ironic racism

Everyone knows that it’s impolite to make fun of the way other ethnicities look and speak, but some comedians have found a loophole. If you have a racist bit that really kills, you can still do it as long as you do it ironically.

For instance, Stephen Colbert periodically breaks into his Chinese character, Ching Chong Ding Dong. It would be totally racist if say, Rush Limbaugh did it, but it’s okay for Colbert because his character is actually pretending to be a right wing buffoon. So Colbert is only pretending to be what Rush actually is. Get it?

But here’s the thing. When Colbert speaks as Ching Chong Ding Dong, the audience seems to be enjoying his racist antics. I don’t think they are making the sophisticated leap from 1) Colbert is mocking Chinese people to 2) Colbert is pretending to be a right wing idiot to 3) aren’t those politically conservative nut jobs really crazy? to 4) “Hey, that’s funny!”

Instead, they appear to be laughing at the racism straight up. So here’s the lesson:  you can still say and do pretty much whatever you want, as long as you pretend to be your opponent before saying and doing such things. You can get away with anything—even racism—as long as you do it ironically.

Update:  It also occurs to me that Colbert and his audience are able to be both racist and self-righteous at the same time. They are clearly making fun of Chinese people, all the while feeling morally superior to anyone who would actually do such a thing.







4 responses to “ironic racism”

  1. Mike,
    I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps the audience (myself included) laughs at Colbert when he does this without thinking this all the way through. Of course, as I watch Colbert (by far my favorite show on TV), I go into watching it consciously knowing that the entire show is him in character (the caricature of all the right-wing nutjobs out there). And I think that I am ALWAYS aware of this aspect of the show. My wife watches it with me at times, and since she is not a regular viewer, she will inevitably say something like, “Is he serious? Does he really believe that?” and I have to remind her that it is all a spoof. So, I think (underline “think”) that when he says things that are racist, I am in on the joke. His long-running gag is that he doesn’t see color – every time he has an African American on the show, he asks them if they are black, claiming he doesn’t see color – but we all know that his character is a racist and is just pretending when he says this to guests. It’s all part of the shtick.

  2. mikewittmer


    I think that is the question. Is the audience laughing at his spoof or directly at his exaggerated imitation of Chinese speaking English? Another way to say it, would Stephen Colbert, as the real Colbert (one of the hazards of playing his Colbert character is that it becomes difficult to tell who the real person is in there), perform the Ching Chong character? If he wouldn’t, then why is it acceptable just because he’s pretending to be one of the bad guys? Is anything permissible as long as you are role playing an enemy? Are anti-Semitic jokes okay if one is pretending to be a Nazi?

  3. The Filmsmith

    Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” wouldn’t have the power that it does if it wasn’t embodying the classist, almost racialized attitude toward the Irish poor. Satire is all about embodying an insane idea and pushing it to its breaking point in order to illuminate the insanity of that idea. It always pushes boundaries and not everyone gets it. But Colbert is not being racist and only those not in on the joke (that Colbert is mocking pontificating blowhards) are going to take it at face value.

    People in on the joke aren’t laughing at a racist joke – they are laughing at racists who are a joke.

  4. mikewittmer


    I understand what Colbert is doing, and the need to be “in on the joke.” But I also think that the joke has turned, and now perhaps you aren’t in on it. This is the problem with satire–it’s not always easy to tell why people are laughing. But as even Ricky Gervais has admitted, part of the appeal of Michael Scott on the Office is that many people are still quite sexist and racist, and his sexist and racist attitude is one of the few places that such views can be expressed in today’s world. So I don’t think my guess here is far off. But for the record, I hope you’re right.

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