Thursday, May 8, 2014
First of all, racism is a serious charge, and one that I believe is thrown around a bit too quickly nowadays. Not every race-related remark is racist. And as one friend put it, using that word is like brandishing a giant machete; no one is going to oppose you, not because they agree or understand or have learned, but because they are simply afraid. Fear and coercion are not productive ways of advancing the issue of diversity.
Also, there is a difference between being racist and having preconceptions. An important difference. Ignorance isn't a good thing, but it is distinct from ill will.
(Please note that I am not saying people of color cannot be angry about poor representations or other offenses. Anger is allowed. Hurt and disappointment are allowed. Also, no one is saying that POC have to be "nice." I just think there's a lot of productive space to work in before we reach "vicious.")
Personally, I loved ELEANOR & PARK. The quirky duo captivated me, and their love story gave me tingles. I admired Rainbow's sparse but fluid prose, and the way she evoked setting and emotion through specific, delicious details. I ached for both Eleanor and Park, who are filled with so much doubt and insecurity about themselves.
And I think that's where this discussion [about E&P being racist] frustrates me. Because there are plenty of un-complimentary and stereotypical comments directed at Eleanor's character in regards to her weight and even her poverty, yet I haven't seen any outcry about that. Just the opposite: I see much praise (well-deserved, in my opinion) for the way that Rainbow humanized Eleanor's character and celebrated her as a heroine, a love interest.
So why is the same treatment of Park's character considered racist? Both characters are meant to show that the surface is just one layer. That the way a person looks or dresses does not make up the entirety of who they are.
Throughout the story, Park struggles with his identity as a halfie. He hasn't figured out yet how to be a mix of two things in a society that likes tidy labels. He doesn't see (m)any role models or heroes that resemble him, physically or culturally. He loves his [Korean] mother fiercely but also has concerns about how she interacts with the world and vice versa. He is a bridge between two worlds, neither of which he fully fits into.
All of that is just like me as a child, as a teen, and even now sometimes as an adult.
(I should say that my mother is Taiwanese, not Korean. For the purposes of this conversation, I think that difference is mostly irrelevant.)
I don't think Rainbow's portrayal of Park is racist. Even with the Bruce Lee references and whatever else. To me, it just felt real.
(Story time: Once in my former workplace, we did a Celebrity Lookalike poster. Everyone else got really great doppelgängers who actually resembled them, at least in the chosen photos. I got the Korean actress from Lost, who I look almost nothing like. Was it because my coworkers were racist against me? No. I worked with them every day for years; I would have known that. It was because there were so few Hollywood actresses of Asian heritage to choose from. And that was over 25 years after E&P takes place.)
As for Park's mom... Yes, she does hair and nails. Yes, she speaks in broken English. Yes, she is petite and "exotic" looking. Yes, she married an American man who she met during the Korean War.
Again, to me, this is real. I know those women. Some of them are in my family. Some of them are my friend's mothers. Some of them have cut my hair, or taught me in school, or treated me in hospitals.
Fitting into certain stereotypes is not the same as BEING a stereotype. I don't think Park's mother is a stereotype. I don't think she is a token minority. I think she is an integral part of Park's family, Park's story, and Park's journey.
And at least in my reading of E&P, Park's mother is never portrayed as being inferior to her husband, her mother-in-law, her children, her neighbors, or anyone else. She is strong-willed and strongly opinionated, as well as kind-hearted, skilled, and successful.
To be clear, that doesn't mean I think everything was perfect. (Just one example: it drives me bonkers that Park has green eyes.) But things can be problematic without being racist.
And we can dislike a book, or disagree with what's in it, or decide not to give it to our own kids to read, without vilifying it.
You know, I wish Park's mother wasn't such a rarity. I wish that she was one of countless Asian mothers in YA literature. Then she -- like Eleanor's mother -- would be free to just be herself, instead of a fictional representative for all Korean women.
(In other words: More POC books, please. Preferably written by POC themselves. I am not suggesting that we exclude anyone from tackling POC topics, nor suggesting that POC writers must write exclusively about their POC experiences. I am simply saying: More POC by POC will help. A lot.)
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