Cultural Misappropriation: Yep, Still Racist

By
October 21, 2010

A screenshot of Travie McCoy in his new music video, 'Need You.' (Youtube)

In the last few weeks, I’ve been appalled by such music videos as Justin Bieber’s Somebody To Love Remix ft. Usher, Nicki Minaj’s Your Love and most recently, Travie McCoy’s Need You. How could I not be? Honestly, they’re VERY catchy songs accompanied with visually interesting videos. These singers are going to accomplish exactly what’s expected of mainstream performers: gain recognition, expand fan bases and of course, make bank.

I will not be a part of that fan base.

Why not? Because all three videos had something else in common — the use of scathingly cheap Asian stereotypes. By covering their videos with chopstick hair and sword-swinging samurai, these so-called artists and their companies attempt to authenticate their otherwise boring work at the expense of already disadvantaged people. They were so blatantly offensive it boggled my mind and frustrated me by how simple it was for them to get away with cultural misappropriation.

Screenshot of fan dancers in Justin Bieber's 'Somebody To Love Remix ft. Usher' music video. (Youtube)

Production companies are yet again demonstrating social irresponsibility by ignoring how their actions are negatively affecting the very people who created the cultures they’re stealing from. It’s going to be nearly impossible for anti-racists to convince others why this all-too-common trend of Orientalism is harmful when mainstream products are masked as ‘art.’

How can viewers question chopsticks sticking out of their hair when artists make it look so darn pretty? If you make their fans a pleasing shade of fuchsia pink, people won’t care how overdone and hokey it is for Asian dancers to carry them. Up the exposure on everything until even the light bouncing off the greasy skin of Peking ducks glistens like a thousand stars–because you don’t have to be original if you try to be exotic.

So, glamorize every stereotypical Asian aspect you could think of and fit into one video until each frame is spilling with tasty chinky otherness. Want a cheesy background? Just emblazon a red Chinese character for ‘love’ in awesome CGI dragon flames and forgetaboutit! Heck, you can even squiggle ‘gullible’ on a rice paper scroll in black ink as long it appears foreign and Asian-looking.

Promotional photo of Ke$ha from her debut album 'Animal.' (RCA)

As blogger Angry Asian Man has pointed out, why is it even necessary for some artists to use Asian culture in their work? They could get the message of their songs across without being offensive because yeah, sure, Travie McCoy is totally convincing as a romantic lead when he wears a coolie hat!

And it’s not only Asian cultures — have you seen pop singer Ke$ha’s stupid headdress and warpaint trend? It’s absolutely infuriating watching a white girl play dress up because being Indian for a day is oh so fun. The level of offensiveness is amazing when you consider how we’re living on the land of slaughtered Native Americans and you know she’s totally not going to contribute anything to the various tribes whose aesthetic she’s misappropriating.

Exoticism has also made its way into television. My laughter ceased when I saw a Special Asian episode in the criminal comedy-drama series, Psych where my own heritage was degraded by a horribly cheap Chinatown backdrop, stereotypical kung-fu fighting Triad gangs and Asian ‘jokes’ thrown around rike no tomollow. Not only are they ripping off cultures, they do everything they can to keep people of color in the background. The Hawaii Five-O series remake lied to viewers by making the two white guys the main characters even when ‘Lost’ actor Daniel Dae Kim and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ actress Grace Park were prominently advertised on billboards, exaggerating the Koreans’ actual roles in the show. 

Even though it’s awesome to see a whopping three Asian characters in the popular show, Glee, it’s not that empowering when they only talk about how super-duper Asian they are. I squirmed when those very kids groaned about how weird Chinese cuisine is (Because we even add chicken feet to salads, ha ha!) compared to normal Western food like McDonald’s cheeseburgers and apocalypse-proof Twinkies.

I can’t watch black-and-white films without waiting with bated breath that a Random Racist Moment™ will make its way into the next scene. In the French movie The Rules of the Game, I saw a rich white woman in a kimono staring admiringly at her toy-collecting husband’s creepy new Little Black Sambo wind up doll. I boycotted recent movies in lieu of their unfair casting of white actors in the roles meant for people of color. It’s not funny anymore when whiter-than-toast Hollywood actors Mickey Rourke and Angelina Jolie will be respectively playing war mongul Genghis Khan and Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the upcoming biopics.

K-Town logo on MTV. (MTV Iggy Blog)

After witnessing ALL these amazing levels of offensiveness play out on screen and airwaves, it’s not surprising that I’m going to be supporting the upcoming Jersey Shore-remake reality show series called K-Town based in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. They even have a Snooki!

Although the amount of Asianness will be off the charts and so very-in-your-face, at least I know there will be Asian producers looking over the project and it’s not just all white guys controlling how cultural images are displayed for the wider audience. I want to see an all-Asian cast party and get drunk not because “Ha ha, let’s see how red they get” but I’ll witnessing agency from real-life people who are more than the slant of their eyes. Fellow Asian Americans and I get to see these people discuss their identities outside the ethereal depictions of familiar The Joy Luck Club proportions.

I rather enjoy how the media is fawning over ab-tastic cast member Peter Le simply because Asian men aren’t worshipped the same way hunks like David Beckham are. ‘The Situ-Asian,’ as he’s called, breaks emasculating stereotypes which have confused so many people about their manliness and the endowment of their junk.

The cast of K-Town. (MTV)

The news of the series did receive backlash in fear of further stereotyping. But the fact that K-Town will be bringing in money for Koreatown businesses and in turn benefiting their community, that is saying a lot more than the other mainstream media who have been stealing and profiting off non-white cultures without giving a cent back.

This show is definitely a step up in fighting cultural misappropriation in so many ways.

After reading K-Town producer Mike Le’s honest and thought-provoking blog post about hoping to demonstrate a fair representation of Asians, I think the show is in good hands and we’ll just have to see how it goes.


Check out our other updates on K-Town:

Article: Producers create Asian Jersey Shore: Good news or bad news? (Includes interviews with the reality show producer and cast members)
Blog: NSFW: Leaked sizzle reel of K-Town reality show (aka “Asian Jersey Shore”)


Cultural Misappropriation: Yep, Still Racist was published on October 21, 2010 in Column, Letters to the Editor, Opinions

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