Blackness, gender, and class in Asian entertainment

A few months ago I came across this music video by Jero (ジェロ), a Pittsburgh-born Japanese-African American who became famous in Japan for singing traditional enka music, which he learned from his Japanese grandmother. Despite the fact that Japan is a very homogeneous country, Jero seems to have received a very positive reception there:

Jero’s success as an enka singer means that he has cultivated an appeal not only to the young consumers of pop culture, but also to the older generations that are the core audience of the enka genre. Presenting himself as dignified and well-educated, his excellent Japanese, superb singing voice, and devotion to the memory of his grandmother has won over the hearts of many senior enka enthusiasts and effectively disarmed many of the stereotypes of foreigners hung onto by older generations. And for younger listeners who wouldn’t ordinarily find the enka genre exciting, Jero makes things interesting by virtue of being a foreign enka singer with hip-hop aesthetics.

Playing up his family background and education seem to be central in Jero’s ability to gain acceptance among Japanese audiences. By breaking preconceptions about black people (black men in particular) and emphasizing his Japaneseness, it appears that Jero has been able to gain in-group acceptance while still holding on to the markers of outsider status that make him unique and marketable.

For Chinese entertainer Lou Jing (婁婧), on the other hand, her family background has become a serious liability. Lou Jing was born in Shanghai to a Chinese woman who had an affair with an African American man. Her mother raised her alone, in a society that strongly stigmatizes single motherhood. These facts about her life have made her (and her mother) a target of vehemently racist and sexist attacks on the internet (translations adapted from chinaSMACK):

我靠。被黑人搞。咋沒生個斑馬呢。。。。。。。。。。? (Damn. Fucked by a black guy. How come a zebra wasn’t born…?)

女孩沒甚麼,她媽媽的確是個賤貨,結婚了還和黑人搞在一起,應該也是為了偉大的“愛情”吧,可惜人家黑人把她當玩物,中國女孩請自重點 (There is nothing wrong with the daughter, but her mother is indeed a slut, married but still getting involved with a black person, probably for the great [ideal of] “love” too. Too bad the black man treated her as a toy. Chinese girls, please have a little more self-respect.)

Lou Jing’s response to these attacks:

  1. 我的父親是美國人,不是非洲人 (My father is American, not African.)
  2. 我是土生土長的上海人 (I am a born and bred Shanghainese person.)
  3. 父母的錯不應該由我承擔,我是無辜的!(I should not be responsible for my parents’ mistake. I am innocent!)
  4. 嚴正抗*議有些人的種族歧視,我的膚色不該成為被攻擊的目標!(I strongly protest against the racism of some people [on the internet]. My skin color should not become a target of attack!)

Despite her attempts to regain respect by insisting that her father is American and that she was born and raised in Shanghai (one of China’s wealthiest cities), Lou Jing could not escape the audience’s racist and sexist stereotyping. If she were male, or if she were born in wedlock to a Chinese man and an African American woman, things may have turned out differently and her phenotypical otherness may have been an asset rather than a liability.

Both Jero and Lou Jing have to justify their racial identities to their audiences; Jero by emphasizing his relationship with his Japanese grandmother and Lou Jing by reclaiming status by emphasizing her father’s Americanness and her own Shanghaineseness. White-Asian biracials working in entertainment and media in East Asia don’t have to do this, as their status and exoticness are taken without question. See this news clip about mixed-race Taiwanese newscasters Weng Ziqi (翁子麒) and Ke Nianxuan (柯念萱), for example (unfortunately, there are no subtitles):

Again, this is very gendered. The emphasis is on these “newscasting beauties'” (「美女主播」) looks and education (both went to National Chengchi University, one of the best in the country). No questions are asked about their parentage and they don’t have to prove their Taiwaneseness. The reporter in the clip above even noted that Weng has “a bit of a funny accent” (「有些特別腔調」) yet this only endears them to the public even more.

Members of diasporic communities are often allowed in East Asian entertainment media without question. It’s not terribly newsworthy that Hong Kong-based Chinese American singer Khalil Fong was born in Hawaii, or that several members of the Korean girl group Girls’ Generation are Korean Americans. White-Asian biracials, particularly women, seem to have a special place in media; for example, Maggie Q can act in Hong Kong films despite not being of Chinese descent. But for black-Asian multiracial people, acceptance as performers may be tied to their ability to combat gendered and classed racism and negative stereotypes and what elements of their personal lives they present to their audiences.

  1. I love Jero! Also, I’ve always wondered if I could make it in the Japanese or Chinese entertainment businesses…:)

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