And I don’t think it’s much to ask to just even acknowledge it.
You’ve also said you’re a fan of “The Colbert Report.” So I guess I find that a little confusing, because he has done this sort of race-based humor for so long … I’m having trouble consolidating those two things, based on our conversation.
Well, first of all, I don’t think anything exists as a dichotomy. I think we need to be able hold multiple things at one time, and play with those tools in a really nuanced way. And so I think people want to categorize, either she’s an activist, or she’s a creative writer, she cannot be both, she cannot be pulling the rug on us, when I am. In the same sense, I think, people keep asking me, where were you in 2005 with your critical race theory critique of the Colbert show. And I was like, “first of all, I was waiting for Twitter to be invented, and second of all I was getting my braces tightened because I was still in middle-school.” So I think it’s funny when people are like, “How can you have been a fan of Colbert, and still do this to him?” Like there’s this I’m really hurting a millionaire. It’s like we are allowed to shift our ideology. I think a really beautiful part of me living through, like my rebirth online, is that like it shows that it’s OK to engage critical thinking, it’s OK to admit that what I thought two years ago is very flawed, and that I have a fuller picture now, and it’s still incomplete, and it’s still ongoing and changing. I’m taking in new information, and after I made my first hashtag POC4CulturalEnrichment, I took in new information about how to make my next one more impactful, to make it larger scale, to make it more deliberate. And so I think that really had to realize that like, it’s OK that I like the Colbert show, it’s OK that I like watching it once in a while still, and it’s also OK for me to realize that it can be a both ends situation, it doesn’t mean that he is off the hook and he is like immune to critique because I enjoy his show.
But then #CancelColbert was never literal, but it was a way to say, “Hey, improve Colbert,” knowing that trying to improve Colbert would never trend, knowing that it would never get heard. And I made #CancelColbert knowing that it wouldn’t even hurt him, knowing it would make him just a little bit more aware of how that satire isn’t actually even very funny. And so even for the comedic world, like I’m part of the comedic world, I’m a creative writer, it’s almost like, it’s about race, it definitely is, it is about white supremacy, it is a social commentary, but in some ways I just want to be able to turn on the TV and be like, that is good, fresh humor. That is productive humor, without being bored by the same tired jokes. We’ve all heard the Ching Chong joke before, we heard it in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” it’s time for us to get more creative with the way we joke about things to make social commentaries.
So on Monday night, you weren’t curious about how the conversation you had started would manifest itself on “Colbert”?
Um, no, actually, because I don’t think that he gets to be a mouthpiece to start or end a conversation about race, and in that sense I don’t think #CancelColbert ends with Colbert acknowledging that it happened. For me it’s just one piece of the larger puzzle. I didn’t want to watch it. I knew that he wouldn’t actually apologize, I knew he would probably stay in character, I knew he would probably find a token Asian, these were becoming clear as the week was playing out. There was no way that he was going to back down.
I don’t know, it’s kind of strange, because it was fun for me certainly when I started it. I was howling in laughter as I pulled my many different moves, hoping to switch to #CancelColbert to show the irony of who can take a joke, but apparently can’t take any criticism, to changing my avatar to a male Asian to kind of point to all these American-Asian men that were throwing me under the bus, so that they could look like a sidekick to white men to look like they were the good Asians. To me, being an angry Asian woman to show that “crazy” and “angry” are politics to be heard because we’ll always occupy that space. And it’s like at the end of the day, though, the problem is, despite those funny things, despite those larger political points, this is a problem with white supremacy that it’s still nonviolent and it’s still violent and it’s still violent violent, and I had to cancel a whole week of gigs, and I haven’t been able to leave where I’m staying in six days due to the amount of threats I am getting. [I lost] $4,000 that I would have made in my speaking gigs and so to think that there’s not a cost to pay to speak out, to become a sort of individualized leader, when tons of people are backing me, is very unfair and a symbolic move to try to quiet me. I don’t think Colbert joking about not attacking me is actually doing anything from the way that I see it, from the way that my physical safety has been put on hold.
Do you see Colbert and, say, Fox News, as two sides of the same coin when it comes to race?
Oh, I definitely do. I mean, white liberals co-signed horrible things, like militarization, like drones, like stop-and-frisk, they have never been here for people of color … I think real change is going to happen from the bottom up and it’s going to be happening on a grass-roots level apart from these political structures.
Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at email@example.com.More Prachi Gupta.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)