White Nostalgia: Reconsidered
Amber and Naomi are junior ComD students, Prattler officers, and besties. Amber is originally from Seattle, Washington and is a Chinese Canadian immigrant. Naomi is from the Bay Area in California and is a second generation South Asian American. They’re sitting down to talk about their experiences with nostalgia in a predominantly white culture as Asian Americans.
Naomi: Okay, Amber, what makes you nostalgic?
Amber: For me, a lot of specific Chinese cultural experiences. Like going back to China to visit my grandparents' home and the food that my mom made for me when I was a kid. Going to the Asian grocery store and getting snacks. It's very specific stuff that white people couldn't relate to.
Naomi: I feel like it's definitely the same for me. I spent a lot of time in my grandparents house growing up and eating the food my mom makes. But also that's only one very specific part of my life–– being Asian ––and then the other part is being American and growing up here. It's hard, those are two very different experiences and things that make you nostalgic coming from two very different places. It makes it hard to decide what is truly nostalgic to me.
Amber: I feel like the only parts of mainstream pop culture that I was really exposed to was just like PBS, Cartoon Network, stuff like that. No pop music until I was in middle school or high school. So the early 2000s was kind of a wash for me.
Naomi: Well, you were just born, haha. For me, my brother and I watched so much TV growing up, like we were glued to the television. That is pop culture: Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. But it's not representative of me now. So it's like, is it really nostalgic? Or is it just what I was exposed to at the time and felt like I needed to watch to keep up with white people trends.
Amber: Yeah. I think we often feel like nostalgia is supposed to be a good feeling but it’s also kind of bittersweet. Sometimes there are things from your past you don't have fondness for anymore.
Naomi: Do you think you reference nostalgia at all in your artwork?
Amber: I definitely use nostalgia in my artwork. A lot of the stuff I make for myself draws upon Chinese elements and it's all cultural heritage I inherited from my parents growing up or Chinese media that I’d watch. Like cartoons I was exposed to, or things I learned in Chinese Saturday school.
Naomi: Totally forgot about Sunday school.
Amber: You had that too?!
Naomi: Yeah, that's a really funny story because my mom was the teacher. I never did my homework. When we would have a test she would take the test for me, haha.
Amber: I do use a lot of things that I consider nostalgic in my work but it's not mainstream white nostalgia.
Naomi: I don’t think I use nostalgia in my work. I feel like I am much more experimental and I want to push expectations. I feel like it doesn’t need to be in my work because that's not the emotion I'm trying to elicit.
Amber: I guess that poses the question: what is our purpose for creating art? For me, it's about wanting to see myself represented in art so I draw upon my cultural experiences to inform that. But for you it's more like you want to create things for yourself, right?
Naomi: It's more like I'm trying to create a discussion. A lot of my work is through a feminist and women of color lens. What's in the media and pop culture is not representative of me and I'm trying to create a commentary about how society has failed me.
Amber: We both draw from our experiences but it's from different spectrums. Your art generates more talk about inequity, oppression and power dynamics.
Naomi: And your work is much happier.
Amber: Well not always, haha.
Naomi: Your work is like ‘let’s celebrate!’ and my work is like ‘let’s start a fight!’
Amber: I love that about your work though, it’s good.
Naomi: Thanks Amber, I love that your work is cute sometimes. So, how is nostalgia whitewashed?
Amber: Well, I guess, just remembering all the shows and media consumed when I was a kid, I barely saw any POC on screen. And when there was POC, they were either stereotyped or one-dimensional.
Naomi: Definitely not on Disney Channel. Hannah Montana did not have any POC energy.
Amber: And music that people consider nostalgic like, mainstream pop is very white dominant. People that enjoy music considered nostalgic from the 80s or from their parents are all like white, British men.
Naomi: Yeah it’s white dad music! Like we didn't have white dads so that's not nostalgic to us.
Amber: Yeah, I have Chinese rock ballads that my mom played. That's cringey nostalgia to me.
Naomi: Going back to TV, the 2020 show on Netflix Never Have I Ever is supposed to show South Asian American culture. But that's not me. It’s really disappointing because how often is there going to be a show with a South Asian woman as the lead?
Amber: I feel like whenever there's media that casts specific diverse leads, that's the only chance we'll ever get. White people have had so many different forms of media that they can have “bad” media and “good” media. That's fine because they have a lot to choose from, but we don't. Everything has much higher stakes for us.
Naomi: Like it has to be good otherwise it's never gonna happen again.
Amber: Obviously, it would be great if more shows were created and we had that range to choose from, but we live in a capitalist society. If it's not good, it's not going to get funded.
Naomi: I feel like a lot of things have come far though. Like music has come very far from white dad music.
Amber: Yeah, we're seeing more people of color and queer people get mainstream attention. I can't relate to people who subscribe to the idea of the “good old days”. We don't need to go back. When a lot of people during the pandemic were talking about revisiting childhood favorites and media, I couldn't connect with them because I didn’t really want to watch those shows or listen to that music.
Naomi: Some people have this desire or need to relive that time, but that's not relatable for me because that's a time when I felt like I wasn't good enough. I wasn't white enough. Like, I can't see myself in those stories at all so why would I go back to them?
Amber: Yeah, I'm not rereading Harry Potter anytime soon.
Naomi: I guess that's kind of the problem with trends. Nostalgia has become a trend now. And that's subjecting so many people to a single concept.
Amber: Obviously, my experiences with being a second generation immigrant are not universal. Another Chinese American might have a wildly different experience from what I find nostalgic. There are so many subsections of marginalization and there are so many people who have different experiences and ties to nostalgia. So when we talk about nostalgia as a trend, all those things get lost.
Naomi: It's like a spectrum from Asian to American and we are somewhere on this spectrum. Nobody is going to be in the same spot on that spectrum because we have different ties to those sides of ourselves. That makes it really hard to think about what is nostalgic for us. Whereas, I feel like other people, specifically white people, have it much easier because everything is referring to their experience. Everything is made for them.
Amber: For us, when we talk about things from our childhoods, we kind of have to talk about white media if we want to connect with other people. That kind of sucks. If we talk about specific cultural things that are nostalgic for us, it's alienating.
Naomi: Anything else you want to add, final thoughts?
Amber: I guess my closing thoughts are, to reiterate, that our specific experiences and struggles with the concept of nostalgia are not reflective of all immigrants. So it's good to be aware that there are many different perspectives.
Naomi: There’s a lot of pressure to follow trends and we need to critically analyze them instead of letting the media tell us what to consume. Nostalgia is very white-centric, and as minorities we don’t want to look towards the past; we’re looking towards the future.
Art by Amber Duan