What to do with these Mileys and Katys and Avrils?
Most of those pop singers and stereotype enthusiasts are either my same age, or near it. We grew up with the same batch of after-school specials and very special episodes teaching us that racism is, essentially, when you’re not friends with someone because of her skin color. It was a very basic, simple definition of what constitutes racism, and of what it means to be racist. Terms like “cultural appropriation” or nuanced discussions on colonialism (beyond “these people came, and they conquered”) were not introduced to me until college, and these discussions were fleshed out and debated after college, because I actively looked for them online.
I’m not excusing Avril’s behavior, or the questionable aesthetic choices she made in her latest single, “Hello Kitty,” and its accompanying video, which, oof:
But these Tweets from her lead me to believe that, because there is no animosity or malice or ill will in her depiction of Japanese people and Japanese culture, she does not see this as racist. She genuinely does not understand that there is something wrong (or off or offensive or inconsiderate or just a little icky, depending on where you’re standing) with it:
RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video…— Avril Lavigne (@AvrilLavigne) April 24, 2014
…specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.— Avril Lavigne (@AvrilLavigne) April 24, 2014
Over at Flavorwire, Tom Hawking offers up a good point about the way we talk about cultural appropriation or racism once it hits the pop culture mainstage. "There’s a trend toward being COMPLETELY OUTRAGED on the behalf of minorities/underprivileged groups," he writes, "instead of asking whoever’s supposed to be offended what they actually think. This doesn’t really serve the interests of whoever’s supposed to have been appropriated; instead, it just allows white people to prove that they are Good White People by being as offended as humanly possible."
That said, we can agree -- I mean, right? We're on the same page with this? I'm thinking we have some common understanding about this-- that, at the very least, Avril's video feels dated. It's offering up cliches based on a tiny sampling of media portrayals of how Japan is and what the people living there enjoy and are like. Avril, and the three other people who wrote this song and then all the people who were consulted on the making of this video, seem to genuinely not understand that.
So, how do we (presuming that "we" are a society of people who would like to eradicate racism) change that? How do we educate people about complex issues in a simple way, in language that makes sense, in a manner that resonates and sticks?
It's true that this information is out there, that if Avril were curious or even just caught in a Wikipedia spiral long enough, that she'd find plenty of thinkpieces and discussions and explainers about the significance of wearing war bonnets or about Asian stereotypes or the sexualization of Latinas online, written -- to touch back on Flavorwire's earlier point -- by the people whom these things directly impact.
I tend to think that, at 29, Avril and Katy Perry's age, you are old enough and have racked up enough life experience to actively learn more about the world in which you live, and the people within it. You know enough to know what you don't know. You're old enough to be expected to make an effort.
And, yet, that ignores the reality in which do live, a reality in which we have to account for:
- The Lazy
- and Lazy Idiots
...Plus, The Blissfully Unaware, The Intellectually Incurious, The Well-Meaning Offenders, The Angry Keepers of the Status Quo, The Endless Explainers. It's b.s. and it's tedious that the people whom this impacts have to carefully form arguments and examples and make cases for not being ignored or dismissed or misrepresented to the very people who benefit from doing this. But that is reality. The onus of this education is not on us, at least not entirely, but we're left to do the grunt work, to carefully repeat ourselves or to explain why we're actively refusing to do so.
And I think the solution, the realistic, real-worked solution, is just to keep at it. To keep talking and tweeting and commenting and adding to what can be viewed as a wall of noise. Because, when confronted with that "noise," people are going to eventually perk their ears and listen. There will be some things that get through. Something will catch. Do it all. Surround them, immerse them in the discussion, make it a part of their reality to the point that it cannot be ignored. Preach to the choir in a public place (specifically: the Internet), so that other people are forced to overhear. When people misconstrue or put words in your mouth, correct them. Make jokes and sneak your message into something palatable. Be serious and hold people's faces until they may attention. Use satire. Be straightforward. Make art. Make arguments. Use anger. Use reason. Rally allies. Reject misguided attempts to help when no help is required. Speak low so that people are forced to lean close. Be noisy. Subvert. Use the system. Stick it to the man. Be the man.
Just keep doing it.