On Being Chang

When I was in college, I was given a nickname.


It is not my last name. It is not my “Chinese name” — I neither am Chinese nor carry multiple names, one for Asian and one non-Asian consumption. Rather, this name was bestowed on me by a White acquaintance, and it stuck.

My name-giver did not see this act as racist. She thought it was funny. Satiric. Solidified by the fact that I can do a passable impression of Margaret Cho’s mother. But not racist. And it wasn’t racist to call another woman “Asian X” because we knew a Black woman with the same name — although according to the name-giver, it was unacceptable to call the second woman “Black X” because “that would be racist.”

My point here is not to point fingers at one particularly misguided White liberal college woman. Rather, it is to help provide some context for the incident that launched #CancelColbert, and to help explain why Colbert fans’ outraged screams that Asian-Americans simply don’t understand satire ring particularly false. As Suey Park noted on HuffPost Live before she was cut off by Josh Zepps, racism against Asian and Asian-descendant people in this country is not considered racism. It is considered humor.

Humor can be a powerful tool for attacking racism, and I do believe that is what Stephen Colbert and his writers intended to do. However, for humor or any other artistic medium to start to deconstruct racism, it needs to make the audience engage critically with why racism exists and how our language and actions re-inscribe that racism. Merely making fun of a more racist individual doesn’t serve to advance the conversation. It just makes everyone (read: White liberals) who are “in on the joke” feel better about themselves for not (getting caught) being so explicitly racist.

Colbert et al. would do well to take their cues from the countless comedians of color who use smart humor to drive a real critique of race — if you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a peek at Key and Peele’s Obama “anger translator” or Ken Tanaka’s “What kind of Asian are you?” skit — or if you need to hear what good critical use of humor to critique racism sounds like from a White comedian, how about Louis CK on “the n-word”. In the meantime, maybe Colbert should just steer clear of tired clichés about minorities and the people who humiliate/vilify/don’t give a crap about us.

As for me, I still go by Chang. It’s short. Easy to remember. And it creates a space to have a meaningful dialogue about race every time someone asks me how I got the name. Some folks then continue to use it, some don’t. Am I offended by it any longer? No. There are other things I’d rather focus my attention on. And it’s pretty amusing to watch people address my White father and his White girlfriend as “Mr. and Mrs. Chang.”


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