On Yellow Face, Racial Parody, and White Denial

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The fight over the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of The Mikado, that just closed it’s summer run, has been noisy and contentious. So noisy and contentious that it earned a special segment on the MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry, this past weekend.

What’s all the noise about? Yellow face. Yellow face refers to a form of racist caricature wherein non-Asian actors wear stereotypically Asian costumes and styles, and speak in ridiculous accents for laughs. Yellow face is the anti-Asian version of black face.

The controversy went wide when Seattle Times columnist Sharon Pian Chan went after the play in an editorial on July 13. Chan begins her critique with the following:

Remember when someone pranked a San Francisco TV station into reporting that the names of the Asiana plane crash pilots were “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Lo”?

After the station KTVU realized its mistake, it fired three producers.

But in Seattle, at least one theater plans to spend the summer guffawing about how Asian names sound like gibberish…Set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu — get it? — [The Mikado] features characters named Nanki Poo, Yum-Yum and Pish-Tush. It’s a rom-com where true love is threatened by barbaric beheadings.

All 40 Japanese characters are being played by white actors, including two Latinos. KIRO radio host Dave Ross is in the cast.

It’s yellowface, in your face.

And, with that, it was game on. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society responded, claiming that the Japanese caricatures in the play are just stand-ins for the British whom social conventions of the time excluded from parody.

It’s a ridiculous defense, really, but I’ll get to that later.

The debate really got charged up when one member of The Mikado cast, Seattle radio host Dave Ross, used his KIRO radio show in order to “discuss” the yellow face accusation with Pian Chan. Ross’s bull-headed ignorance added fuel to the fire.

The whole interview, which is worth a listen, is embedded in this article.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society will host a community dialogue concerning The Mikado and yellow face in August. In light of this, here are a few things Asian Americans involved in this debate might want to consider.

First, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society defense of The Mikado begins with the belief that historical acts must be understood in historical context. In other words, in the context of 1885, when The Mikado was first staged, Gilbert and Sullivan could not have gotten away with satirizing the British, so they used Japanese caricatures as stand-ins. Ipso facto, The Mikado’s caricature of the Japanese shouldn’t be regarded as racist since it’s really meant to make fun of the British.

This is a totally specious argument. The Mikado debuted in 1885 when Queen Victoria was also Empress of India. And Victorian England didn’t just screw over India. Consider the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, a completely unprovoked act of imperialism that paved the way for the absorption of Black ruled Zululand into the Union of South Africa, a British colony under white minority rule.

If folks want to talk historical context, there’s a lot to discuss.

The Mikado is evidence of the ubiquity of white supremacist thinking among the Victorians. Think about it. It was a wildly popular portrayal of a racist fantasy of Japan staged in order to poke fun at the British, without any consideration of the implications to the Japanese who, in the play, are at best to be regarded as objects. That at least merits an explanation before it is reenacted.

And the British weren’t the only bad actors in the 1880s. Consider the massacre of 34 Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon, U.S.A. in 1887, or the U.S. Indian Removal Act of 1830. Or, even closer to home, the 1886 Seattle anti-Chinese riot, when white residents of the city tried to remove 400 Chinese residents by force. So whether the context of the debate is England or the U.S., history remains relevant.

Second, defenders of yellow face and black face often site the fact that some Asians and Blacks consider it funny. In case you hadn’t figured this out already, this is irrelevant. If complete consensus concerning the existence of a grievance is necessary in order for action to be justified, we might as well give up.

For instance, in 2011, Gallup found that 4% of Blacks and 16% of whites opposed interracial marriage. Nearly a favorable consensus, but not quite. And that’s the good news. The bad news is that it wasn’t until 1997 that a majority of us supported interracial marriage. Making the presence of a perfect consensus among an aggrieved group a prerequisite for action pretty much guarantees that popular prejudices will always prevail.

Third, don’t allow the debate to drift toward false equivalencies. This is a common defense of those who wish to participate in racial caricature. In the case of The Mikado, Ross, as a member of the cast, raised the question, is Japanese Kabuki Theater a form of white face?

Seriously.

The answer is, no, because Kabuki performers aren’t making a racial statement by painting their faces white anymore than are clowns when they do the same. There’s a difference between make-up and racism. Similarly, there’s a difference between, say, non-Polish people doing Polish dances at festivals and yellow face, just as there’s a difference between a white person putting on a kimono in order to respectfully participate in a Japanese cultural ceremony and actors putting on kimonos in order to portray Japanese as buffoons.

Finally, when yellow face is discussed, black face almost always rears its ugly head in the form of the question, what if the caricatures were of Black people? It’s a good question, but not if it’s a lead-in to the claim that a racial double standard is at work here that victimizes Asians.

In the years of the Civil Rights Movement and the couple of decades that followed, we settled the question of whether explicit anti-black racism, either in the form of caricature or outright slurs, have a place in mainstream society. It took linking then-commonplace expressions of overt anti-black sentiment with the extraordinarily violent resistance to Black civil rights then being presented to the American public on the nightly news to marginalize overt anti-black racist caricature and defamation.

We haven’t arrived at a broad consensus where caricature of Asians is concerned. That’s made obvious by such recent incidents as the offensive yellow face portrayals on the popular American sitcom How I Met Your Mother. But, that doesn’t mean Asians are especially victimized.

Again, as long as historical context is in question, we should consider the current one. In our own time, stop and frisk policing regimes are disproportionately targeting Black people in spite of evidence demonstrating that the alleged criminal acts in question are no more, maybe even less, likely to be committed by Blacks than whites. Consider drug enforcement, which targets Black neighborhoods and not mostly white college dormitories. Certain expressions of overt racism have been marginalized, but they’ve been replaced by a far more insidious brand of coded racism.

When Asian Americans debate the racial implications of The Mikado, we should keep this in mind. We now live in the era of colorblind racism, where politicians and media personalities, theater troupes and advertisers can’t get away with overt racism towards Blacks. But, substituting anti-black slurs with terms like “entitlement junkies,” or “welfare queens”  and suggestions of delinquency and a dysfunctional (black) “culture of poverty,” continues to reproduce structural racism and racist persecution.

We would be wise to make these connections because unjust power relations are what create the context in which what appear to some to be minor racial slights can have deadly consequences.

 

 

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5 Responses to On Yellow Face, Racial Parody, and White Denial

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  1. kelly kayan July 29, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Thank you so much for your article, Scot! It makes me so sad to see people choosing to walk away or not understand why this is an issue at all.
    Wanted to clarify too–the community dialogue you’re referring to is being hosted by Seattle Repertory Theatre in mid-August and not by Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I could be wrong so please correct me if I am, but as of now, I still haven’t heard or read anything about the Society willing to host a *public* conversation with its community.
    How can we bridge or find some kind of common ground to make people see how this is so hurtful? And not just to the Asian community alone, but to our society as a whole, as we’re moving forward trying to fight for Equality? This production sets us back on all that work.

  2. Ann M. July 30, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    As I read your piece, I felt a spontaneous, though largely internal, voice saying, “Yes, sock it to ’em, Scot!” Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful insights and analysis. I remember a similar public debate over “M Butterfly” in the late 1980s. Does the self-conscious use of a stereotype deconstruct racism or replicate it? I say it depends on who is using it and who is consuming it. In the case of Seattle’s production, you’ve made it clear that the performers are white, and I hazard a guess that the audience is predominantly white, too. To deflect charges of racism in this instance is just a sign of privilege for those on both sides of the stage.

  3. she g. August 3, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    Its so amazing how the seattle theatre company would even produce a racist show anyway-Noel Coward plays were not available.
    Who said this was a good idea.And
    poor blk folk we are apart of every argument on race no matter what.
    I am exhausted and so are my people getting so we dont even know who to fight anymore. white theatre folk are trying to get away with racism all under the guise of art. asians please dont let them get away with it.
    let us know how the town meeting turns out.
    in solidarity,
    Artlover

  4. Sotaro Shibahara August 22, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    Thanks for writing this, Scot. Lord knows I spent enough time arguing with Ross’ defenders on one Seattle news site about this issue via Disqus.

    • Neville Ross January 22, 2015 at 11:50 pm #

      I too spent the same time arguing with the same stupid people about this (don’t remember if it was the same site, though.) These people are just fracking clueless about this, and believe that it’s okay to put on a play like this, one of them being black. I asked said black poster what he’d think of Porgy & Bess, but didn’t get a response. All of the others acted the same as you’d mentioned.

      Why can’t a play or musical be mounted that respects Asian Americans, like Allegiance? That’s a musical that speaks to the 20th (and 21st) century more than boring, dated and silly nonsense like The Mikado, or its modernization The Cool Mikado. All North Americans need to see more theater (musical or otherwise) like that.

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