Historically, white creators look East to garner inspiration (acceptable) for their work. Here, I discuss why its inherently inauthentic to create work surrounding issues and lives that do not effect and are not culturally significant to white people and ultimately displays a sense of entitlement that echoes imperialism.
Look, I’m not wholly, against the depiction of ethnicity and this is not about white washing. I think diversity in media is so important, but there have been times where white people perpetuate tropes over diversity. There are several recent examples in Eleanor and Park, Orange Is The New Black, and closer to home Five Bells.
Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell:
Park, is both Korean and American. His mother, Mindy (Min Dae) provides a good example of wallpaper ethnicity – just kind of stuck up there for decoration without substance and unfortunately epitomises side character diversity.
Mindy is shown to be absolutely desperate to be white. This is not an observation from me as a reader, this is a narrated observation the author gives her son, Park. “She was apparently never going to stop sounding like she just got here yesterday from Korea. Sometimes Park thought she kept the accent on purpose, because his dad liked it. But his mom tried so hard to fit in every other way… if she could sound like she grew up right around the corner, she would.”
Showing that characters have an accent is not bad, Park saying that his mother has an accent is enough to articulate that maybe she grew up elsewhere, that her speech can falter, that communication is hard (like when Park tries to articulate Eleanor’s life story to Mindy). However, the absence of syntax and poor grammar isn’t clever. Its lazy and offensive. “When you always hungry, you hungry in your head.” Its distasteful and cringey.
Mindy’s assimilation into Nebraskan culture, is in order to please her husband. Her husband, who met her while participating in the Korean war, is projected as a saviour and brave, for loving her in spite of her Asianess. This. Is. Fucked. Up.
Orange Is The New Black – Netflix
Orange Is The New Black is an example of how diversity on screen does not always equate to the stories being handled respectfully.
Most recently, the show has shown itself to align with social justice movements like Black Lives Matter but use incidents to garner sympathy for the white people of the show. Notably when Poussay Washington died but the writers used this to get the audience to align with the white guard who killed her.
When Piper Chapman accidentally started a white supremacy group and starts a race war it was used as a way of making Piper a victim when she was branded by a swastika rather then making sure she known as the perpetrator of fucking evil.
It was evident that the issue was not a product of diversity but rather lack there of in the writers room. Here is a picture of the OITNB writers team.
To their credit, Brook Soso, one of two Asian characters on the show, isn’t a walking trope.
Five Bells – Gail Jones
A wholly unbelievable story that follows the lives of four people in Sydney’s CBD. Pei Xing, a middle aged Chinese woman, faces her past as a survivor of the Cultural Revolution in China. The Cultural Revolution’s aim was to preserve communist ideology by violently removing the “revisionists” under Mao rule.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Xing lost both her parents and was brutalised before finally, being dispatched to the country. The most unbelievable part of the narrative is that both Xing and her tormentor, Hua have both ended up in Sydney and Xing actively visits her tormentor, who has had a stroke, to care for her. Every scene with these characters felt inauthentic and forced.
All the while this story is being told, the author relies on Asian stereotypes to perpetuate the story of the protagonist. THE PROTAGNIST. The star of the story gets moments like thinking to herself, “Can’t tell us apart. All ching chong chinaman,” I think there can be better moments, writing that don’t fall back on what is the perception of the white author. Also, is it not telling of the author that they perceive that Asian women are invisible in Sydney’s society.
It’s not even, that it is a question of time, because arguments could be made that say, if those thoughts were written on the gold fields of Ballarat there might have been contextual justification. But seeing as Coldplay’s The Scientist is referenced, I can only assume it is set in same time in which it was published: 2011.
All in all, why tell a story that is not yours? Why actively choose to create a story of cultural significance to a population and then rely on stereotypes to perpetuate the story a long?