Race Card: The Chinese Parenting Controversy and the Vilification of Mothers of Color
Four days after the Wall Street Journal published Amy Chua’s essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” it continues to spark controversy. The piece itself has garnered more than 3,500 comments on WSJ’s website and bloggers from Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man to Maureen O’Connor of Gawker and Danielle Belton of The Black Snob have taken Chua to task for claiming that Chinese mothers raise highly successful children by berating their young, withholding affection from them, or denying them meals and sleep until the little ones manage to meet mom’s expectations in academia, music, and beyond.
My personal reaction to the piece is mixed. I absolutely agree with Chua that parents should have high expectations for children, shouldn’t praise kids for mediocre work or prioritize athletics over academics. That said, I also agree with Chua’s detractors at the previously mentioned blogs who say that the tactics the Yale Law School professor uses on her children may lead them to suffer severe emotional distress down the line, if not currently. But rather than debate the pros and cons of Chua’s childrearing strategies, I’d like to examine a major stereotype running through her piece: Mothers of color are cruel.
“The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners,” Chua writes. “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight.’”
To boot, in a photograph of herself with one of her two daughters, Chua describes herself as “mean me.” The meanness of mothers of color isn’t just highlighted in Chua’s piece but frequently in stories about African-American mothers as well. Black mothers are routinely depicted in the media as being emotionally and physically abusive, a characterization that’s been used to hold them responsible for pathology in the black community. And the abusive Latino mother entered American homes when ABC sitcom The George Lopez Show began its run in 2002. Lopez, who was abandoned by his mother at age two and raised instead by a grandmother “ill-equipped to express love or joy,” based his TV show mother on the latter.
So, what’s my beef? It’s not that I object to the portrayal of bad mothers of color. Such mothers exist in spades. It’s that while minority mothers are framed as “hard asses”—hence, the term “hardass Asian mama”—white mothers are typically depicted as loving women who care about their children’s self-esteem, as Chua points out, making sure to tell kids they love them and support their dreams. So, even in an essay which tries to argue that Chinese mothers are superior, the ultimate point made is that minority mothers are ruthless, and white mothers are compassionate. One white woman broke down in tears just hearing Chua recount the time she called her daughter “garbage.”
While Chua likely shares this incident to stress that “Western” parents are too soft, this so-called weakness in Western parents hasn’t widely been used against them when their children aren’t up to par. In contrast, how people of color parent has been widely criticized for decades on end. Read the criticism of Chua’s piece, and you’ll see that many of her detractors are blaming her “dysfunctional” culture for driving young Asian people to suicide. Westerners, no matter how permissive their parenting, don’t face cultural attacks as far as parenting’s concerned. And until that playing field is leveled, it does a tremendous disservice to people of color to portray minorities as mean-spirited and abusive parents.
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