Over the past week, people have been discussing Avril Lavigne’s racist new music video for her song “Hello Kitty.” It premiered on her YouTube channel last Tuesday and was taken down temporarily due to the backlash. The video features Avril rapping in Japanese, wearing a cupcake tutu, dancing with four expressionless Japanese women, and generally bastardizing Japanese culture.
Using other cultures, and particularly women of color, as props is unfortunately not new to Western entertainment. Lavigne is now one of several white female artists to appropriate other cultures in the past few years. Her companions include Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Lana DelRay, Miley Cyrus, and Madonna.
Given that it’s happened before and that it seems to be common practice, what struck me most about this particular instance was Lavigne’s response to being called out and what it means for the way white people are utterly failing to recognize modern day racism and the problems associated with cultural appropriation.
Wednesday night, Lavigne tweeted the following:
She gives no weight to what people have been telling her, completely brushing aside even the idea that people had anything to criticize in the first place. She finds the suggestion hilarious. Especially as a white person, when someone tells you that something you have done is racist, laughing in their face isn’t the best response. Not only have you offended them, but you have devalued their ability to identify the factors of their own oppression. When someone tells you you have wronged them, you owe it to them to hear them out.
Lavigne then gives what amounts to an amped-up version of, “No, it’s cool; I have Japanese friends.” As if any of that negates the fact that she appropriated Japanese culture for her own personal gain and used Japanese women as props. All of that is still true, regardless of where the video was shot, who she worked with, or any personal fondness for Japan and its culture. It is possible to like something and take advantage of it at the same time.
This is where the disconnect comes in. Lavigne cannot understand how it is possible for her to do something racist against a culture that she knows she loves. But as much as she may genuinely enjoy the culture, she is not a part of it. She created a childish, cupcake version of it and surrounded herself with mannequin-like women who didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all. But hey, she totally loves Japanese culture, so it’s okay.
Excpet it’s really not. White people seem to think they have the right to take anything they want from any culture and use it as their own and for their own benefit without ever having to assume any of the oppression or degradation that a culture faces for the use, practice, or belief of what has been taken. This is cultural appropriation.
White people do not own everything, nor are we entitled to own everything. This is particularly true for Americans. We have to start respecting that non-white people from non-Western cultures make and produce things of value. Their value comes from the cultures which produced them- not from white Westerners appropriating them or modifying them to fit their pleasure or marketability. Avril Lavigne did not respect Japanese culture. She used her own version of it.
Modern day racism looks and sounds different than it did during the days that most of us view as a racism reference point- the 1960s. For anyone under 60, that decade has been the example of how racism is thought of in modern time. In the 50 years since, a lot has changed. This means that our understanding of what racism is must evolve also. The problem is that that’s not happening fast enough. This lag is responsible for the kind of disconnect that results in cultural appropriation.
White people don’t understand that things other than lynching or segregated schools “qualify” as being racist. Today, being racist is not as often overt or explicit. As in Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video, the racism doesn’t smack you in the face. With an understanding of how racism manifests today, though, the racism becomes more clear. This doesn’t mean that the racism is less harmful; only that it has been modified to exist within Western culture in a way that it can deliver a similar message without being thought of as oppressive or exploitative to those not as closely effected by its reach.
This is how a person with no outward animosity toward Japanese culture ended up making a racist music video. This is how someone could be accused of racism and respond with “LOLOLOL!!!” This is why the excuse of “But I have black friends” or “But I have gay friends” is such bull****.
This is why we have to change.