Race Card: The Chinese Parenting Controversy and the Vilification of Mothers of Color

Nadra Kareem Nittle
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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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16 Comments Have Been Posted

Westerners don’t face cultural attacks for parenting concerns

Really? Or just in Western media. Is this self selecting since personally I only have access to western media. Is media in the east all sunshine and rainbows WRT western parenting? And is that something that is strived for within their cultural context?

Not in the same way...

Hi Dyan,

I think what Nadra is saying is that when a Western mother is criticized for her parenting, she isn't held up as a representative of her entire culture the way a non-Western mother might be. For example, if an article like Chua's was written by a white woman, the discourse around it would be much different, and it probably wouldn't include phrases like "all white mothers are like ____."

I had the same "yeah, not

I had the same "yeah, not quite" reaction to the idea that western mothers aren't criticized. I think the big difference, as you're pointing out, is the link between bad parenting and overall cultural dysfunction. Historically, we can find a number of examples where mothers of color are criticized in a veiled attempt to pathologize and marginalize a racial or ethnic group. (Even if Chua's intent wasn't to play into those cold-mothers-of-color stereotypes, I'm glad to see someone pointing out how they can be harmful.)

White mothers are often criticized for the current state of children. White mothers less often get blamed for dysfunctions in white culture at large. For example, no one blamed white mothers for Enron or the Wall Street corruption that contributed to the Recession. I think criticizing white mothers is more often about scaring them into buying something. I won't be surprised if "10 Easy Steps to be More like a Mean Chinese Mom" shows up on Amazon in a couple of weeks.

Blaming the mother

Blaming the mother is an ages long tradition. In western media we do not see a lot of "white mother's do X". We have been told that it's our fault if our children, have austism (as if that's the worst thing ever), or rob a bank, or shoot someone, or use drugs, or get bad grades, or are just slackers in general. Ms. Chua is doing exactly the same thing, this time it's just because they are white.

And my question was more about if eastern media commented on the wishy-washy "white" way of parenting. I realize that Western media is exported everywhere these days, but I don't know that the exporting of it makes Western the de facto, or up and coming, cultural paradigm.

media portrayals

I would like to point out that this is not about media portrayal of Chinese parenting, but about Ms. Chua's own account of her parenting.

In addition, she knows that her account will be shocking to most readers, and indeed this seems to be the point of it. She also has sweeping generalizations of Western or white parenting.

Mothers of Color Article

I take issue with your comments that minority women are always shown as mean or emotionally/physically abusive and white mothers are perfect pillows of affection. How about Roseanne-she was not too perfect, a little tragic sometimes in how she treated her family-so was her mother. What about Greg's mother from Dharma and Greg-terrible, white mothers are constantly letting their children get molested and beaten or killed on the Law & Orders, CSI's and the like-just as much as moms of color. Check out the mom from the Bernie Mac show-she was great, Mrs. Huxtable, Mrs. Evans, Dr. Bailey from Grey's Anatomy, several moms of color from the Real Housewives franchise against some of the white moms on the franchise. In the media (i.e. news), it is generally a crazy white, young mom doing harm/killing/selling her child. I am not saying things are evn or fair-but it is up to the individual community to make the noise. As jesse Jackson said back in the 80's during the explosion of crack and black on black violence-it is not up to the white folks to help us, they cannot do anything until we decide to help ourselves.

Not always

Hi Rebecca,

Nadra is not saying that all mothers of color are shown to be mean or abusive, just that they are often portrayed that way. The same goes for white mothers in the media, like Roseanne or the Real Housewives. While there are always exceptions to every rule, what I take from this piece is that mothers of color are often vilified by the media, and that their culture/race is often blamed for their bad parenting. This is problematic no matter how frequently it occurs.


I'm sure I could have made my point more clearly, but Kelsey basically has explained my point. While all sorts of mothers are shown in the media, mothers of colors are often portrayed as being cold/mean/abusive/neglectful, and that is used to suggest that the cultures these women come from are dysfunctional. Of course, Western mothers are shown negatively, but when a white child does something wrong, there's typically not someone saying that white culture is at fault. So, for example, even though Ms. Chua is playing into the model minority stereotype, some of the comments attacking her have criticized various Asian cultures for producing children who are robotic, depressed, materialistic and so on. Ms. Chua is writing as if she's speaking for all Chinese moms, and in return the public is saying, well, Chinese culture is messed up. If a white woman were to write an article about how she mothers her children, white culture (take that however you'd like) would likely not be demonized in return.

Reading the piece, it was my

Reading the piece, it was my understanding that the ruthless nature of Asian mothers is rooted in compassion for their children's success. In that paradigm, it's not abusive. The logical fault seems to be conflating the seemingly abusive actions of Asian mothers with other abusive actions (neglect, etc.). While white compassionate mothers (as we understand compassion in our society) are often the media norm, what about white fathers? They're often depicted as lacking intelligence, being woefully neglectful, etc. So it's not white parents as a whole that are depicted as the better parents.

The "is it abuse" line also brings in to question motivation. If you are using ruthless tactics to elicit desirable results, is that different than saying or doing similar things in the name of putting and keeping your child down. We routinely applaud the fierce demands of athletic coaches and, in retrospect, the best teachers always seem to be the ones who didn't tolerate crap from their students.

"parents should have high

"parents should have high expectations for children" sounds like a good concept but I rarely see practice of it properly.

For example, I have a learning disorder. It wasn't that bad for the majority of my schooling in a college prep school where learning Bible verses was more important than challenging us academically, especially since I have above average intelligence. So when I was suddenly thrown in among teachers that <i>did</i> challenge me, I no longer had the skills I needed to succeed. For a while, I did what kids my situation often do -- nothing. I stopped working on school work because there wasn't a point if I was just going to fail anyway. Eventually I got tired of being treated like a moron, so I sat down and started putting serious work in again... and finally got a report card with Bs & Cs. In fact, one was even a B+. I was ecstatic. What was the reaction of my teachers and "high expectations" mother? I was lazy, and they knew that with my intelligence I could perform better if I tried at all. The result was another bout of blank assignments -- again, what was the point, if my best wasn't good enough? This cycle destroyed my GPA. If I'd been told "I believe you're capable of As, but I'm so happy to see your grades coming up," I would have tried a lot harder.

Add on to that, I am <b>really</b> lucky to have a mom that loves me even when she thinks I'm a jackass (my dad loves me and doesn't think I'm a jackass, just to clarify his role). From what I've seen of other friends and students in that school (there are two reasons anyone pays for school: religious paranoia and high expectations), most "high expectation" parents don't stop with academics. From the day the kid pops out, they create fantasies of the perfect jock, the perfect artist, the perfect student... And if the kid's personality and interests are different from that fantasy (they want to pursue sports instead of music, want to pursue drama instead of sports, have an ever-growing stack of comic books...), then the emotional abuse sets in. No matter what the academic score, my school was full of students with "disappointed" parents (if they were lucky).

And imagine what it was like to attend a "high-expectations" Christian college prep school when you were a high-scoring, religiously enthusiastic lesbian? Do you really think getting As and knowing every Bible verse was good enough for her parents' expectations when she got caught kissing a girl?

Chua's implicit accusation...

It seems to me that Chua's rather sly implicit accusation is that being "soft" and "touchy-feely" about a child's emotions is, in actuality, the abusive mode of parenting and her "hands-on", "tough-love" approach is the genuinely loving approach. She also clarifies at the beginning of her essay that she is indeed generalizing and that she is more giving account of her own personal parenting philosophy - albeit coming from a Chinese heritage background. In any case, I neither agree or disagree with Chua but am riveted by the controversy not only because I am of Korean heritage and can easily relate to the piece but because I'm an expecting mother of my first and naturally deeply invested in figuring out where I want to stand on this issue.

Moreover, in terms of this thread, I wonder if it is even possibly the opposite: that "white" women are often portrayed as negligent, weak, soft, impotent, daresay indifferent and irresponsible with their children if not sometimes straight up crazy and deranged - whereas the predominating stereotype women of color seem to get is the emotionally/physically abusive, overbearing, overcritical mother. I have to confess, I prefer the stereotype of the latter. I'm in no way condoning or defending the stereotype; I'd just like to point out that the latter could implicate more agency/potency than the former - a rather odd phenomenon, in terms of race politics, in my opinion.

Two things, and one may be

Two things, and one may be off topic:

1) " 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."

This was one of the things I took strong issue with in Chua's piece--the idea that athletics shouldn't be prioritized over academics (or that her girls must learn piano and avoid the school play). I'm one of those "marches to a beat of a different drummer" types, and I'm far more academic than athletic, but because I march to the beat of a different drummer, I'm a huge fan of the idea that there's not one way to be a success. I wish society were more inclusive on what's considered the "right" path to follow to find each of our ways in the world instead of having a narrow view of what should be praised and what should be discouraged. Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses, their interests and things in which they are not interested. If a person is extremely athletic, they should be encouraged to prioritize athletics all they want. It's their life. One is not inherently better than the other.

2) I've always been under the impression that the media place far more blame on African American fathers than mothers for the "pathology in the black community".

I read this article when a

I read this article when a friend passed it to me and immediately picked up on Chua's repeatedly shown prejudice that drama is not a real subject. It angered me for the reasons you have described.

I am a white Anglo-Irish woman whose parents come from a working-class background and worked themselves up to being middle-class. I won scholarships to a private school and attended that school six days a week. When I came home, I did hours and hours of homework. I don't look back on my early teens often because I was unbelievably lonely, but I did get very good grades. During that time, if there was a school play on and I did NOT audition for it, my parents, knowing I was a talented actress, would demand to know why. I also took professional drama exams outside school. Treating acting as a fluff profession and subject, as Chua clearly does, is indicative of the chip on her shoulder. Forcing her children not to do drama is not indicative of either better or stricter parenting, as my own experience proves. I would also say I had to raise an eyebrow at Chua's apparent demands that her daughters are thin but also physically unfit - she deprioritised athletics but critisised them as 'fatty'. If it's an accurate impression I've gained here, the only way to achieve that goal is by extreme dieting, which is disgusting and not healthy. This looks like it's related to the concept of 'Face' - i.e. others' opinions of you must be maintained - rather than being anything to do with their actual achievement. A number of ex-students of my school are now professional athletes. Their physical fitness required insane amounts of effort and self-discipline.

In my current teaching job, I am administering a middle school winter camp because as a public school teacher in Korea, I am employed by the government and that's my duty in the school holidays. My students are divided into high level and low level. This is a very interesting assessment of Chua's parenting style, which some families here share - though obviously Korean and Chinese culture are really quite different in a large number of ways. I find the so-called high level students, who have mostly been raised according to similar ideals to Chua's, significantly less imaginative than the low level ones, much slower to grasp new concepts and far more shocked by anything that is out of their field of experience (including when one girl saw my figure without a cardigan on, but only a long-sleeved blouse, thick tights and smart suit skirt - I have a Kim Kardashian-esque hourglass and also work out constantly. The girl dissolved into hysterical laughter for the next half an hour). Although their level of conversational English is higher, they have effectively been drilled by after-school academies to tick boxes and pass multiple choice questions, so are vastly less capable of thinking critically.

An example was during a lesson on onomatopoeia in English. Korean is the most onomatopoeic language I have ever encountered. No high level student picked up on this at all. The supposed low level students, on the other hand, immediately seized on parallels between their own language and what I was teaching them about English, giving a number of their own examples of onomatopoeic words. One girl said, "Teacher, I think Korean has so many of that word, onomatopoeia word." Typically, when the kids start a sentence with 'I think', they are trying to be tentative about an idea they feel another may not share, but she'd hit the nail on the head. In a story I wrote and gave to them, they were more able to pick out the words fitting this category than the high level classes. Another example, during a lesson on irregular verbs, was that the low level students were more able to work out what the past tense of an unfamiliar irregular verb would be, whereas the high level students refused to answer any question they were not sure of.

I would point out that these low level students still come from families which are strict about academic achievement. Remember, they have been enrolled in an optional winter school (with a foreign teacher who is notorious for pushing students. I don't show them movies and the like). However, their familes are not fanatical about it, unlike the high level students, who are also much more likely to start dozing in either my class or someone else's from simple exhaustion and need to be woken up. As a result they have developed more of a personality and be simply less fazed by life and more able to resolve problems. Oh, one thing I didn't mention but which is also worth considering is that some of the high level students argue with me about cultural things, despite never having traveled, and are very bad at accepting cultural difference. In Korean culture and language, a vegetable is 'anything you can make side dishes from', including a chestnut and a tomato. When I was explaining why this is not like Western definitions of that word, some high level students tried to battle me on it. I'm sure Chua considers herself to have been a great parent, but she is not representative of all Asian parenting - hence the split amongst my students - and I absolutely wouldn't adopt her norms if I ever wanted kids.

Finally, over to China, that gigantic country which has about 54 recognised indigenous ethnic groups and about which it is rather hard to generalise. I have a friend who is Chinese and who is a kind of party girl. She is also as open as she can be about her bisexuality, which I admire. Some of the behaviours she has got away with during her life, I would never have visited on my parents. Her mother takes it on the chin, though she is strict about some things. Perhaps Chua would have stated that this person is 'westernised' or something similar. She is actually Chinese born and bred; she has never visited a Western country. Food for thought, and another example of why self-generalisation is stupid.


I just wanted to say I found your response to be wonderful!

This may be basic but...

All the comments I have read on this blog post and many others about the Chua article have been really interesting. But, on a much more basic level, I just keep thinking how crazy it is that we are being drawn into a debate about parenting along racialised lines. More fundamentally it just cannot make any sense to talk about "white parenting," "Asian parenting," "parenting of colour." As more and more people share their own experiences it is just reiterated over and over again that parenting styles cut across all races, societies and cultures. "Cultural attacks" on parenting are, I think, inevitably going to be heavy handed and devoid of any useful content beyond crass stereotyping.

The fact that this highly educated woman (of colour) who has risen to the position of professor of Yale Law School and - most interestingly - has written and spoken a great deal on ethnic conflict and hatred could come up with such a racialised piece of writing is extremely surprising. I would really be fascinated to know what her thinking behind publishing this was. Certainly it's a lot of great publicity for her book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." (aaaah)

It is interesting that in her defence interview she attempts to reframe the debate to "tough immigrant" parenting which includes parents from Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Korea, Jamaica, Haiti, Iran, Ireland. While still vulnerable to horrific generalisation, this line of argument could at least generate some interesting discussions about how parents cope with trying to bring up children in a way that helps them succeed in a country/society that the parents did not grow up in.

ps. She sounds like my mother.

Amy Chua

Why is the art of music required to endure the ill-informed antics of such inartistic imbeciles as Amy Chua? Her lust for fame as an old-fashioned stage mother of either a famous violinist (yet another mechanical Sarah Chang?) or a famous pianist (yet another mechanical Lang Lang?) shines through what she perceives as devotion to the cultivation of the cultural sensitivities of her two unfortunate daughters.

Daughter Lulu at age 7 is unable to play compound rhythms from Jacques Ibert with both hands coordinated? Leonard Bernstein couldn’t conduct this at age 50! And he isn’t the only musician of achievement with this-or-that shortcoming. We all have our closets with doors that are not always fully opened.

And why all this Chinese obsession unthinkingly dumped on violin and piano? What do the parents with such insistence know of violin and piano repertoire? Further, what do they know of the great body of literature for flute? For French horn? For organ? For trumpet? Usually, nothing!

For pressure-driven (not professionally-driven!) parents like Amy Chua their children, with few exceptions, will remain little more than mechanical sidebars to the core of classical music as it’s practiced by musicians with a humanistic foundation.

Professor Chua better be socking away a hefty psychoreserve fund in preparation for the care and feeding of her two little lambs once it becomes clear to them both just how empty and ill-defined with pseudo-thorough grounding their emphasis has been on so-called achievement.

Read more about this widespread, continuing problem in Forbidden Childhood (N.Y., 1957) by Ruth Slenczynska.

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

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