Thanks Avril Lavigne, Now I Have To Explain Cultural Appropriation To My Asian-American Kids Again

I can provide alternatives to the Avril Lavignes and Gwen Stefanis of the world, but then my kids walk out the door without me.
Publish date:
April 25, 2014
parenting, race, cultural appropriation, asian american, Avril Lavigne

Avril Lavigne took to Twitter defending her “Hello Kitty” video, saying she loves Japanese culture, but I think she couldn’t care less about Asian Americans. As a mom, I’ll still be cleaning up that confetti-flecked vomit when everyone else has moved on to Miley/Lindsay/Justin’s next installment of bad-decision-making.

It must be nice that Lavigne is able to jet off to Japan, but there are 18 million Asians who live in the United States, surrounded by people whose impressions of Asians are informed by the stereotypes they see on TV. You know, the sexless nerd, the long-suffering wife, the merciless gangster, the hard-bargaining prostitute, the giggling school girl.

Picking and choosing pieces of a culture and wearing them for kicks like a hilarious Halloween costume, then discarding them when it’s no longer fun and going back to a comfortable white celebrity life –- that’s textbook cultural appropriation.

I’m not worried that my kids will think the “Hello Kitty” video is cool. My 11-year-old watched the clip with me, and commented that the lead singer is annoying and the backup dancers are weird. But with its repeated mentions of Sanrio’s most iconic character (“Hello Kitty, you’re so pretty!”), the song seems like it would really appeal to three to eight-year-old girls. I hardly think those tots are going to be able to parse the difference between irony and earnestness -- or just straight up crap.

When Alison Gold introduced her hideous Chinese Food video a few months ago, even my third grader could recognize that the images were not exactly flattering, or even fair, to Chinese people. He came running over when he heard the sing-song lyrics emanating from my laptop, but his face darkened when he saw the blonde teen and her weird hand motions paying tribute to “chow mo-mo-mo-mien.”

“That’s racist,” he commented. And unlike many elementary school kids who cry, “That’s racist!” when they mean, “He’s the worst brother in the world!” or, “It’s so unfair that I can’t eat cookies for breakfast!” -- my boys understand that racism means treating another person unfairly because of his or her race.

We’ve already had to talk about why Asian characters in cartoons often have slanted slits for eyes. “That’s not what Asian people actually look like,” I explained. “It’s how other people think they look and draw them in a way to make them seem different or strange.”

So now that we’ve introduced the topics of discrimination and stereotypes, it’s time to broach the third-grade version of Cultural Appropriation 101.

As an Asian mom, it’s a running theme in my parenting journey. How do I teach them what it means to authentically be mixed-race Taiwanese American males, and not what pop culture thinks an Asian man should be?

In my own home, I can provide alternatives to the Avril Lavignes and Gwen Stefanis of the world. Our bookshelves are filled with Grace Lin and Lisa Yee books. Why watch the whitewashed Last Airbender movie when we can read Gene Yang’s Avatar comics instead? We can watch Fung Brothers videos on YouTube and if Jeremy Lin is playing, I can even sit through a basketball game.

But then my kids walk out the door without me. They go to school and talk to classmates whose parents don’t analyze their media consumption through the lens of critical race theory. (Those kids are probably downloading “Hello Kitty” on their iPods as I write this.) That’s why it’s important that I teach my kids to critically look at the world around them.

So I turn it into a little game. It’s a fine line between letting children of color grow up oblivious to the racial subtexts all around them, and making them paranoid that they will never be full-fledged members of American society. Why did they ask if I want the YELLOW mustard?

I often think of the father from the movie "Life is Beautiful." The characters, a Jewish family, are living in World War II Italy. The son asks about a sign in the window stating no Jews or dogs allowed, and the father jokes that everybody dislikes something and maybe they will get a sign saying no spiders or Visigoths allowed. While I’m thankful, and entirely aware that I don’t need to shelter my kids from an atrocity like the Holocaust, the takeaway is that a little levity can prevent children from feeling hopeless about injustice.

When I’m with my children and we see a derogatory image on a commercial or a one of those stereotypical tropes in a TV show (and programs aimed at tweens are full of them), I make a light-hearted comment, like, “Oh, right, like every time a Japanese person walks into a room, you have to bow to them!” or, “Hmm, do you know any Indian guys who wear a pocket protector?”

Then I turn it on the content creator. “Boy, that person must not know any real [fill in the blank] people. They really need to get out more!” Because if they learn one thing from my harping, it’s that the problem is not with their Asianness, but with other people’s misunderstanding of it.