Monday, March 09, 2009

Miley Cyrus - Playground Role Model?

Bethann Buddenbaum is a freelance consultant who moved back to her home state in the Midwest after living in Los Angeles for over 20 years. She is the mother of two daughters who were adopted from the Zhuzhou Social Welfare Institute in Hunan, China.

A number of years ago, when my eldest daughter was in kindergarten, she sat in the backseat of the car while I drove her home from school. In the midst of our chatter about her day, she blurted out "Look Mom, I'm Chinese." I glanced in the rearview mirror to see my Asian daughter grinning like a Cheshire cat while holding her tiny little index fingers against each eye and tugging them upward into an awkward squint. I had to compose myself while responding, "Yes, WeiWei, you ARE Chinese."

This was certainly not the first time I had seen this gesture. In fact, it would be fair to say that the first time I saw "Slant Eyes" was when I was in kindergarten. Isn't that when most of us stood around on the playground manipulating our eyes into little slanty squints and chanting "Me Chinese, Me play trick..." At the time, I remember it seeming both hysterically funny and somewhat forbidden. At that young age, you have just begun to realize that there are differences among your peers and you have also come into a treasure trove of hand-me-down "funnies" that span generations ahead of you.

I did explain to WeiWei that the slant eyes gesture was in poor taste and she confidently relayed this to the friends who taught her this fun, new trick. And, that was that. Five year olds were educated in the nuances of cultural diversity and they forgot all about their game. I expect this sort of behavior out of five year olds. They have only just begun to explore the world around them and to their credit, when provided the opportunity, quite often they learn, and they gain a sense of compassion.

After recently counseling a friend last month that she should let a third grade slant eyes incident go, I found myself confronted with the now infamous Miley Cyrus and friends slant eye photo. Cyrus' most recent faux pas has left me wondering if I had not been taking this issue seriously enough. I have always viewed the problem as one of a lack of cultural awareness that could be overcome with some basic education. It is painfully obvious that at the advanced age of 16, someone had missed having this conversation with Cyrus.

What really caused me to catch my breath, however, was the web poll put out by Disney and Cyrus. They actually felt compelled to create a poll to justify her actions. Not surprisingly, a majority of the little girls who visit her website thought that Cyrus was "just having fun and being goofy." These are the same little girls who are making Chinese eyes at my children on the playground -- of course THEY think it's just hilarious. What this says to me is that Miley Cyrus is now plotting her moral compass based upon the accepted behaviors of nine year olds.

When I asked WeiWei, who is now 10, if the Cyrus photo bothered her, she said "No, I'm used to it." We have worked hard to make sure that our girls are strong and able to handle themselves in moments of cultural insensitivity. And, I have personally seen them do very well in these awkward situations. As a parent who wants nothing more than to protect her children from hurtful remarks, this resilience doesn't make WeiWei's response any easier to take. From responses that I have read, it would seem that I am being overly sensitive to the matter. However, there are a lot of parents who agree that Cyrus' behavior merits both concern and action, including Deborah Levine, a Board member from New York's Families With Children from China.

While I still believe that this is ultimately an issue of education, I will be less inclined to brush it off so readily in the future. It is never acceptable to be "goofy" at the expense of others, no matter what a bunch of nine years olds tell you is OK.