Avril Lavigne crossed the White Line (and must be punished)

Everyone take a huff off of your helium tank, here comes Avril Lavigne with “Hello Kitty”:

So, of course, she was accused of racism. This caught my attention while watching “TMZ Live,” the greatest news program on cable television. At first I heard that she had faked a Japanese accent, which struck me as perhaps racist caricaturing. But upon watching the video, I realized that the Japanese accent was applied only to the Japanese lyrics. So she is merely guilty of being a crappy Japanese speaker, which is definitely not racist.

The second charge of racism is that the Lavigne is using caricatured Asian background dancers as mindless props. Apparently those making the charges are almost completely unaware other pop music videos, whose background dancers are generally dressed in absurd costumes (one might say “caricatures,”) are sometimes expressionless or masked, and act as mindless props to glorify the singing star (like the triangle of dancing zombies behind Michael Jackson in “Thriller.”) This charge of racism is weak, although I cannot definitively disprove that Avril Lavigne might harbor subconscious fantasies of being flanked by Asian sidekicks.

Thirdly, Lavigne is accused of co-opting or appropriating Japanese culture. Lavigne-detrator Amanda Duberman refers to a Lauren Duca piece for an explanation of cultural appropriation: “Cultural appropriation refers to picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission. This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.” Lest we  not understand that cultural appropriation is a sin, Duca asks “Is it always racist?” and answers herself “Of course, racism varies in extremity… Borrowing from another culture is most problematic when it plucks from a minority group (especially one that has been exploited or otherwise oppressed). Using aspects of another culture from a position of privilege is a means of additional exploitation in that it disregards the shared experiences that led to the development of the culture in question and uses ideas and traditions for their benefit.”

I can appreciate wanting to avoid cultural appropriation as far as ripping off the specifically sacred, like religious symbols. Don’t use other folks’ sacred stuff without enough knowledge to be sure you are doing so in a respectful way — otherwise you might offend somebody. Also, don’t promote racist caricatures, like Cleveland Indians paraphernalia. Sometimes minority artists have not gotten their share of the accolades and/or money. There are some legitimate concerns around this idea of cultural appropriation.

However: Because some whites have enjoyed privilege over some people of just about every other race on this planet for some time over the last 500 years, cultural appropriation as Duca has defined it draws a line around white people, who are effectively banned from using any cultural elements from beyond the line. If we use memes from beyond the line, we are automatically using racist privilege to exploit the Other, unless we have somehow obtained authorization from the minority group in question (perhaps by requesting permission from each and every member of the group).

This rule calls for whites or other privileged groups to maintain ethnic purity in their culture. A white is singing the blues? Cultural appropriation, stealing music from the Blacks with no respect for your shared history (even though black and white musicians have been trading licks since before slavery ended). A white is doing Indian cooking at home? Who gave you permission to pick and choose amongst India’s many cuisines? That’s racist, to some degree. Better stick to classical music and homestyle cooking. Remain within the white line.

Avril Lavigne was self-consciously putting together an homage to Japanese pop culture and her Japanese fans. According to Duberman and Duca, this was a doomed mission, as any use of ideas circulating in Japanese pop culture would be an exertion of racist privilege. I am curious as to how the Huffpost authors perceive the culpability of the video’s Japanese choreographer and director. Are they merely pimping their culture to the more powerful (because white) Lavigne? Apparently their authorization was not sufficient to permit Lavigne’s use of Japanese memes.

If white people sometimes act in non-white ways, that would seem to aid the survival of memes that did not originate in a white culture. A rule that automatically labels whites acting in non-white ways as racists is decidedly contrary to such a purpose. Let’s not throw Avril Lavigne in the stocks just for crossing the white line; I don’t believe that that is aiding the development of the world’s cultural mix or doing anything for Japanese people, either. I don’t see a demand for ethnic conformity as a real challenge to white privilege, for that matter.

You may still be thinking that Avril Lavigne is being racist by making Japanese pop culture out to be something cartoonish and ridiculous. This is an innocent mistake, and further exposure to the culture in question will reveal to you that it can be cartoonish and ridiculous all on its own (also note the dehumanized background dancer):


2 thoughts on “Avril Lavigne crossed the White Line (and must be punished)

  1. estraven says:

    I recently read a piece by a Middle Eastern belly dancer who was mad that Western women sometimes take up belly dancing. She felt that was appropriation. I didn’t know what to think of it. Seems to me that we trade bits and pieces of culture all over the place. I wondered if the belly dancer ever listened to American rock n’ roll, for instance. And may I just say that I never thought my cooking Indian dishes was appropriation–I thought it was an appreciation of good food!

    • I don’t suppose that those opposed to cultural appropriation actually want to go after the foreign-cuisine cookers… however their definition is so broad that you definitely fall afoul of it. It can be deployed at convenience whenever the observer becomes uncomfortable.

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