No, a white musician should not be calling herself “Chinawoman”

A rant and wake-up call about racism and cultural appropriation

Here where I live in Berlin, there’s a Canadian musician — white, female — who goes by the name Chinawoman. Maybe you haven’t heard of her, but she’s been making music since 2007 and has gotten big in some local circles and in pockets around the world. Her music is sort of a dark, moody chanson style with vaguely folk-Slavic undertones. If her Facebook page is any reliable indicator of popularity, she’s got 56,000+ fans there. Have any of those 56,000 people, or the countless others who have listened to her music or attended her concerts, ever wondered why a white woman has built a musical career by appropriating a racial slur as her name?

It bothered me so much that I recently contacted her to air my grievances. Because I think it’s important to call out racism when it happens, I want to share what I told her, and how she responded. (Spoiler alert: she won’t stop calling herself Chinawoman.) But first, some background info.

Photo: Remi Rybicki, via chinawoman.ca

Name: Michelle Gurevich. Hometown: Toronto. Parents: Russian immigrants. Those are the basic biographical details one can find on Wikipedia. On the left is a photo from her website.

In 2010, she gave an interview in which she explained how the name “Chinawoman” came about:

“People often ask me if I am Asian. Back around when I wrote [my] first song, I opened Garageband on my Mac laptop for the first time and was playing around. It prompted me for a band name, and as a joke I wrote ‘Chinawoman’.”

People often ask me if I’m Asian, too. Thing is, I am. They don’t always see it right away, because I’m a mixed bag of my (white) father’s features and my mother’s Chinese ones. The “So… what are you?” question is one I’ve fielded all my life, wherever in the world I go. People have asked me if I’m Spanish, Mexican, Native American. More and more, however, as mixed-race children become increasingly common, people are able to recognize my background: half white, half Asian.

Just so we’re clear : Michelle Gurevich, the artist who calls herself Chinawoman, is of Russian descent. Not Asian.

Chinaman. Here’s some background on this slur, taken from Wikipedia.

Do a Google image search of the term “Chinaman” and these are the kind of things you’ll find:

I suppose that Michelle intended some kind of irony when she chose the name Chinawoman “as a joke” that day — on a whim, she says, though I take issue with that claim. (More on that below.) Anyway, where’s the joke in a white person naming themselves after a racial slur that people of colour have endured? I fail to get the punchline. Given that people have asked me if I’m Native American, does that give me the right to build a career on calling myself Squaw — as a joke? My friend who has such curly hair that people sometimes think she’s half black (she’s not): should she go around calling herself Negress? I cringe at the very thought.

Racial slurs are not for joking around with, playing with, and re-appropriating unless you have lived with the long, insidious history of the racism behind that slur.

For a white person to feel like they have the right to do so is, in fact, a legacy of their whiteness. It is whiteness that makes them feel free to colonize a culture that does not belong to them. It’s white privilege that enables this musician to try on the “Chinawoman” label like a fashion accessory, to play with it, use it ironically, and take it off whenever she pleases, and continue walking through the world as a white woman. Actual Chinese people, of course, don’t have that privilege. Actual Chinese women are followed wherever they go by the very real possibility of being objectified, taunted, mocked, and discriminated against for their facial features and skin tone and bodies.

Further, the name “Chinawoman” has deep Orientalist connotations. It plays with the idea of Chineseness as something exotic, with the Asian woman fetishized as a sultry, mysterious siren. (Take a quick browse around Michelle’s Facebook presence or watch any of her music videos and it’s quickly apparent that this is at the core of her musical persona.) The name Chinawoman lends dramatic effect, a mystique, a “what is she?” intrigue in the double-take that people do when they see that her face and her music don’t match her name.

When I first emailed Michelle Gurevich to voice these concerns, a couple weeks went by with no reply. After I emailed her again to let her know I would be publishing something on the issue, she responded to say that although not many people have spoken out to her about her name, it’s been enough to make her consider changing it. Her reply:

“I have already given much thought to changing my artist name, and was preparing to do so earlier this year. However I could not immediately decide on a name that I was completely certain about, and apparently most bands that change their names end up changing them back, as audiences refuse to accept the new name. I decided I would allow myself some time to choose a name that I felt certain about.”

She also wrote that for an artist to change their name, it is best to time it with a new release. However, she’s had ample opportunity recently, releasing an album in 2014 and a single in 2015, so it’s hard for me to believe that she takes the name change all that seriously. If and when the day ever comes that the name Chinawoman disappears into the annals of history as a regrettable racist mistake, I will breathe a sigh of relief — but until then, my blood will continue to boil every time I hear her music.

*Note: As of August 2016, Michelle Gurevich has left the Chinawoman moniker behind and is recording and performing under her real name.