The typical white liberal assumes that non-white people have more “culture” than white people, and may express “envy” as an attempted compliment. Given that white liberals feel that they are denied access to the non-white culture which they “envy”, it is likely that their “envy” is directed at the imagined culture of non-whites, rather than culture (or loss of culture due to white cultural imperialism) as experienced by non-white people.
One example of the white-imagined culture of people of colour is the Oriental Riff, or rather, the Orientalist Riff:
This riff (click on the above image to play the sound file) appears in orientalist American and British pop songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974) and “Turning Japanese” (1980). However, the “proto-cliché” or rhythmic pattern of “da-da-da-da, da da, da da, daaah!” originated in the 1800s, and has since been ubiquitous in pop culture to signify (and other) Asian culture or Asian people. Martin Nilsson has dedicated an entire website to the history of this rhythmic pattern, The Musical Cliché Figure Signifying The Far East: Whence, Wherefore, Whither?, and defines what he calls the “the Far East Proto-Cliché” as the following:
In other words, the “proto-cliché” is a riff with the rhythm of “da-da-da-da, da da, da da, daaah!” with varying tones, where the first four notes have identical tones, and the bracketed first six notes are obligatory. Additionally, “the instrumentation and general context should be meant to suggest the Orient in order for this pattern to actually be the Far East Proto-Cliché”. Nilsson’s website tracks this “proto-cliché” and provides ninety-seven examples of it from 1847 to 2001.
The painful irony of white people envying Asian people for our “culture” is that what white people perceive as cultural unattainability is actually our perceived cultural otherness. The otherness-disguised-as-unattainability evoked by the ubiquitous “proto-cliché” is a white construction of Asian identity, and this white construction of Asian identity is what they envy and already own without realizing it.
Having grown up in a music-loving household filled with both Chinese and Western classical music, this little melody has always annoyed me. It’s basically what white folks play every time Orientalism is invoked in a TV show, movie, or pop song. It’s so prevalent that I honestly suspect that many white folks unconsciously hear this ditty when they see me walk into the room.
Funny thing is, it’s neither Chinese nor even representative of Chinese music. It’s a white supremacist construction whose artistic purpose is to caricaturize, mock, and dehumanize Asians.
Racialicious commenter Elton writes (17 Dec 2009):
Just yesterday, I was at Walmart, shopping for Christmas, when a kid walking by gave me a suspicious look and, as he walked away, sang what I call the “Chinese Stereotype Melody.” I have no idea where it came from, but Asian Americans probably know what I’m talking about. It goes something like, “da-da-da-da duh duh, duh duh, da” and has been used in countless shows and movies (often accompanied by fake martial arts, a gong sound, bowing, fake Chinese words, and just all around mockery of Chinese people, and, by extension, all Asians).
Anyway, even though this melody probably had the original intention of cheap laughs for people who think Orientalizing, exoticizing, and marginalizing people who are perceived to be perpetual foreigners is funny and entertaining and safe because they’ve never had to confront their own racism, it has the effect, over generations, of making millions of people victims of taunting, bullying, concentration camps, anti-immigration laws, colonization, fetishizing, rape, terror, torture, and socioeconomic inequality. We call this racism.
“It’s just a stupid melody,” you might be saying to yourself. “It’s just a stupid gesture.” And you would be right–it is stupid. It’s something that I would have hoped to leave on the playground 20 years ago. But the persistence of mockery of Asians, particularly the extent to which it’s accepted as innocuous, represents a growing trend that racism against Asians is not only acceptable, but doesn’t even exist.
Not only is the Orientalist Riff racist, but the similarly racist and orientalist “proto-cliché” is a long-standing tradition in the music culture of white-majority societies, even older than classic music genres that defined American music. A blogger puts the ditty into historical perspective:
The thing’s been around longer than jazz, longer than rock, and depending on how you measure these things, longer than the blues, which is where jazz and rock came from. It’s older than the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s been around at least since 1847, in a melody in The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp.
It really kicks into first gear, though, in the 1880s, which is about when the blues properly started up (which is where pentatonic scales started taking over Western music), and when… let’s call it “social tensions” began building up, as expressed in the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Clearly, the Orientalist Riff and the equally-orientalist “proto-cliché” originated from historical, anti-Asian sentiment in white-majority countries. Yet even today, the “proto-cliché” (or the riff itself) is being perpetuated in television and film, as if the rhythmic pattern is a natural representation of Asian culture instead of the obvious manifestation of white racism that it is. For example, in Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy (2009), which debuted just this month (December), the “proto-cliché” appears in the second video (part 2) at about 6:06.
To expand on Nilsson’s fascinating research, I will be saving to Delicious instances I find of the “proto-cliché” (which includes the Orientalist Riff itself) and tagging them with the tag protocliche. If you find other contemporary examples of it and you use Delicious, please tag them with “protocliche” as well. If you are not a Delicious user, you can post links to “proto-cliché” examples in the comments of this post.
- White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey. by Restructure!
- White people think that people of colour have more culture. by Restructure!