Let Mitski Be Asian: White Queer/Feminist Discourse and How We’re Failing Artists and Fans of Color

"The idea of an artist “belonging” to any particular group is questionable in itself, but even worse when this kind of language alienates people—namely people of color—who may actually get a lot more out of Mitski’s discography than a white person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation."


Sammy Zimmerman (she/they)

Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do, Mitski sings on “Your Best American Girl.” You’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl. In some ways, it’s a song about the classic indie-pop themes of love and longing, but beneath the moon-and-stars imagery, it’s much more than that. It’s a song about coming from many places and belonging nowhere, but without the trite universalizing sentiment so common in diaspora art; the kind that says, “We may come from different cultures, but look, we’re both the same inside!” Instead, “Your Best American Girl” does something much more difficult: it looks a lover in the eye and says, “There are parts of me you will never be able to understand, and I don’t think we can move past that.” Mitski herself said as much in an interview with NPR, describing the song as coming from “a feeling of loving someone so much, and yet being from completely different backgrounds and not being able to do anything about it.” It’s the articulation of this feeling that distinguishes “Your Best American Girl,” and the rest of Mitski’s discography, from the din of 2010s indie-pop. As a third-generation Japanese American, I’ve encountered few other artists—and certainly none at Mitski’s level of cultural impact—whose art so boldly and elegantly engages with the longing and alienation that comes with the Asian American experience.


The “Asian American experience,” for lack of a better word, is by no means a monolith. Even though we’re both Japanese American, for example, Mitski was born in Japan and grew up traveling the world with her parents, while I was born and raised in a primarily Asian American community in the San Francisco Bay Area. And yet, there is a common thread of tension and discomfort running through many of our lives. It’s the tension that leading cultural studies scholar Ien Ang described in her book On Not Speaking Chinese when she wrote, “I would describe myself as suspended in-between: neither truly Western nor authentically Asian; embedded in the West yet always partially disengaged from it; disembedded from Asia yet somehow enduringly attached to it emotionally and historically.” I know, as Mitski knows, as many other Asian Americans know, what this in-between-ness feels like—what it feels like to belong neither fully to Japan nor to America, to the East nor to the West, to be a person from everywhere and nowhere in an increasingly globalized yet identity-obsessed world.


I know, as Mitski knows, as many other Asian Americans know, what this in-between-ness feels like—what it feels like to belong neither fully to Japan nor to America, to the East nor to the West, to be a person from everywhere and nowhere in an increasingly globalized yet identity-obsessed world.

Having spent my whole life struggling to define my own Japanese-ness, Asian-ness, and American-ness, to hear someone else articulate this struggle so perfectly is indescribably comforting. But we’ve all heard the “representation matters” spiel by now, and while I agree, I also don’t feel the need to rehash it. Instead, I bring up my personal experience with Mitski’s work as context for my main point in writing this essay: my discomfort with how Mitski’s music is received and her public image constructed by her white American audience.


Anyone who’s been on the internet—Tumblr, Twitter, Tik Tok, certain pockets of Instagram and YouTube—in the past three-ish years has probably seen people talking about how Mitski is “for the gays,” “lesbian culture,” etc., and a quick google search yields an abundance of blog posts and think pieces about the supposed sapphic subtext of Mitski’s lyrics. Alternatively, people tend to focus on feminist analysis of her work, often grouping her with other contemporary female (and primarily white) artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, and Julien Baker.



These takes aren’t wrong per se; I think it is extremely valuable to discuss how gender and sexuality play into Mitski’s work and the contemporary music scene at large. My issue is that they tend to leave out an important, perhaps the most important, dimension of Mitski’s work: race.


White people have a gift for feigning colorblindness, especially when discussing gender and sexuality. On some level, I understand; it’s easy to home in on aspects of art or a public persona like Mitski’s that are familiar, in this case womanhood and/or queerness, and ignore those that are strange or uncomfortable, i.e., race. But it’s a mistake to think that womanhood or queerness can or should be separated from race, and in doing so we do a disservice not only to Mitski, but to our whole cultural discourse on race, gender, and sexuality. Gender and sexuality, and therefore womanhood and queerness, are social constructs, imparted by the social context in which one exists. From the Two Spirit tradition in many American indigenous cultures to the six genders outlined in ancient Jewish texts, gender and sexual orientation categories have always been diverse, culturally and historically contingent, and highly mutable. Our contemporary Western conception of gender and sexuality is no exception; it is not natural or universal, but temporally and geographically specific, and shaped by a long and complicated history that is dominated by the traditions of whiteness and Christianity. All this to say that culture—and therefore, in the highly racialized world of the 21st century, race—is an essential determinant of gender and sexuality, and for a white commentator to ignore the factor of race is to fall back on the racist assumption that all people experience gender and sexuality the way that white Westerners do.


...for a white commentator to ignore the factor of race is to fall back on the racist assumption that all people experience gender and sexuality the way that white Westerners do.

Asian American womanhood and Asian American queerness (though Mitski has declined to label her sexuality, lyrics like “I've loved many boys, I've loved many girls” from “Cop Car” invite queer analysis of her work) deserve to be treated as unique phenomena that are valuable not only inasmuch as they overlap with white womanhood and queerness, but in their own right. Moreover, Asian American-ness in itself, even when it doesn’t overlap with white experience along the axes of gender and sexuality, is deserving of discussion and consideration. Too often white audiences seem to be interested in artists of color only when they can find some kind of group identity—often womanhood or queerness—in common with them.


The feeling of kinship fostered by shared identities, especially online, leads white audiences to feel possessive of, even entitled to, the work and public personas of artists of color. They are eager to “claim” these artists, flattening the dimension of race and trivializing their artistic output in the process. Facetious though it may be, the online language used around Mitski online—she “belongs” to the LGBT community, she’s “feral woman culture”—creates a very real association between Mitski and LGBT/feminist discourse that leaves little room for the consideration of race. The idea of an artist “belonging” to any particular group is questionable in itself, but even worse when this kind of language alienates people—namely people of color—who may actually get a lot more out of Mitski’s discography than a white person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.



I can think of no better example of the appropriation and trivialization of Mitski’s work than the “Strawberry Cow” Tik Tok phenomenon, in which a white Tik Tok creator’s rewrite of Mitski’s song “Strawberry Blond,” went viral. The original sound currently boasts 236.6K videos and the hashtag #strawberrycow has 335.5M views (by contrast, the original song has 6.8K Tik Tok videos, 47.5M Spotify streams, and 5M views on YouTube). A song going viral on Tik Tok is neither novel nor problematic in itself; the issue is that this particular song is a silly, meme-ified version of a serious song about the difficulty of love and relationships as a woman of color. You tell me you love her / I give you a grin / Oh all I ever wanted was a / life in your shape, Mitski sings to her unrequited love. The refrain: Look at you, strawberry blond / Fields rolling on / I love it when you call my name. The choice of “strawberry blond” as the title of the song and a key phrase of the refrain is no accident. It’s a physical trait almost exclusive to white people; one that Mitski and women like her, women like me, can never naturally have. It’s a symbol of indelible difference, recalling her lamentation in “Your Best American Girl” on cultural and racial differences that can’t be simply overcome by love. It’s not just that she loves someone who is strawberry blond and doesn’t love her back—it’s that she loves someone who cannot love her back because he is “strawberry blond.”


This is a huge disservice to Mitski who, as a public figure, a popular artist, and a Japanese woman, has something serious to say about race.

This is a world of meaning that completely disappears when “Strawberry Blond” is redistributed across social media as “Strawberry Cow.” “Strawberry Cow” is silly, fun, and easily palatable. It doesn’t ask you to think about things like interracial relationships or racialized biology. Crucially, it doesn’t make white people uncomfortable. Of course, the Tik Tok creator who wrote and performed “Strawberry Cow” almost certainly didn’t mean it this way; they probably didn’t even think about it, may not even have been aware that race was the real subject matter of “Strawberry Blond.” But this doesn’t change the fact that “Strawberry Cow” has now effectively overwritten “Strawberry Blond” and everything it has to say about race, turning it into just another Tik Tok song. This is a huge disservice to Mitski who, as a public figure, a popular artist, and a Japanese woman, has something serious to say about race.


Moreover, Mitski’s reputation as an “alt Tik Tok” artist and association with certain white queer/feminist spaces opens her up to the mockery that targets those spaces, mockery that too easily slips into racism. I was shocked a few months ago to read a Tweet that dismissively referred to her as “Mickey,” in the context of semi-jokingly disparaging the kind of white gay person who is supposed to be Mitski’s primary demographic. Butchering an ethnic name isn’t any more funny or acceptable when it happens because that name got caught in the crossfire of petty bickering between different factions of white people. But casual racism like this easily goes unchallenged when artists of color like Mitski are identified primarily as queer/feminist artists, and thus “fair game” for queer/feminist people. (There’s something problematic in the idea that sharing an identity with a public figure gives one free range to harass them on the internet, but that’s another can of worms.)


But casual racism like this easily goes unchallenged when artists of color like Mitski are identified primarily as queer/feminist artists, and thus “fair game” for queer/feminist people.

I’m not asking for white people to stop listening to Mitski, to stop analyzing her work through queer or feminist lenses, or to stop showing her the enthusiastic support she more than deserves. Instead, I’m asking white Mitski fans to leave room for Mitski to be Asian: to stop talking about her “belonging” to queer or feminist communities, even jokingly; to think critically about how her work engages with race and what you, as a white person, might learn from that; to include race in public discourse around her work, even when it’s uncomfortable or may not seem relevant to you. So much is lost as her art and public persona is subsumed into a popular white queer/feminist ecosystem that doesn’t feel obligated to concern itself with race.


As Mitski returns from a two-year hiatus, I hope that fans of hers are able to rethink and recalibrate the way we receive her art and collectively construct her public image. In doing so, I hope we can enrich popular discourse around race, gender, sexuality, and art, and finally give Mitski, and all artists of color, the respect they deserve.