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Stephen Colbert Goes to Washington: Teaching and Learning

I am a former migrant worker. I worked the blueberry fields as a kid, as did most kids in my community. I was a lucky worker–I never had to migrate from state to state to follow work (I just went city to city, farm to farm) as other kids did. I got to stay in one school throughout the year, and live in one house. I also didn’t live in an area where the fields produced all year, so once fall hit–work was over for me. Twelve hour days and bone burning sun may have made up my summers, but I got a break. I got to see that there was another world out there.

There are so many kids in the US–many US citizens, who simply don’t. Who work year round, picking for a few hours before school, going back again after. Moving from city to city, state to state year round. Never quite finishing a school year in the same place. Going to school hungry–watching other kids eating the same berries and fruit they spent their morning picking but that they can’t afford to buy.

So I’ve been sorta weepy these past few days watching Stephen Colbert deal with the fallout over the migrant worker segments on his show and subsequent testimony in front of Congress.

I love Stephen Colbert. He has long been my geek of choice–I love his sarcasm, I love his humor, I love his dorky seriousness singing hip-hop with Alicia Keys. He’s been one of my favorite comedians for years, and I’ve watched his show religiously since it first premiered in 2005. His testimony means a lot to me; it exposes so many people to the reality of migrant work, while at the same time, gives the Chicano community specifically national time on the media circuit that wasn’t dependent on being interpreted by conservative far right ideologies like FOX news.

But when Colbert dropped out of character and talked about how love guides his actions around migrant workers–to see that tenderness, that sort of respect for fellow human beings who are so often abused as workers and criminalized as human beings, it hit me on a personal level.

“I like talking about people who don’t have any power. And this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result, and yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave and that’s an interesting contradiction to me. And you know, ‘what’s so ever you do for the least of my brothers.’ And these seemed like the least of our brothers—right now and lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard, and I don’t want to take any one’s hardship away from them or diminish anything like that, but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Migrant workers (and de facto, often immigrants) are so often little more than causes–even in progressive circles. In the best case scenario, we are an “issue” to be rallied around, in the worst case, a “problem” that needs to be fixed through compromise with radical right politicians that have consistently exhibited hateful actions/votes against migrant workers and immigrant populations.

In this more serious passage, Colbert is operating from a pure place, a place of compassion and interconnectedness. He is saying, in the public sphere, migrant workers are human beings with bodies that are doing ungodly work and have little power to change the conditions they work under. He is saying that there is a moral and ethical obligation for those who have power to help how they can.

An unprecedented message in such a mainstream sphere.

I am taking the time to tell you about what Stephen Colbert means to me because I actually want to critique him. I want to talk about Colbert’s character, Ching Chong Ding Dong. Forward to 1:54 to see the character.

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Colbert has had Ching Chong Ding Dong as a character since at least 2005. The character usually spends a lot of time squinting his eyes, pursing his lips together, sipping tea, and speaking in a very affected stereotypical accent (I ruuuve tea!!). Colbert has justified returning the character repeatedly becausethe character of Stephen Colbert is a clueless white guy who doesn’t “see color.” As such, the constant reintroduction of the Ching Chong character shows the character Colbert’s cluelessness rather than the real Colbert’s racism.

It’s an argument that I might buy, if I didn’t know that Colbert can do biting satire that critiques racism in a way that isn’t dependent on humiliating his subject unless it is a natural outcome of the interaction between himself and his subject. He’s given interviews about his work methodology where he specifically states he tries to really respect the humanity of his subjects. The Ching Chong character does not employ satire, and in fact, seems to be exclusively dependent on “character development.” That is, the mocking of Asian people with hurtful stereotypes and representations serves as a way to understand a white male character. An outcome that seems to go directly against the real Colbert’s stated desire to respect the humanity of his subjects.

The Ching Chong character is bad enough as it is. But to see the Ching Chong character connected to the scathing critique of the treatment of migrant workers is just terrible. The Ching Chong character serves as a way to separate two groups of people by stereotypes. That is, there is the good hardworking Mexican laborers that are doing what they can to survive–and then there are the Ching Chong Ding Dongs that “ruv tea.” But do we think that Asians are not migrant workers? Do we think that they aren’t living under the same conditions and in need of the same compassion that the workers that Colbert highlighted are? What compassion is Colbert demonstrating for a population that unionized and organized right alongside the very Chicano (Arturo Rodriguez) Colbert is testifying next to?

And after all, wasn’t it Representative Judy Chu, a Chinese American woman representing a heavily Latino area, who gave Colbert the chance to demonstrate his compassion in a more serious way? Isn’t it she who has and continues to support and defend his appearance in Congress, which is being ravaged by right wing media and politicians alike?

How can Colbert justify showing compassion and dedication to Arturo Rodriguez sitting next to him–but perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the woman in front of him?

I don’t hate Colbert. I think he represents most social justice organizing in the US, in fact. Most of us understand and “get” certain areas of social justice, but actively and consistently demonstrate harmful ignorance in others. I think Colbert demonstrates an amazing opportunity to show how compassion can extend to multiple communities. He’s already apologized for his Ching Chong representation–but I think it’s more important to retire the character completely. To trust that interacting with communities (as he has done through migrant work, singers, scientists, books, black friends and getting to know political districts, among other things) will develop the character of Stephen Colbert in a more nuanced, interesting and complex way than cheap stereotypes ever will.

Colbert has the general public talking about migrant work as no other person or publication has in years. Various media will occasionally attempt an expose on migrant work and its workers only to have those reports fall by the wayside, ignored in favor of the ever-increasing anti-immigrant hysteria. Whatever it is about Colbert that allows people to hear the story of immigration when they won’t hear it from the media, is important and necessary.

But I think it’s important that Colbert’s interventions don’t come at the expense of the very community he’s defending. Asian people from across the world are a part of the migrant communities in the US. They deserve better. And Colbert’s compassion is strong enough to give them better.


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