Call out culture: what we can learn from ‘To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang’

// 19 April 2013

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This is a guest post by Reni Eddo-Lodge, who can be found on Twitter @renireni

Katie_Leungpremiere2008.jpg

Rachel Rostad has recently shot up the ladder of internet fame thanks to her searingly critical spoken word piece on the representation of Asian women in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

It’s powerful because she dismantles racist, misogynistic tropes about Asian women that are often considered part and parcel of popular culture. And she highlights that JK Rowling, in her clumsy portrayal of Harry’s first love interest Cho Chang, is guilty of perpetuating these racist, sexist myths.

It’s a beautiful piece that burns with anger, and one I can resonate with – the frustrated fervour of constant misrepresentation.

Click here to read the transcript of this video

She dismantles it all, and goes hard on the fetishisation of Asian women by white men in particular

‘Last summer, I met a boy who spoke like rain against windows…/ When he left me/ I told myself I should have seen it coming/I wasn’t sure I was sad, but I cried anyway/girls who look like me are supposed to cry over boys who look like him/I’ve seen all the movies and read all the books/ we were just following the plot.’

Rachel’s spoken word piece went viral quickly. It was posted on YouTube on the 13th April, and already has 151,232 views.

Then, the responses started to flood in. She got a lot of criticism, from all angles of the political spectrum. Yet she didn’t block it out, she engaged with it.

Click here to read the transcript of this video

She recognised that not all Asian women who’ve viewed her work feel this way, and critically, Rachel also addresses the culture in which she’s working in – one that, when she DOES speak up, reduces her the ‘voice of her kind’. She’s aware that by speaking up she’s considered a deviation from the norm of whiteness and maleness, consequentially reducing her very distinctive and individual voice into some of sort of Asian women’s hegemonic hive mind.

“It’s sad that we live in a society where my voice is so easily mistaken for yours- where our differing identities are so easily seen as interchangeable.”

This is what a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy does with women like her, and women like me. We’re tokenised, held up as the self-serving, heavily biased, ‘ethnic’ point of view; whilst all the reasonable, polite, objective, normal debate happens somewhere over there, with all the white people. Those of us who speak up are in between a rock and a hard place. Not only are we reduced to a frustrating token, but we’re also often denied any platform of discussion to debate the issues with other women like us, lest the status quo pinpoints our disagreement as proof of the inauthenticity of our wider argument.

With humility, Rachel has apologised to those she aimed to liberate but who feel misrepresented by her work. That takes guts, and self-reflection, and courage.

“The point is that racism isn’t just present in small niche cultures. My piece is not a criticism of JK Rowling as much as it is on the repeated tokenisation and fetishisation of Asian women in popular culture.”

Rachel’s pinpointed JK Rowling because she has a significant platform- and when you’re into social justice (as Rowling has mentioned she is on many occasions; your platform has more responsibility than anyone else’s.

Challenging how something upholds maintains the status quo doesn’t mean you hate it or want to boycott it. Social justice and intersectionality work actively attempts to move away from a binary ‘for or against’ discussion that, quite frankly, hinders and derails debate. We need to have a nuanced discussion about the sexist status quo, what contributes to our complicity in it, and how we go about actively opposing it.

A lot of the time, we talk about people’s complicity in racism, or sexism, or transphobia. The names can be interchangeable, but the structural and institutional backdrop stays the same. The jarring mood music of a heteronormative, disablist, cissexist, white supremacist and deeply, deeply misogynistic patriarchy seeps into the cracks and crevices of everything we know. That includes the writers we like, the TV shows we watch, and the books we consume. We’re going to like some of this media, but that doesn’t make us bad people. We might unwittingly participate in the status quo, because it benefits us in some way or another – and that doesn’t make us bad either. But we always need to be vigilant, and we always need to acknowledge the fact that it exists. If that means changing our language to be inclusive, then so be it. If that means employing an iota of self-reflection to see how our power and actions affect others in the grand scheme of things, then so be it. We might come to the realisation of the crappy status quo’s existence through being personally affected by one of its aspects. But after that, it’s our collective responsibility to wake up to the others.

I think we can take valuable lessons from Rachel’s approach and transfer them to our discussions online. Whilst we don’t all face the same oppressions, if we’re serious about taking down the status quo, we’re in it together for now.


Transcript of the first video

To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang- Rachel Rostad

When you put me in your books, millions of Asian girls across America rejoiced! Finally, a potential Halloween costume that wasn’t a geisha or Mulan! What’s not to love about me? I’m everyone’s favourite character! I totally get to fight tons of Death Eaters and have a great sense of humour and am full of complex emotions!

Oh wait. That’s the version of Harry Potter where I’m not fucking worthless.

First of all, you put me in Ravenclaw. Of course the only Asian at Hogwarts would be in the nerdy house. Too bad there wasn’t a house that specialized in computers and math and karate, huh?

I know, you thought you were being tolerant.

Between me, Dean, and the Indian twins, Hogwarts has like…five brown people? It doesn’t matter we’re all minor characters. Nah, you’re not racist!

Just like how you’re not homophobic, because Dumbledore’s totally gay!

Of course it’s never said in the books, but man. Hasn’t society come so far?

Now gays don’t just have to be closeted in real life–they can even be closeted fictionally!

Ms. Rowling. Let’s talk about my name. Cho. Chang.

Cho and Chang are both last names. They are both Korean last names.

I am supposed to be Chinese.

Me being named “Cho Chang” is like a Frenchman being named “Garcia Sanchez.”

So thank you. Thank you for giving me no heritage. Thank you for giving me a name as generic as a ninja costume. As chopstick hair ornaments.

Ms. Rowling, I know you’re just the latest participant in a long tradition of turning Asian women into a tragic fetish.

Madame Butterfly. Japanese woman falls in love with a white soldier, is abandoned, kills herself.

Miss Saigon. Vietnamese woman falls in love with a white soldier, is abandoned, kills herself.

Memoirs Of A Geisha. Lucy Liu in leather. Schoolgirl porn.

So let me cry over boys more than I speak.

Let me fulfil your diversity quota.

Just one more brown girl mourning her white hero.

No wonder Harry Potter’s got yellow fever.

We giggle behind small hands and “no speak Engrish.”

What else could a man see in me?

What else could I be but what you made me?

Subordinate. Submissive. Subplot.

Go ahead. Tell me I’m overreacting.

Ignore the fact that your books have sold 400 million copies worldwide.

I am plastered across movie screens,

a bestselling caricature.

Last summer,

I met a boy who spoke like rain against windows. –

He had his father’s blue eyes.

He’d press his wrist against mine and say he was too pale.

That my skin was so much more beautiful.

To him, I was Pacific sunset,

almond milk, a porcelain cup.

When he left me, I told myself I should have seen it coming.

I wasn’t sure I was sad but I cried anyway.

Girls who look like me are supposed to cry over boys who look like him.

I’d seen all the movies and read all the books.

We were just following the plot.


Transcript of the second video

Hey there, internet!

So, my video has stirred a lot of controversy over the past couple of days, and I wanted to take the time to make a video response. I’m going to be looking down at the screen, because that’s where it’s written. I have five points I want to address.

First, the debate over whether or not Cho Chang is an actual legitimate Chinese name. When I wrote this poem, I did research this pint and I did know that both Cho and Chang could be Chinese names, but I thought they couldn’t be paired together because it wouldn’t make sense. But this explanation was too long to be turned into a punch line, so I chose to go with the Korean names. I totally understand why this is problematic and marginalising. I’m ignorant of Chinese naming practices and this clearly offended people, and it was unfortunate that this was the line that got turned into the photoset, which was the point of entry for a lot of people into my poem. I hope people listen to the rest of what I’m saying besides that one line. But I did marginalise a portion of the community that I was trying to empower, and for that, I am so, so sorry.

Second, I do not claim to be speaking for all Asian females. There are people who identify as Asian females who are commenting and messaging me, saying that they felt misrepresented by my piece. First of all, I’m so happy that we’ve been able to have this dialogue, and that it’s even been able to take place. However, I do want to stress that I do not speak for all Asian females and I do not claim to. I’m very sorry I misrepresented you. But I don’t think that either of us is to blame for this. I would ask you, what conditions are in place that make it so that you are so defensive that I, someone with a completely difference experience of oppression, am not representing your voice. It’s sad that we live in a society where my voice is so easily mistaken for yours. Where our differing identities are viewed as interchangeable.

Third, yes I agree that it makes a lot of sense that Cho Chang cries a lot in the books, yes, her boyfriend died, it’s realistic for a character/realism perspective. However, we forget that characters and plots do not just fall into the author’s laps. Everything, from hair colour to mannerisms, is a choice. Indeed, JK Rowling said that she intended Cho’s character to make Ginny’s character look stronger. She intentionally set up an Asian female as weak to make a white female feel like a better love interest. Of course, I doubt that Rowling was aware of these racist implications, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t critique or question.

Fourth, I want to address Dumbledore’s sexuality. I agree with the critique that this point is somewhat tangential to my main argument, but what I was trying to get at is that discrimination is not as obvious as these characters being excluded altogether. It’s when these characters are included, seemingly to fulfil some diversity quota, but they are not actually given a verifiable or authentic identity. I want to clarify, by being explicit about Dumbledore being gay within the books, I do not mean by him talking in a high pitched voice or acting flamboyant, because that would be just as oppressive. I mean by saying that he’s in love with Grindlewald, because I think that his sexuality does play a major plot pint in a series that is all about love. I do understand if you disagree, depending on your views of the Grindlewald plot, but I definitely did not mean that Dumbledore should act flamboyant.

Fifth, I do not hate JK Rowling; I do not hate Harry Potter. If I did, I wouldn’t have been compelled to write this piece. I grew up on the books, I went to all the midnight showings, like I’m sure all you did. I love Harry Potter, and I do believe that Harry Potter is, as so many people have said, all about equality and compassion. Which was why Cho Chang’s character was so disappointing to me. To those who ask, understandably so, ‘why Harry Potter? Why not a better example of racism?’; I say – you’re right. Harry Potter is not the most racist thing ever; in fact it is probably one of the more progressive popular series out there. But the point is, that’s not enough. I think we should re-examine if we thing that the representation of Cho Chang and other characters of colour, even Kingsley Shacklebolt, is the end of racism. I think that Harry Potter offers a great platform for this kind of discussion, because the series is so popular. My point is that racism isn’t just present in small niche cultures. My piece is not a critique on JK Rowling as much as it is on the repeated tokenisation and fetishisation of Asian women in popular culture.

That’s it for now. I understand if you still disagree with me, but I hope that you now disagree with me for the arguments that I’m actually making. It’s been humbling and amazing to watch people respond to this video. I think that the presence of so much passionate dialogue means that this is an issue that needs to be talked about. And yes, I made mistakes, just as I think JK Rowling made mistakes with some of her characterisations. But what I hope people realise is that dialogue about social justice is not about blaming people for making mistakes, whether it’s me or JK Rowling. It’s about calling attention to mistakes that, I’ll be the first to admit, is painful, and using those mistakes as an opportunity to grow.

I personally have learnt so much from the mistakes I’ve made in this process. I want to thank the community for calling me out on that. Social justice is about holding each other accountable. I hope as a devoted fan base and as an amazing community we can continue to use my piece as a jumping off point for further dialogue, growth, and reflection.

Thank you.

[The image is a photograph of Katie Leung who played Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films. It was taken by Kattkatt21 and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

The Goldfish // Posted 19 April 2013 at 11:29 pm

This was really super and Rachel is great too. I spent a good part of this evening fruitlessly searching for a great blog post I read maybe a year or two ago about how to fans of films, books or television films can acknowledge their social justice issues (and anything else that’s wrong with the art they love) without hating them or somehow betraying the creators – in fact, if anything, loving something, as Rachel does Harry Potter, only makes this stuff more important, emphasises the contrasts between the great characterisation and the weaker bits. Too frequently, whether it’s culture or a popular personality, folks leap on the defensive as if any criticism is total criticism.

But nuance is where we prove ourselves. And the social justice flaws in popular culture – popular because it is (usually) great in so many ways – matter dreadfully. Thanks for this Reni!

Sebastian // Posted 20 April 2013 at 3:35 pm

Is this the blog post you’re thinking of?

How to be a fan of problematic things

The Goldfish // Posted 20 April 2013 at 7:51 pm

That’s it, Sebastian! Thank you so much – both my chap and I spent ages looking, trying to remember clues about it. Now it is firmly favourited and I shall be able to refer back to it again. (Shows how good it is, that you knew what I was talking about from that description!)

Alasdair // Posted 21 April 2013 at 2:11 am

That was a great video, thanks for posting it. I’m normally not a fan of that poetry slam style but I thought there it was very effective.

I don’t think she needed to respond to the criticisms either – the original video should have said it all. But all the more kudos to her for taking the time to do that and spell things out for those who needed it.

Jeffrey // Posted 26 April 2013 at 10:11 pm

Alasdair – your right she did not have to respond to the criticisms but with so many people not understanding the style of poetry she was using I think it helps tremendously. People see things through their own lens and often don’t take the time to see how something may have been meant from another point of view. When something helps educate the general society (I include myself, I have much to learn as well) it think it is good, so yes kudos to her!

This is also a great write up and thanks The Goldfish and Sebastian reading that other article now.

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