We all have that well-meaning friend or acquaintance who thinks his or her knowledge of politically correct lingo and the current line-up of "ethnically-authentic" television shows automatically grants special membership to an ultra-exclusive club of hip minorities. 

There's always, for instance, that non-black friend with a penchant for racial slurs who blurts out "But my best friend is black!" any time he or she is accused of racism, the same friend who proudly declares "I watch 'The Wire'!" anytime a black person enters the room.

I'm never sure how to react to this cringe-worthy behavior from people who demand that they be adored and praised for mimicking, appropriating, or re-defining cultures that are not of their own. In a world where people try so hard to believe that we occupy a "post-racial" era, people of color are seen as badges of honor for privileged individuals looking for very specific ways to bolster their own ideas of self-worth. People of color in the media, especially women, serve as the stepping stones to a privileged person's coming-of-age, the culturally-stagnant background props to another person's nuanced story of growth. 

All too often, people with possibly all the best intentions in the world study, employ, and adopt supposed markers of "cultural authenticity" and stop short of real, meaningful discourse about privilege in America. When black women are used as props in music videos to give off a very specific attitude and image of "street credibility," and the bodies of women of color end up serving as disposable avenues for a male character's coming of age, we simply continue to adhere to harmful paradigms of race and gender. "Isms" will be eradicated only when those with privilege pass the microphone to marginalized constituencies and let them speak for themselves, not when they decide to show "appreciation" for culture by hiring Japanese dancers to work as caricaturized background props for a white woman. 

Privilege is the ability to choose and adopt elements of a selected culture and apply them to yourself however you see fit. It's the ability to adopt twerking and "ratchet" culture as a way to seem "edgy" without being deemed filthy and sexually deviant in the way a black person would. It's the ability to joke about having an "inner black woman" when you do not ever, in fact, have to experience life at the intersections of racism and sexism in the way a black woman does. It's the ability to dress up like a sexy geisha without ever needing to live under the constant barrage of tropes about the hypersexualized Asian woman.

While I understand that culture represents a constantly changing collection of social habits, language, and shared experiences, I firmly believe that cultural shifts need to be moved and governed by people who actually live within these cultures, not by privileged individuals who are simply looking for another marker of maturity or worldliness. The truth? Your unrivaled collection of Tribe Called Quest and Fugees albums does not make you an ally. Your Asian girlfriends and proudly hoisted set of "authentic" Japanese samurai swords above your fireplace does not make you an "honorary Asian." Your "deep" friendship with the Dominican man who makes your toasted-bagel-and-cream-cheese breakfast every morning does not suddenly make you color blind and should not excuse you from deeper conversations about our respective roles in perpetuating race and gender hierarchies in American society. 

Rather than let those with power continue to profit off of their removed and often inaccurate characterizations of marginalized populations, we must push for more diverse voices at the highest levels of media production. We must have the ability to occupy the leading roles in our own stories and the right to define ourselves. The state of media today may have you confused, but tokenizing and using our "exotic" bodies as shiny rungs on the ladder to privileged self-growth is not the way to go. 

Lindsey Yoo is a Korean-American social media aficionado interested in racial justice, community engagement, pop culture, and all things Asian-American.  She coordinates social media for The Filthy Freedom Project, where she dishes about culture, religion and sexuality every other week. You can tweet with her at @LindseyYoo.

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Jon Libra
12/10/2013 04:50:58 am

Intersting article

I am curious by what you mean by

"I firmly believe that cultural shifts need to be moved and governed by people who actually live within these cultures, not by privileged individuals who are simply looking for another marker of maturity or worldliness."

What is a cultural shift? In this context?

Historically speaking cultural shifts do not happen from within. In most cases cultures are quite conservative and are moved by outside forces. A great example is Meiji Era, Japan, because it occurred so rapidly.


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