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Are positive stereotypes bad?

That's the question I found myself considering after reading about a mini-controversy over a new Randy Newman song called "Korean Parents." The song praises the academic achievements of Korean students, and gives a lot of the credit to their parents-- hence the song's title. After crooning about the problems of underperforming public schools and dangerous neighborhoods, Newman offers a solution:

We got the answer
A product guaranteed to satisfy

Korean parents for sale
You say you need a little discipline
Someone to whip you into shape
They'll be strict but they'll be fair

Look at the numbers
That's all I ask
Who's at the head of every class?
You really think they're smarter than you are
They just work their ass off
Their parents make them do it.

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry declares that he "loves Chinese women"? When Elaine points out that attitude might be "a little racist," Jerry asks, "If I like their race, how can that be racist?" This song is in a similar vein.

Now, keep in mind that Randy Newman is a satirist and this isn't meant to be a serious song. But in this video in which Newman defends the song, he seems to imply that its lyrics contains at least a kernel of truth. In a recent Slate write-up of the song, Jeff Chang wrote that the song "skillfully whipsaws between condescension and flattery, packages shortcuts as lifesavers, fears as hopes." The song works as satire because its narrator is sort of an earnest doofus, which is a character Newman has previously channeled in songs like "Short People" and "Political Science."

So are positive stereotype bad? Well, it's obvious that many people are uncomfortable with making any kind of generalization about a large group of people. Given some of the world's more embarrassing and shameful episodes, this impulse to treat people as people is probably a healthy one. Seeing people as merely representatives of certain ethnic groups is (and should be) automatically suspect. But our hesitancy to make generalizations can also prevent us from asking important, serious questions, like why do, say, Korean and Indian students seem to excel in school when others are left behind? What are their parents doing that others' are not?

So what say you, Gadling faithful? Are all stereotypes, even positive ones, to be avoided? Or do some stereotypes serve a purpose in helping us think more clearly about the world?

And, hey, back to the all-important Seinfeld question: is declaring your love for Chinese women a little racist?

Filed under: Activism, South Korea

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