For the record, Suey Park does not like the term "hashtag activism." A freelance writer from the Chicago area, Park says her crusades against sexism and racism go beyond pithy one-liners on Twitter.
But Park, who is 23, doesn't deny she’s got a freakish aptitude for making Twitter campaigns go viral.
"I think I've definitely figured out the trick to make hashtags trend," Park said. "I know what drives corporations and Twitter kind of crazy."
She's taken aim at everything from racial stereotyping (#NotYourAsianSidekick #BlackPowerYellowPeril) to popular network television shows that have white actors play Asian roles (#HowIMetYourRacism #SaturdayNightLies).
Her most recent target is the fake news show The Colbert Report. She started the #CancelColbert hashtag on Thursday, after the Twitter account for the Comedy Central program tweeted this punchline from an earlier show:
The joke stemmed from host Stephen Colbert’s takedown of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who’s ignored calls to retire the mascot and instead launched the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation to benefit Native Americans. To mock Snyder, Colbert slipped into his alter ego, a racist blowhard who thinks nothing of faking a bad Asian accent and calling someone a “Chinaman,” but wants to start a foundation for Asians.
Given that the ostensible target was Snyder, many thought the bit harmless and all was quiet until Park got wind of the tweet.
She focused her ire on "white liberals" whom, she said, think they can't be racist because they hold progressive views. Others were soon tweeting alongside her.
Part of the reason the hashtag was trending was because some on Twitter found it ridiculous.
Park said she never thought there was ever a real chance of the show getting canceled. But she wanted an apology, and came up with a hashtag that would get noticed.
“I don’t think it would have gotten attention if not for such overt, pushy demands,” Park said. “It wasn’t like ‘Apologize Now, Colbert.’ I don’t think it would have really caught on.”
“A virtual neighborhood”
Park is still waiting for an apology from The Colbert Show, which has since deleted the offending tweet. (As for Colbert, he distanced himself from the tweet late Thursday, pointing out it didn’t come from his personal account. He added, with his alter ego's typical flourish, "I share your rage.")
But the hashtag had by then created a firestorm on Twitter, leading to a flurry of stories by mainstream news outlets and for Park, a disastrous interview on HuffPoLive on Friday. She accused host Josh Zepps of using a “patronizing” line of questioning and failing to see the perspective of minorities as a white man. Zepps said she was missing the point of Colbert’s satire, and that her opinion was “stupid.”
Rallying to Parks’ side was her base of supporters on Twitter, predominantly women of color who consider themselves feminists. Through them, Park’s hashtags are given the legs to trend.
“About the same 10 people tweet me frequently,” Park said. “Maybe there’s about 50 to 100 people that are always participating in the same hashtags that I’m involved with. It’s kind of like a virtual neighborhood.”
Los Angeles-based comedy writer Andrew Ti covers similar ground as Park as the host of the podcast “Yo, Is This Racist?” and creator of a blog by the same name.
He's followed some of her hashtag campaigns without realizing they were all originating from one person. To him, Park's success demonstrates that "anyone can do this."
“Anyone can see injustice and anyone especially with the power of the Internet now can help other people express it,” Ti said.
But what is it about Park's campaigns that make them go viral? Could it be as simple as the way she phrases her hashtags? Her doggedness in keeping them trending by encouraging retweets? The sense of community she builds with like-minded tweeters? She won't say.
"I have this paranoid fear that it could be bad if this kind of knowledge got in the wrong hands, so I just share it with other activists to make sure we're not sharing all our secrets," Park said.
Suey is not Park’s real first name. It's an online pseudonym playing off the name of the Chinese dish.
Back in grade school, she went by her Korean first name.
"My own elementary teacher said 'Your name sounds like what would happen if I dropped a bunch of silverware onto the ground: 'ching chong,'" Park said. "It was supposed to be a joke and I remember being horrified."
Park was raised by conservative immigrant parents in the Chicago area. Her late father was a sales executive at a company, her mother took care of the children. Park has a sister in medical school.
She said her parents felt helpless against discrimination. She recounted how her father, a sales executive at a company, came home from the golf course one day “so mad.” He told Park, then in high school, that a group of white golfers had been swinging balls aimed at his head.
“I remember being so upset for him and knowing that he did nothing,” Park said.
Park had her own struggles — primarily an eating disorder that she said lasted nine years. It was not until she started attending the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign that she got into activism. She and her friends called out the administration for not cracking down on the use of an Indian chief mascot that had been retired by the school, but still lived on unofficially at sporting events.
In conversation, Suey Park is soft-spoken, serious-minded, candid and academic.
Her Twitter persona comes off as more brash and strident, apt to drop an expletive here and here. And it's earned her many enemies online. People tell her they wish she would die, that they want to #CancelSuey. She's called racist, opportunistic, annoying and a host of sexual slurs.
How Park and her campaigns are regarded by some other socially-minded Asian-Americans is more complex.
Podcast host Ti, for example, saw the benefits of the #HowIMetYourRacism campaign. Park conceived it after the white cast of "How I Met Your Mother " dressed up as Asian characters for a martial-arts themed show. After the hashtag went viral, the show's co-creator issued a public apology on Twitter.
"In an ideal world, anyone should be able to point out that yellow face is wrong," said Ti, who is Chinese-American. "It’s not hard."
But Ti questioned whether all Twitter campaigns are equally constructive. He for one, thought the campaign against The Colbert Report, was not worth all the angst.
“There is a part of the Asian-American community that I wish would pick its battles a little bit more and focus,” Ti said.
Park said she doesn’t worry about what others think of her outside of her close-knit network of Twitter followers.
And she said she’ll keep up with her Twitter campaigns until she doesn’t see a need anymore for them, even though "it's not fun for me to focus and react to all these acts of racism that I see."
“I really want to retire,” she said with a laugh.