Not Your Business: The Problem with White Businesses Selling Asian Culture

I hope you’re comfortable because it’s about to get pretty uncomfortable. In this article, I’d like to address the problems with White-owned businesses that make their profit by selling Asian culture. White people making it their business (quite literally) to represent and commodify Asian culture is shockingly common: from creating and dominating an entire market around sacred Yoga practices that originated and proliferated in Southeast Asia (Basavaraddi, 2015) to appropriating Mahjong (Yeung, 2021) and falsely advertising Yoni eggs using East Asian stereotypes (Singh-Kurtz, 2018; Hsieh, 2021). Of course, one could argue that Yoga, or any other tradition for that matter, is not exclusively reserved for the culture in which it has originated. In a way, I agree because I believe cultural exchange and connecting with people from various backgrounds helps us move towards a more inclusive, harmonious, and sustainable future in today’s highly globalized and capitalist world. That being said, we cannot simply overlook the power dynamics and subsequent privileges that underlie world capitalism. As Carina Hsieh’s (2021) commentary points out, the colonial gaze is still going strong and prevails through these kinds of businesses, with Kim Anami’s recent “Kung Fu ‘Gina” video being a prime example of this. When I first watched it, I genuinely thought it was a socio-political satire because it features every single ‘oriental’ caricature through which Westerners have historically imagined and framed the whole of Asia. Plus, there is no proof that Yoni eggs ever originated from, let alone existed in, China (Singh-Kurtz, 2018; Hsieh, 2021). But the video features Black and Asian women so it can’t be that racist, right?


Until recently, I was under the impression that racism is just a fancy word for any form of discrimination against any human ‘race’. But through studying the colonial history of the very concept of ‘race’ itself, I have learned that there is much more to it. In a nutshell, the notion of race as we know and refer to it today was established by White European colonisers in an attempt to justify a social hierarchy in which they dominate indigenous peoples. One’s race, then, determined their position of labour (Quijano, 2000). By claiming land, and with it the modes of production and distribution, these colonisers were able to exploit ‘inferior’ races and accumulate wealth; in other words, they created a new capitalist pattern of power that gave rise to world capitalism (Quijano, 2000, p.216). Based on this very brief account of colonial history, we can understand that racism describes anything that reinforces and perpetuates ‘White’ domination and is also fundamental to the basis of world capitalism. Therefore, our global capitalist system itself is inherently biased and designed to benefit Eurocentric communities and realities.


The problem with the above-mentioned business models thus goes beyond the insensitive and misleading commodification of foreign cultural practices and values. People utilizing their White privilege to not only pose themselves as idealized spokespersons for oppressed cultures (often without substantial knowledge and qualifications) but also financially benefiting from this role and giving little to nothing back to the communities whose oppression grants them such privileged position in the first place, is what differentiates cultural appropriation from cultural appreciation. Businesses like Kim Anami’s “Vaginal Kung Fu Salon” or The Mahjong Line embody and operate based on the colonial mindset that White people are entitled to hijacking exoticized cultures and, as if that was not enough, that they are actually ‘improving’ these ‘underdeveloped’ traditions (see Chan, 2021). More often than not, they actually claim to have good intent and mean no harm (see Hsieh, 2021; Chan, 2021), which I want to believe. But good intentions are not good enough. We must hold ourselves accountable and educate ourselves to make sure our actions correspond to our intent before we act.


Photo credit: @henikapetal Art by: @ximen.art

Photo credit: @henikapetal Art by: @ximen.art

Ultimately, I would like to remind myself and others that when we talk about colonialism, it is not some historical period in the distant past. It is still being performed, developed and sustained today, whether knowingly or unknowingly. This is why it is so important to have these conversations and educate ourselves so that we can recognize colonial patterns, call them out, and actively resist them. There is countless of free and accessible information available online, for example: the School of Sensual Arts, or its founder Henika’s Instagram page (@henikapetal) to decolonize your understanding of Yoga (which most of us, including myself, have probably been pronouncing wrong); @deceolonizemyself is another useful Instagram account, which name speaks for itself; and, of course, the Overachiever Magazine also debunks lots of myths and stereotypes surrounding Asian cultures. So, before you make it your business to represent and commodify foreign cultures, especially ones that have been historically oppressed and exploited in world capitalist structures, please ask yourself: Am I in a position to do so? What is my relationship to this culture and its community? How much time, money, resources, and energy have I invested and am going to invest into benefitting this community? Am I merely extracting knowledge to benefit myself or am I valuing, respecting, and supporting this community?

I appreciate it is not easy to step out of our comfort zone, confront ourselves, and take the time and energy to critically question our realities. So thank you for reading this and I hope you have a great day.


References

Basavaraddi, I. V. (2015). “Yoga: Its Origin, History and Development”, Public Diplomacy. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?25096/Yoga+Its+Origin+History+and+Development

Chan, M. (2021) “Director Claps Back at Company Accused of Cultural Appropriation”, In The Know. Available at: https://www.intheknow.com/2021/01/07/the-mahjong-line-cultural-appropriation/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZWNvc2lhLm9yZy8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAANM_aMkzYmP0JcvmsRJ46jbKrkJpfBK0Sm3pIvGCKvvDX5qxlH067-BHhxyc4OrYWH9-fUG5QB0lToU15YDfRxoBOoETak1GlsVgAtjF_NKloc8OBwlMGxwTCGGwSwLx_eBA5QS0ABqZuW5HCN6t1Yso0cosTGBLnngc8VaoS7bI

Hsieh, C. (2021). “As a Chinese Sex Editor, I Have a Lot to Say About That Racist, Wrong-as-Hell Kung Fu Vagina Video”, Cosmopolitan. Available at: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/a35386745/racist-kung-fu-vagina-video-offensive/

Quijano, A. (2000). “Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America”, International Sociology, 15:2, pp. 215-232. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0268580900015002005

Singh-Kurtz, S. (2018). “Researchers have debunked Goop’s “ancient Chinese” jade vaginal eggs”, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/quartzy/1441560/goops-ancient-chinese-jade-vaginal-eggs-just-got-debunked/

@decolonizemyself, Instagram (2021). Available at: https://www.instagram.com/decolonizemyself/

@henikapetal, Instagram (2021). Available at: https://www.instagram.com/henikapetal/

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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