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Archive for the ‘Orientalism’ Category

A shop along Naha’s Yachimun-dôri (“Pottery Street”) in the Tsuboya neighborhood, the center of Okinawan pottery production for hundreds of years. Today, heavily trafficked by tourists.

I visited Okinawa for just a very few days in late October last year (2019), mainly to spend time with my friend Vicky, who is a world traveler like no one else I have ever met, but who had never been to Okinawa, wanted to go, and wanted me to show her around. Since she has trouble with stairs and inclines and so forth – and with crowds – we skipped Shuri castle during that trip. I wrote the following thoughts immediately upon my return to Tokyo, but then before I finished writing more, polishing and preparing the post for “publication,” the unimaginable happened. I cannot believe it was only a very few days later that there was this tragic accident, this fire, which destroyed the most central buildings in the complex – indeed, I still can’t believe that it happened at all.

In late January (2020), I made another very brief visit to Okinawa, before going to Amami, and aside from the many things I could say about the palace and the fire, what I would write now upon this latest trip is largely the same as how I felt during/after that previous trip.

One of the things I’m loving about Okinawa right now – and I guess I should say, specifically, the capital city of Naha in particular – is that I feel like I know Naha in a way I know no other city.

It’s dumb and untrue, but I feel like it’s “my” city in a way… This is patently dumb and untrue because, first of all, by all means, everyone who’s Okinawan, whether they grew up there or in the diaspora, they have a special connection to the place that I could only hope to ever sense or experience the slightest taste of. And I do know plenty of people – Okinawan, Japanese, (white) American – who have indeed spent more time in Okinawa than I have, and who by all means do know and in a certain sense have “claim” so to speak upon the city more than I do. But I don’t mean to compare myself to those people, so much as I mean to say that (1) within my own experience, of cities that *I* know, I feel I perhaps in a certain sense know Naha the best and (2) out of all my Japanese friends, Japanese Studies colleagues, etc, it’s easy to feel I know Naha better than any of them. It’s my place in a certain sense, if that makes sense. You sit around and talk to people about how long they’ve lived in Nagasaki or Kôchi or Sendai, how well they know Fukuoka or Sapporo or Kobe – all places I have only the most minimal experience with – and talk about how all us all know Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama to varying extents. But, Naha, I go back to Naha, and I can show you around. If you’re going, let me know, I can give you advice.

The Naha city skyline, as seen from within the grounds of Shuri castle.

New York, of course, is home in a certain sense. In a certain sense, that will always be my city. But at the same time, in another sense, New York or LA or Tokyo can never be my city, because they’re just too vast and there are too many millions of people who know all different sides of it that I’ve never seen; different lives, different experiences, different neighborhoods. Naha is small, and while there are undoubtedly many sides to it that I don’t know, haven’t seen, at the same time, I feel like I know my way around like the back of my hand as they say. All the most major landmarks, at least, from the monorail stations to the shrines, temples, museums, shopping centers, etc. “Oh, that’s in Asato? No problem, I can walk there from Makishi, no problem.” “Oh, that’s in Wakasa? Oh, I see. Well, that’ll be a bit of a walk. But maybe I can stop at Chihaya Books on the way there.” “Oh, we’re meeting up at Ryûtan-dôri? What do you think about eating at Beans? I love Beans. Or, there’s that one place right on the corner that I’ve never been to.” People suggest restaurants to go to, and very occasionally, I’ve actually been to that exact restaurant before; or, if I haven’t, I know the area, I know the neighborhood.

And while anywhere else, even in Honolulu, I don’t really have my favorite places that aren’t exactly the same places anyone else might say are also their favorites, here I really do have my go-to places, my favorite bars, restaurants, bookshops…

And I have a certain relationship with the city that I can come back here and recognize what’s changed, every store that comes up or gets shuttered…. And many memories over many individual different visits. Walking around Heiwa Dori and thinking about Sakae-san and his Daiei Shokudo. Thinking about times spent with Simone, probably some of our happiest times, getting ice cream at the same little shop several days in a row, etc…. I feel privileged to get to have this kind of relationship with the city. I remember shops that aren’t there anymore; I got to see them before they were gone. I got to visit certain places when they were brand-new. Of course, Shuri castle is perhaps the biggest of these – I had the privilege of visiting it several times before the fire. But I also remember the Okinawa Monorail before they extended it into Urasoe, and the Makishi Market before it got closed down earlier this year, though I am a bit sad I couldn’t be there to witness the actual closing. And it’s those kinds of memories or experiences, that kind of historical/cultural local knowledge, that I think is just so precious, such a privilege, even if it is, in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily something that will ever actively come out onto the page (of my professional scholarship) or necessarily play out in any way at all.

Heiwa-dôri, a maze of covered shopping arcade streets in central Naha.

Heiwa-dôri is a special place for me. I feel like it’s the kind of place that if you lived in central Naha, if you spent enough time in Heiwa-dôri, you could really get to know the people there. Really get to develop a real feel of the place. During the day it’s packed with tourists, but in the evenings, it’s all small, individual bars, very local feeling. But tons of them – like the possibilities are almost endless. Feeling like if I did live there, I might be able to develop a relationship fairly quickly, having my regular bars, maybe even get the bartenders/owners to know me.

On my very first trip to Okinawa, the very first shop I ate at was a little shokudô deep in Heiwa-dôri, way back from the main touristy street, called Daiei Shokudô. As I’ve probably related on this blog before, Sakae-san, the owner, very kindly sat with me and talked with me, invited me to come back that night to play/sing folk songs with him and his friends. Somewhere I think I still have a shirt he or his wife gave me when I arrived soaking wet from the rain. That shop is now gone; it’s been more than ten years since then. But last I asked, I asked around random shopowners in the neighborhood, and they knew who he was and they said he was still in good health, very genki. Happy to hear it. But it’s that kind of neighborhood – getting to know the individual shops, getting to know the shopowners. Living in Nishihara for six months, and staying in Tsuboya (just a couple blocks from Heiwa-dôri) on multiple occasions – with my girlfriend, with another friend, with my Dad, and since then on several occasions on my own – I went up and down those alleyways, in early morning, in late evening. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know any of the shopowners, certainly not to the extent that they’d know me. But I do feel like I’ve gotten just a taste of feeling like I “know” Heiwa-dôri, like I feel just the tiniest bit at home there, far more so than in any shopping mall / shopping arcade anywhere in Tokyo. And if I were to ever write an ethnography of a neighborhood, an ethnography of a shôtengai, boy would it be Heiwa-dôri. Absolutely. Maybe sometime down the road, years from now…

Naha Main Place, the main shopping mall (I’d say) in Naha.

And Naha Main Place, the shopping mall. Now, that’s a funny one, too. Who has special feelings about a shopping mall? But the time I spent there, unlike any tourist would, the late evenings in Naha, not yet ready to want to take the bus back to Nishihara (the University of the Ryukyus is located in a fairly out-of-the-way area; only about 20 mins from Naha by bus, but even so, “rural”, or inaka as they say in Japanese; a whole other world from the “big city” of Naha). I don’t think there is any shopping mall or department store anywhere in the world that I feel like I know my way around like I do in Naha Main Place. That’s a weird sentence. Now, this is in part because it’s so small. But, I don’t how to say it, I just… being there makes me feel like I live in Okinawa, like I am, however temporarily, a local, and not a visitor. 在沖。It’s funny, it’s crazy ironic and weird, because it is such an utterly ordinary shopping mall – none of the textured feeling of history, of local community, that Heiwa-dôri has – but even so, when I think about the experience so many grad students and others have had of making their way through daily life in Tokyo or Kyoto, and here I am, X hundreds of miles away, in some other place, buying my cellphone plan at Naha Main Place, buying my groceries there before catching a bus back to Nishihara. Watching Kimi no Na ha there. Going back time and again to ogle the kariyushi shirts and to shake my fist at how expensive they are (I don’t care if it’s handmade by local artisans and costs X number of manhours to make from special local materials and so forth, what am I supposed to do with a $300 shirt? Or even a $100 shirt for that matter? It’s just too much to spend.) Spending time at Naha Main Place makes me feel like someone who is living everyday life in Naha, and not like someone who’s there for only a few days on a trip. Someone familiar with the city, yes, admittedly in the way that a tourist would be, but also in the way a local might be. Shopping there as my normal shopping, eating at whatever, Starbucks or whatever, the mall pizzeria or whatever, and being okay with that because I’m not on vacation, I don’t need to have that special “Okinawan” Kokusai-dôri experience.

This last time that I visited Okinawa, and an Okinawan friend said “why don’t we meet up at such-and-such restaurant in Sakae-machi?” I felt like she was asking me with a sort of unspoken assumption that I would know where that was. Which I did. She made no hint of that she felt she had to take me out touristy, or take me somewhere else to show me another side of Okinawa that I wouldn’t have seen… Even though she’s from Naha, born and raised, and has infinite more experience with and connection to the city, she treated me like someone who also knows his way around; she knows this isn’t my first time in Naha, and that I don’t need help finding my way, or need to be shown “a good time,” to make me want to come back, or anything like that, any of those various ways you might treat a tourist, a visitor; no, she treated me like someone who was already there, and within a context of just “let’s meet up for dinner. where should we go?”

I feel like Sakurazaka Theatre is another touchpoint for me, like Heiwa-dôri and Naha Main Place are. It is, I think, the chief indy movie theatre in the city. If it’s not, I’d be surprised; it would mean there’s some other theater I have just completely never heard of. Sakurazaka has regular films, indy films, international art films, documentaries, film festivals… But they also have a café, and they also sell tons of local music, all sorts of books and magazines and goods, and locally-made ceramics and glasswares. It’s not just a movie theatre, but it’s also in a certain sense a center of local arts. Not that there aren’t a zillion other “arts centers” in Naha. But, if it’s an art film, documentary, film festival, it’s probably happening at Sakurazaka. If you’re looking for CDs from a certain vein of local musical artists – not the super traditional ones (though they have those too) and not the big-name pop bands, but the ones who play local gigs at the venue owned by (or in some kind of partnership with?) Sakurazaka just across the way – the artists involved in Sakurazaka’s annual “Trans Asia Music Meeting” or the annual Shimauta mix album, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ve only seen a film there once or twice. Have never eaten at their cafe. I have bought things from their shop, or at least perused the wares, on quite a few occasions. But I have been to Trans Asia Music Meeting once; they get a whole bunch of different artists and bands from – well, ostensibly it’s all over Asia but the one time I went it was one band from Taiwan, one from S Korea, and like eight or nine from Okinawa, and that was it. But still, very cool – and these artists all mingle and exchange with one another in closed workshops for a day or three or something, and then they have a big multi-venue concert, for free. Spend a whole evening going back and forth between the two halls, hearing different music, from rock to Okinawan folk to synth-remixed-Okinawan-folk. Going to this event was probably my only time showing, or acting upon, any interest in the local music scene, haha; certainly I’ve never been involved in such things in Honolulu or Tokyo, let alone in NY or LA. But at Sakurazaka, I felt like I was engaging in something special, getting to know bands I would never have heard of otherwise. Bands that 99% of my friends will never have heard of. I was obtaining a certain special kind of cultural capital. A kind of Okinawa ‘cred.’ Or something. And that’s what Sakurazaka represents to me, I think: a touchpoint where, if I lived in Naha, if I had the opportunity to really keep up with what was going on at the theatre, that would be my portal into learning about bands, films, documentaries. That would be my portal to learning about “what’s going on” in Naha – within one particular avenue, at least. And seeing tons of Okinawan, Japanese, and other films that I might not see otherwise.

Kokusai-dôri in Evening Glow. A calm, quiet, beautiful evening along Naha’s main tourist street.

All of that said, though, on this latest trip I had a bit of a realization about the character of my relationship to Naha, which I actually found rather troubling and frightening. And I’m sort of wrestling with it. Because I actually really enjoy staying near Kokusai-dôri and Heiwa-dôri and spending time there. I enjoy being in the heart of what a lot of people would consider the very touristy part of the city – the Times Square or Waikiki of Naha. … To me, this is Naha. This is my Okinawa. Quick and easy access to the museums, to the castle, to the big bookstores. I understand that for a lot of people, places like Koza or Chatan are more the “real” Okinawa. At a distance from the tourists and from the cultural displays and performances crafted specifically to appeal to the tourists, these neighborhoods put you in much more direct proximity to the military bases, to the specific kind of urban life that’s grown up around the bases – grey concrete; heavily car-oriented; A&W fast food and shopping malls and taco rice and vintage stores and bars and clubs and so on – and, I presume, in more direct proximity to poverty and unemployment and struggles otherwise of modern Okinawan life today. Or, you could go out to a place like Ôgimi, or a dozen other small villages, far removed from the city life entirely. What exactly life is like there, I don’t know. I assume it’s not as idyllic, not as filled with music and relaxation and some romanticized imagined idea of “traditional” island village life as is portrayed in movies.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying I dislike Koza or Chatan, that I wouldn’t want to spend time there, or anything like that. Frankly, I haven’t really experienced other parts of Okinawa enough to say I dislike those areas, or like them less. If anything, it’s somewhat the contrary: I feel like because I’ve never lived in Koza or Chatan, never been on-base, that maybe I haven’t experienced “the real Okinawa,” or at least haven’t experienced as much of Okinawa, as others. I feel inadequate at best, phony at worst, when I think about these other parts of the island. And that’s not even to get into talking about the other islands in the prefecture, which I very very much hope to visit someday but have yet to go to.

One of the gates of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), and the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts – Okinawa Geidai – just beyond.

But I do enjoy staying in Tsuboya or on Kokusai-dori, right in the heart of things. And I begin to worry that maybe that’s a problem. I certainly have moved away from the most explicitly touristy shops and activities – after my second or third visit, I’m far less interested in the sort of live bars where all the patrons are tourists, and I want to find somewhat more local places; I think I may be done with visiting the yatai-mura and noren-gai, these highly commercialized, brand-new restaurant streets pretending to recreate the authentic feel of alleyways filled with decades-old food stalls; I want to try to do better to figure out which shops are actually run by Okinawans. I still have my favorite shops, even if some of them are very popular with the tourists, e.g. C&C Breakfast, but I don’t think I really care about that being in some way a weakness or a problem. And I still love walking around Heiwa-dôri. But I’m beginning to appreciate more deeply, more genuinely, how locals might see Kokusai-dôri much the same way as we New Yorkers see Times Square; much the same way many who live on O‘ahu see Waikiki – as an over-commercialized tourist mecca that’s too crowded, too loud and too bright, too expensive, too plastic, and best to just be avoided. Not a place real Okinawans go. Or so I’m guessing – I haven’t had anyone say so to me explicitly, actually. But building upon what I do know about locals’ attitudes about Times Square and Waikiki and extrapolating from that, I’m embarrassed to have never really thought about that before quite as deeply, quite as seriously, in the Okinawan case.

Now that I’m no longer on such a shoestring grad student budget, I think I’m going to try to stay at Tsuboya Garden House from now on – a place I know is run by a local Okinawan owner, and not by a mainland Japanese conglomerate; even if it’s more expensive than a place like Abest Cube, and even though I absolutely can be fine with the tiny (“cabin”) guestroom and shared bathrooms at Abest and don’t need the full apartment you’re renting at Garden House, it feels like a place I’ve already developed a relationship. A place that’s decidedly less corporate, more local, a bit off the beaten path. But even there, I wonder if I’m still in a sense playing the tourist, or the expat; I will of course always be an expat, I’ll never be a local. And there’s something appealing, to be sure, about feeling like I’m the scholar, journalist, or whathaveyou, who’s been there X number of times, who always stays at the same hotel. There’s something romantic and appealing about that. But it’s also something rather elite/elitist in its way, and I don’t think I could ever really be friends with the staff so long as they’re, you know, staff, who are being paid to serve the guests and make us happy and so on and so forth.

A wonderful little thing I got in a gatchapon machine. Trying to catch them all, but at 500 yen a pop, I have absolutely no need to get the same ones twice :/ And the only ones I really want are the BEGIN guys.

Every time I go back to Okinawa I think about how much I want to live there. Of course, I do think I could be very happy living almost anywhere in Japan, and by all means could be more or less happy in various other places all around the globe. But especially now that I’m living in Tokyo, and am certainly content, and am certainly aware in an intellectual fashion of how exceptionally lucky I am to be where I am, to have the job/position that I do, and yet emotionally, I come back to Okinawa and I just immediately think about how much I would *love* to live there again. Not just contentment, but active enjoyment. I want to develop or maintain “regular” places – my regular cafés, my regular “haunts.” I want shopkeepers and the like to get to know me; I want to make friends. I want to develop stronger and deeper networks with people at the Ryûdai library and the Naha City Museum of History and numerous other institutions. I want to feel free to just do whatever – study at the Starbucks, see a movie at the Naha Q Cinemas, pop into the Junkudo – things I can’t or don’t or won’t do when I feel I’m on a tighter “I’m only here for three days” sort of schedule. And I want to gradually, eventually, get around to visiting all the different places that I might finally get to visit if I lived there more long-term, from historical sites, statues, markers, little things in this and that corner of the island, to in fact visiting other islands such as Kumejima, Iheyajima, even as far away as Taketomi or Yonaguni, something I might very well do just on a lark one weekend if I lived on Okinawa, and something I see as somewhat less likely living in Tokyo. And I want to be able to attend all the exhibitions, special talks and events, symposia and conferences, concerts, film screenings, all the things that go on throughout the year… And I also want to be there to witness big changes. Like the opening or closing of a new public market, prefectural library, or whathaveyou.

A good kitty named Donnie ドニー. Lives at the guesthouse. It was so good to see them again after so many years. And when no one was looking, Donnie even jumped up on my lap and let me pet them, for a really nice long few minutes.

And I think it’s okay to live in Okinawa, or want to live in Okinawa, as whoever you are. I will never be Okinawan. I will always be an outsider who’s there because of my interest and enthusiasm for history and culture. And I certainly try to do my best to be as respectful as possible of the historical, cultural, spiritual significance of sites, and to just generally try as much as possible to avoid being an obnoxious or bad tourist in whatever various ways. But, at the same time, am I not inevitably in some way a perpetual tourist? Am I not consuming Okinawa in a sense, and is that not unavoidably, irreparably, at the core of what appeals to me about visiting or living there?

I guess on this latest trip I came to realize more seriously, or more strongly, than I had before just how much my own experience is just so different from that of locals, the extent of the gap not only between how they and I do experience Okinawa, but also the gap between how they and I want to see, understand, know, experience Okinawa. Their Okinawa will never be my Okinawa, and while my feelings and attitudes and preferences and perspectives are constantly changing and evolving, I begin to have a worry deep in my gut… what if it’s not okay to be this different person, to experience and engage with Okinawa in this different way? What if on some fundamental level my entire approach to Okinawa, what I love about being there, is at its core orientalist or the like? What if on some level, to some extent, in some way, the really best thing to do is to either adopt the perspective of the “indigenous rights” activists, or certain other segments of the population, or else just leave, sever my ties to Okinawan Studies, admit that I was being Orientalist or colonialist or racist or something about it and go find something else to do with my life?

Just another view of Naha rooftops, from a hill right near Sakurazaka.

I would love to live in Okinawa again, and to be able to live a more everyday life there. I think being there for a longer time would in and of itself make it less of a “trip,” less of a “vacation”; it would allow me the opportunity to engage with Okinawa in a more normal, everyday way, in terms of using the shopping malls and department stores more in the way that locals do – to buy anything and everything, mundane things, things for the apartment; in terms of popping into museums, bookstores, and all the rest as a (temporary) local and not as a one-time (or, eighth- or ninth- or tenth-time) “tourist” visitor. Dropping by to see what’s going on that day, coming back another time, and so forth, rather than the energy of the visitor who is trying to squeeze in as much as possible into only a short few days, buying all the books they can now because they won’t have a chance next week, and like that. But regardless, even if I did live in Okinawa again more long-term, still I would live a certain life: the life of a scholar, the life of someone who spends a lot of time at museums and bookstores and academic events; the life of someone who’s deeply excited to be as active as possible in experiencing cultural events (concerts, plays, etc), and who is not here for family, for community activism of the same flavor as most local community activists – if I really were to be here more long-term I just might get involved with some cultural organization, like the Shuri machizukuri kai (roughly, “Shuri community-building association”) or some Shurijô-fukugen-nantoka-kai (“Shuri castle restoration something-something association”), but it’s just not who I am to get involved with the more “local community activism” kind of stuff like really grassroots community organizing, teaching kids indigenous knowledge, and so forth. For those who are doing those things, more power to them. I think you do amazing work, and it’s so important, and I wish you the best. But it’s not my place; it’s not for me, and I don’t think they’d necessarily want me there anyway, in spaces where it’s all about Okinawans claiming space for themselves and building their own future and so forth.

I have some friends in Okinawa – Okinawan, Japanese, and from other backgrounds – who I do easily imagine I could become even more regular friends with. Meet up from time to time for a beer. Ask how they’re doing, how their partner is doing, how things went with X thing that had been going on in their lives. Say hello to their cat. Connect and reconnect, say “let’s get together again sometime.” Not just academics, but a guesthouse owner, a magazine editor, a member of staff at the consulate. And who knows, I’d like to think that if I lived in Okinawa again, maybe I just might end up becoming friends with someone who works at the movie theatre or the t-shirt shop or the café or the pottery shop, though I know that’s a whole other complex can of worms – the retail/service industry people who are obligated by their job position to be friendly to you but are they actually feeling or wanting to be friendly? … But to actually become friends and not just collegial colleagues with people at the museums and so forth…

But I think that living in Okinawa I would also have to carefully navigate, and adapt to a constant state of perpetually navigating, my position between certain groups – including the core Ryukyu Studies scholars who are native Japanese language speakers/readers/writers trained at Ryûdai or elsewhere who will forever be the ones I am interacting with at conferences, symposia, etc etc and who, if I should ever get on the wrong side of any one of them or of the group as a whole I’m sunk; certain categories of indigenous and community activists who have particular politics which, again, I can’t necessarily jump on-board with a hundred hundred percent but who I also cannot afford to have them mark me as the wrong kind of person (racist, imperialist, orientalist, whatever) and get ostracized or defamed or whatever… Within the world of Japanese Studies in the West, or among English-speakers, or however one wishes to put it, I’m relatively free to be as I wish. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to navigate there to be sure and I’m by no means alone in the field of Ryukyuan Studies, or Early Modern Japanese foreign relations, or anything like that. It’s not like I’m entirely unanswerable to anyone. And I certainly certainly don’t consider myself an expert, let alone the expert, on anything. I see my expertise as very beginner-level still, deeply incomplete, flawed, with massive gaps. But even so, on a more casual level, just in terms of chatting with whomever I may happen to meet in Tokyo, or at a conference in the States, or whatever, among those people I’m generally the only Okinawa specialist in the room, and if I’m not, I’m the only premodern / early modern Ryukyu person in the room, and so while I certainly would like to think that I’m a rather humble person and I very much hope that I am, there isn’t that context of a pressure, to have to be deferential to others who, whether because of their academic expertise (in the case of Ryûdai people) or their life experience and cultural/ethnic identity (in the case of Okinawan community activists etc.) I have to be very careful who I am around them, how I behave, what I say that I think or know or believe… Who would I be if I lived in Okinawa long-term, relative to those communities? For myself, I would enjoy myself and continue experiencing and engaging and learning and growing, I would continue reading and researching, and I would produce whatever I produced and shoot it off into the English-speaking world (e.g. journal submissions, conference presentations), but within certain circles in Okinawa I would be perpetually out of my depth, perpetually the one who is far behind and can’t keep up… and how would that feel? What relationship or role or lifestyle would that develop into?

Lots to think about. I guess I’ll just have to keep carrying this with me. See how I feel upon my next visit to Okinawa again. I’ve found Okinawan colleagues, friends, others, to almost always be so much more welcoming, accepting, easy-going about these sorts of things than I sometimes fear and worry about. They relieve my anxieties. I wonder if living there again, rather than this popping-in popping-out brief visits pattern, would make me feel more settled about a lot of this. But even so, if this last visit is any indication, I fear that ironically, conversely, I may be finding my relationship to Naha, and to Okinawa, growing incrementally less comfortable, and not more so, the longer I keep at it.

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Way back in 2014, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco invited artist Chiraag Bhakta to produce an installation artwork for their exhibit on Yoga. The piece, which Bhakta ended up calling #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, was meant to critique the colonization and appropriation of Indian culture.

Right: A sign at the San Francisco airport.

This past October, Bhakta wrote in a Mother Jones article entitled The Whitewashing of “#WhitePeopleDoingYoga” about the museum seeking to appropriate, whitewash, and “dilute” his installation. In the piece, he indicates that lead curators, education staff, and others expressed that “they wanted something innocuous like #PeopleDoingYoga, without the word “white,” because the term “white people” could be “offensive” to museumgoers, donors, and staff. During our initial meetings at the museum, they told me to “turn down the volume” of my critique.” They also suggested that he eliminate a “shrine” Bhakta had designed in which white people would occupy the spaces that should belong to Hindu deities. Mother Jones’ editors indicate that “museum reps acknowledge[d in communications with the magazine] that there had been misgivings over the title and the installation in general, which they emphasize was intended to be “educational” rather than artistic.”

Bhakta goes on to talk about how Avery Brundage, the International Olympics Committee figure whose collection is at the core of that of the Asian Art Museum, was a horrific anti-Semite and racist. He writes that Brundage:

was “the preeminent American apologist for Nazi Germany,” in the words of author Jeremy Schaap. In the ’60s, the Olympic Committee for Human Rights, a group protesting racism in sports, demanded Brundage’s removal as the Olympics president. The committee had exposed his ownership of a country club in California that excluded Jewish and black people from its membership. In response to a potential boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympics, Brundage notoriously said, “They won’t be missed.” (He had been instrumental in preventing a US boycott of the so-called Nazi games in 1936.) Brundage was “a racist down to his toes,” said Lee Evans, an American sprinter on the 1968 Olympic team. “A brutal, racist pig,” said a teammate, Marty Liquori. A “Jew hater and a Jew baiter,” was the verdict of Gustavus Town Kirby, delivered in a 1936 letter to Brundage himself.

As a Jew, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, but also simply as an American and as a human being, I am appalled to learn of Avery Brundage’s politics. And in light of this, appalled that the Asian Art Museum continues to have his bust and his picture and his name plastered all over the place.

This debacle over #WhitePeopleDoingYoga is far from an isolated incident. It is far from the first time that the Asian Art Museum and other major museums have made problematic decisions, done problematic things, have failed in their duty to lead and to educate. When it comes to engaging with other cultures (and with our own), museums should represent the best of us. They should be the ones to educate us about the problems of our wrong thinking, and to lead us into new understandings. Articles like these are an indictment of so much that is so wrong within the museum world, and it is so important that these things are critiqued and brought to light.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, in 2011.

Still, while articles like these, which say “you” or “they” ought to do better, ought to do different, are exceptionally valuable and important in their way, I cannot help but wonder where are the articles that say “how can we do better?” It’s one thing to say “Brundage was a Nazi apologist, a horrible person, and it’s offensive to have his name and face so ever-present in this space.” But it would be quite another to have an article that actually engages with this issue in a complex way: if Brundage is so horrible, then what’s the right way, what’s the best way, to address this? Do we take down all reference to him in the museum? Or would that just be setting the museum up for accusations of trying to hide or bury unsavory history and uncomfortable truths? Do we try to do the reverse, putting up more text (perhaps displayed prominently in the main lobby or near the entrance), more descriptions and explanations of who he was and why he was a horrible person, providing context and explaining definitively that the museum denounces such racist and antisemitic views, but then providing some kind of justification for keeping and using the collection anyway, to use it for progressive, educational, restorative purposes with aims of cultural/social justice? Or is the whole thing just so tainted that the best thing to do is to sell off or otherwise dispose of the collection entirely? It’s easy to point fingers, but as someone deeply interested in the museum world, who has devoted pretty much his entire adult life to the study of East Asian cultures and the pursuit of a career in that field, and as someone who cannot help but to be white but who wants to do the right thing when it comes to these sorts of issues and problems, we need to be discussing not only problems but also solutions. What are the solutions?

The Enola Gay on display at the National Air & Space Museum annex, with barely any context around it. A compromise.

The same goes for the matter of museums having to contend with the real or imagined demands of trustees, donors, and other stakeholders, and with the real or imagined expectations and attitudes of museumgoers (i.e. the public), not to mention the way the museum is represented in the media and seen or known or understood by the public more widely, i.e. even amongst those who aren’t regular museumgoers. I have heard countless anecdotes of tensions between curators and education department staff, or between curators and trustees, directors, etc., regarding exactly the same types of issues as are raised in this piece. Some people may find it offensive; some people might not understand the nuances/complexities of the message here; many people just want their stereotypical understandings reinforced. We’ve seen this when it comes to national(ist) American narratives about Pearl Harbor1, Hiroshima1, 2, and the Wild West1 – the incredible pushback and difficulty that museums get when they dare to question the standard narrative on these events/periods and to offer alternative perspectives (i.e. those of the Japanese, or of Native American Nations, not to mention the Hawaiian people). But then we’ve also seen the criticism the museums get from people like the author here, when museums give in to that pressure, at all, when they compromise on a radical/ progressive/ antiracist/ anticolonial approach, and perhaps rightly so. I’ve heard of outside curators getting incredible pushback from museums when trying to bring a feminist critique to the Japanese “pictures of the floating world” genre which so romanticized the so-called “pleasure quarters” (read: brothel districts) of early modern Japan, and when trying to challenge the positive spin on samurai as cool, honorable, heroic, cultured, peaceful – trying to show how they were, in fact, warmongers. Audiences wouldn’t like it. It’s too shocking to their expectations. People come to the museum to relax, to enjoy, and to appreciate beautiful things, not to be attacked for their beliefs, attitudes, understandings. … Okay, so we know the problem. But instead of just pointing fingers and saying “white people,” how do we actually contend with this? Is the correct answer that museums should simply tell it as it is, hold nothing back, shove the antiracist / anti-colonial truth in people’s faces, like a giant middle finger to all the racists? Perhaps. Should museums boldly expel any staff or board members who are pushing stereotypical, culturally appropriative, colonialist approaches and practices, no matter how difficult that makes things for the museum financially or logistically? Perhaps.

But I’d love to see these things actually discussed, considered, rather than just boldly asserted. What is the right way forward? What is the best way to address these cultural, political, racial matters in a way that considers curators, museum staffers, etc. not as enemies or opponents, not as upholders of “white supremacy,” but as sympathetic human beings who are trying to do their best within a complicated circumstance of competing pressures and logistical challenges? How can “we” as artists, scholars, museumgoers, and museum professionals – not “us” (people of color, outsiders to the museum, critics) vs. “them” (the museums), but “we” as a single group of people with shared interests and attitudes – work together towards shared goals, to face these challenges, and to do better?

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The Japan galleries at the British Museum, looking back towards the entrance, and the Kudara Kannon, just barely visible here above the cases.

I visited the British Museum again, recently, for the first time in about eight years. The Japanese gallery hasn’t changed much. But, that’s fine. It’s still a really great exhibit – better, in fact, I would argue (*gasp?*) than the vast majority of rotations the Met has done in recent years.

Here’s the main argument of this post: In the midst of all this controversy over museums and Orientalism, I think the MFA and the Met could really learn something from the British Museum. Yes, yes, the British Museum is the very model of the imperial(ist) colonial museum, Hoovering up the great treasures of the world and so on and so forth. There’s certainly much to be said about that, and plenty of scholars and others have written lots of very valid criticism on that point. But, the museum’s problematic nature in that respect is, for the most part, tangential to what I would like to focus on for the purposes of this blog post, namely that unlike the Met, the MFA, and so many of the other greatest museums in the US, the British Museum is not an “art” museum, but rather a museum of the world’s cultures.

The British Museum’s Japan galleries, in particular, more so even I think than many of the other non-Western galleries, are organized in such a fashion as to tell the history of Japan, through art, rather than limiting itself to the far more narrow narrative of the history of art, in Japan. It begins with the Jomon period, and goes straight up through the present day, touching upon religion, politics, foreign relations, theatre, modernity, propaganda art & Empire, Hiroshima, pop & urban culture, rural culture, and manga. It shows Japan not as a fantasy world of aesthetics, art, and culture, but as a real place, with a complex and sometimes unpleasant political history, religious developments, and so forth, which interacted with the outside world in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes in unequal or adversarial fashion. It shows a Japan that does not culminate in the greatness of the artistic flowering of the Edo period, but one that does that and also continues to develop over time, both before and after that, struggling with various developments, and changing continually over time.

A handpainted handscroll from the Edo period, depicting the lively activity of the Chinese quarter at Nagasaki. Truly stunning in person, in its vibrant colors and meticulous details, it simultaneously speaks to a broader historical/cultural topic.

And the exhibit does all of this while including some truly gorgeous artworks, some real masterpieces that people will come to see, and others that might really draw people in, and inspire in them a greater or deeper interest in Japan. Artworks that are beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of appreciation, even as they also relate to particular political developments. In short, the British Museum exhibit does everything the Met might do, but in a way that is so much broader – and in roughly the same amount of gallery space – covering a great many facets of Japanese history, and not just aesthetics, style, and so forth. The exhibit also includes a much wider range of pieces, thus showing a deeper, more complex vision of Japan, rather than one dominated only by ink landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and literary references. When was the last time the Met showed Japanese paintings or prints of scenes in Korea and Taiwan, or in Ryukyu or the West? Admittedly, the last several rotations of prints at the Met have focused on Yokohama-e and Meiji prints, showing Japan’s modernization in the 1850s-1890s, but, if I recall correctly, the labels are quite minimal, and little effort is made to really describe the broader political and cultural context of modernization efforts.

Looking a bit sparse from this angle, I admit, but, nevertheless, here is one of the British Museum’s many thematic sections, addressing not some artistic trend, but a broader wider cultural historical theme – modernity and urbanization – with beautiful artworks.

And, this historical approach touches upon numerous themes that could be developed out into an entire exhibit, and which I’m glad to see at least touched upon. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco did an entire show on Korean royal ceremonies and parades, which was much more about the performance of the events, and the historical, biographical, cultural, political context, than strictly about appreciating beautiful objects for their beauty. The Asia Society in New York, some years ago, did a show of Maoist propaganda paintings which was, yes, about appreciating their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic relationship to Soviet socialist realism, and so forth, but was also very much about the politics. And yet I have a very hard time imagining the Met, in particular, ever, ever, doing a show extensively about artists’ responses to Hiroshima; or how Japanese artists engaged with and depicted the Empire (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria); or about Tokugawa relations with Korea, Ryukyu, Holland, and the Ainu… New York’s Japan Society did a great show of Japanese Art Deco, which also showed at the Seattle Art Museum, and was also an art show, but sort of leaned in the direction of talking about flapper fashions, urban culture, cafés, jazz, and all of that in 1920s Tokyo.

As I continue to write this, I feel that maybe I’m being too harsh on the Met, in particular. After all, they have a different mission, and that mission – more closely associated to the idea of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts” – is a fine one. Connoisseurship, aesthetic appreciation, including teaching museum visitors that the things produced by non-Western cultures are still beautiful and worthy of appreciation, are all valiant goals.

Gallery labels for a wooden sculpture of an Edo period townsman, showing how the museum discusses the object itself, and art historical concerns, on one panel, and provides broader historical context and meaning on the other. It can be done!

But, I think a lot of the tensions and problems with our major museums, and accusations of Orientalism, as we have seen in recent months especially both with the Chinese fashion show at the Met and the kimono debacle at the MFA, is that the museums, as “art” museums, seem far too intent upon this particular approach of focusing on art appreciation, and too unwilling to turn their attentions to cultural understanding. The MFA Education program was clearly more interested in engaging visitors in appreciation or celebration of Monet than in anything directly having to do with Japan, or the complex lessons of Orientalism, and the Met curators went so far as to explicitly state that they “propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” a statement which, within the realms of scholarship, I think has its merits – exploring other sides of things, and so forth, as I explored in my previous blog post. But, still, this should come amidst a history and reputation for producing shows that explicitly tackle Orientalism, head-on. If one does shows about the Asian-American experience, about Chinese history, and about Orientalism, then you can then go ahead and do a show like this, exploring other sides of the issue. But if you haven’t explored the first sides yet…

Whatever else the British Museum may be, it is a museum of fostering cultural understanding, global oneness (in at least certain respects), an appreciation and celebration of the great diversity of cultures on our planet. I’m not sure you can find a hint of Orientalism within the British Museum’s exhibits, precisely because the central focus is not on aesthetic appreciation of [exotic] styles, motifs, sensibilities. In many ways, it reminds me of exhibits at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History, and other history museums in Japan – that is to say, the British Museum is doing it just like the Japanese would, which is perhaps a strong indication that you’re not being Eurocentric or Orientalist about it. Despite being “art” museums, right there in the name, and in their mission statements, I think the MFA, Metropolitan, LACMA, Freer/Sackler, and so forth, would do well to consider a shift.

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That whole kimono thing last month really kind of exhausted me. Dominated my attention, and my time, and so I certainly wasn’t going to go see the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass explicitly in order to seek out potentially problematic shit to talk about. No, I went to see the exhibit because visiting the Met is what I always do when I’m in New York. And I found the Met’s biggest blockbuster show of the year, a show of (mostly) European fashion inspired by China. It’s a beautiful, impressive, extensive show, and has received much critical acclaim, as well as criticism from at least some Internet commenters, attacking the Met on accusations of perpetrating and perpetuating Orientalism. And, as I walked through the exhibit, hoo boy, there sure were moments where I agreed wholeheartedly with the critiques. What the hell were the curators thinking? But then there were also times where the curators explained themselves, in gallery labels, and did a rather good job of it, I thought.

I took pages and pages of notes while in the exhibit, and went back and forth on this quite a few times. But, let’s see if we can break it down. What is China: Through the Looking Glass? What did the museum do right, where did they go wrong, and what could they have done better?

Fashions by the Chinese designer Guo Pei (right), the House of Chanel (French), and other French designers, inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The show spans numerous galleries on three levels, and as a visitor one is able to start wherever one chooses – several different places serve as effective entrances or introductions to the show.

I’m not sure how the exhibit was coordinated, whether some curators controlled some parts, and other curators other parts. In some places, I felt the gallery labels defended their conceptual approach, their creative choices, quite well. The labels in the main hallway on the second floor (seen below) were excellent. But, in other places, they did not do such a great job of it; the labels in the basement did not show sufficiently nuanced, informed, attitudes, in my opinion, and were pretty problematic as a result.

To begin, one thing the curators did right was to acknowledge Said – thank god. And I feel they showed thorough understanding and appreciation of the problems of Orientalism.1 Curators aren’t idiots, and they aren’t bigots. They know what they’re doing; most have PhDs, and are well read in cross-cultural Theory and so forth. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, that especially at a top-ranking place like the Met, they should be regarded as proper experts and professionals. It’s just a question of the choices made based on that knowledge and expertise – whether they choose to push certain boundaries, or not.

Interestingly, the curators seem to have chosen in this exhibit to push boundaries by not pushing boundaries at all – by going back to old defenses of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, revived, perhaps, as new ones. I honestly can’t be sure whether this is a step forward, or back. In the Washington Post, curator Andrew Bolton is quoted as saying

‘What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism… When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had. … China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,’ … The country itself has added to the ‘misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas.’

Similarly, on the gallery labels at the entrance to the basement portion of the exhibit, the curators clearly demonstrate their familiarity with Said’s theory, and their intention to move past it, or simply to explore a different side of things:

The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.

While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of ‘subordinated otherness’ outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … It presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.

Qing Dynasty Imperal robes, and European fashions inspired by them.

“Mirroring” was indeed a major theme throughout the exhibit, as mirrors were used to reflect scenes from “The Last Emperor” onto the clothes. This certainly ties the two together, conceptually, showing how these works of European fashion were inspired by Qing China – or, to be more accurate, were inspired by European imaginings of Qing China. While “The Last Emperor” looks amazing in terms of its production quality and so forth, and so far as I know (I haven’t actually seen the film) it may be quite historically accurate, but, still, it’s a European film. I wonder what the curators’ intentions were in choosing this over a Chinese film. In any case, this was a very clever and effective way of tying the two together, to show the influence, and to cast a red & yellow Imperial tint over the whole exhibit, which might be seen as Orientalizing, or as merely helping to set the mood & tone, however one wishes to take it. The mirrors also served a practical purpose, allowing visitors to see all sides of each garment on display.

As Connie Wang writes in probably the best review of the exhibit I have yet seen, “The Met’s New Exhibit is About Orientalism, Not China.” I think Wang picks up on much the same ambivalence, or confusion, that I do, but obviously from a different perspective, and writes about it in a far more concise, eloquent, and insightful manner than my ramblings. She writes that the exhibit is “thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough,” and begins in her essay seemingly to describe the Orientalist appropriations of these fashion designers as so distanced from politics, and from any real understanding of the culture, as to be hilariously incorrect, and thus perhaps, kind of, sort of, harmless. She quotes one of the gallery labels as saying that “Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.” And, she shares an Instagram post in which she, and the exhibit itself, poke fun at Dior for appropriating a work of calligraphy about a stomachache, simply because it looked pretty. (Though, actually, many of the most acclaimed works of Chinese calligraphy, acclaimed even among ancient Chinese scholars within the historical Chinese tradition, are letters about the most mundane things, even unpleasant things like stomachaches.) Yet, Wang then goes on to speak eloquently and compellingly about the celebration of Orientalism in this exhibit.

the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. … At face value, it doesn’t seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (emphasis added)

(Though, of course, Westerners are not the only ones guilty of papering over the horrors of Mao’s regime, lionizing and commercializing what should be condemned – the Chinese do a fine job of it themselves.)

The show overall relies heavily on spectacle. Videos, music, helping to create an immersive environment. I’m not sure if I like this or not. It’s certainly engaging, but does it go over the top? Does it reinforce the Orientalism, or simply celebrate Chinese culture and history? Does it veer into the tacky, pandering to audiences and turning the whole thing into something more resembling commercial entertainment than a removed, distanced, scholarly museum show? Now that I’ve learned that Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai was among the lead exhibit designers, I am less surprised that films were used in this way, and that the whole show had this immersive and spectacular quality. Though, I am a little unsure as to what to think about Wong’s participation. On the one hand, the fact that this is being done, and agreed to, by a Chinese person, and not only white people really does mean something. If anyone should feel sensitively about how his country and his culture is being represented, it’s someone like Wong Kar Wai. Even if there are those who are offended, as they have a right to be, it’s Wong they’re pointing their fingers at, not a staff of clueless, Orientalist, whiteys. But, does Wong’s participation excuse it all? As we’ve seen with the kimono incident, Asians often tend to be a lot less concerned about Orientalism than Asian-Americans, for a variety of reasons, and often commit or construct things Asian-Americans might rail against as Orientalist – something that indeed seems to be going on here. I wonder if the fact that real Chinese people – award-winning expert filmmaker, expert in visual experiences and audience, Wong Kar Wai among them – were so involved in making the exhibit changes anyone’s feeling that the Museum is being Orientalist… Still, I suppose it’s more about the final product than about who was involved in doing it, and if the final product perpetuates stereotypes, then I guess it doesn’t matter who’s the organizer.

As I made my way through the show, the more I thought about this spectacle aspect – the mood music; the film projections; the yellow, red, and blue lighting in different sections – and then, especially when I saw a clip being played from the 1945 Ziegfield Follies without commentary, I really began to think that these elements – the “spectacle” aspect of the show as a whole – reenact and exemplify the Orientalism, rather than distancing us from it. At times, in certain sections of the exhibit, I could really imagine myself having timeslipped, the show being no different from what I can imagine the Met doing decades ago (and that’s a problem).

Robe for the 18th c. Qianlong Emperor, and a 2011 fashion design by Chinese designer Laurence Xu.

Some of the labels were quite on point. But others were conspicuously absent. I appreciate that the curators may have seen the movie clips (“The Last Emperor,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the Ziegfeld Follies) as mere set-dressing and not as art objects on display, but, in terms of the viewer experience they were absolutely part of the show. And in terms of their contributions to Orientalist discourses (both within this show, and in general), I think all three could absolutely have merited their own gallery labels, explaining not just the title, year and director (which is pretty much all we got), but also something about their contributions to the exoticization of the East, and perpetuation of mistaken ideas. I think this same show can be done – these China-inspired fashion pieces can be shown, and without it being entirely a show about vilifying the designers as horribly racist Orientalists. But, the context of the critique of Orientalism has to be there, as it was for the Art Deco Hawaii show, which placed artists like Eugene Savage within their cultural and political (and commercial) context. You know what would have been really radical? Removing these fashion designers from the myth of being pure creative genius, and addressing more explicitly their place within a commercial fashion world, driven by the need to innovate, to interest, to surprise, to shock, and, going beyond that, what a thing it would have been if the Museum itself dared to be a little self-reflexive, looking at its own tendency towards blockbuster spectacular exhibits, such as this very one, and what the museum does in order to attract audiences.

I think the exhibit should have spoken more extensively and explicitly about how cultural “borrowing” or “inspiration” – or appropriation, if we want to call it what it is – perpetuates exoticization, stereotypes, and considerable mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and that this is seriously harmful in real ways. The fact is, I understand how and why it seems harmless and innocent to continue to play in fantasy constructions of imagined versions of Oriental cultures, and I do understand the temptation or desire to focus on a direction of celebrating creativity. But, the construction and perpetuation of fantasy notions of the Orient are harmful and damaging in ways that have very real impacts. Asian-Americans continue to be seen as the perpetual foreigner, and they continue to be associated with particular stereotyped notions about their culture, rather than being seen as full and complex people, who are much more than their Asianness, and whose Asianness is in any case far more complex than whatever particular stereotypical cultural markers. As Said explains, to maintain a fantasy of the Orient means (a) that you’re blinding yourself to a truer understanding of the real and actual Orient, and (b) that you’re leaving it to the Orientalists to describe and define the Orient, ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who actually live it, and know best. Chanel, Givenchy, and so forth shouldn’t be our touchpoints for understanding what China is really like. China should be our source for understanding China.

They do acknowledge this in several places – in the introductory labels both in the basement (quoted above) and on the second floor, where they talk about Said and Orientalism, and also in the discussion of Yves St Laurent’s “Opium” line, which is described as controversial even at the time for its “trivialization of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and the objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement,” and yet which is still being sold today.

Those second floor labels state unabashedly (apologies for the blurry image):

Here is perhaps the most scholarly, most intelligent, discussion of the issue in the exhibit. And yet, I still don’t know what to think about it. Is this a step forward, or a step back? The curators advocate not simply taking Saidian criticisms and living by them, but rather continuing to question, and to explore other sides of things. In this sense, it certainly seems a step forward. But, then, is the language they’re using, and the arguments, all that different from simply defending, perpetuating, reviving, even celebrating precisely that which Said was criticizing? One has to be so careful about word choice and phrasing when discussing these sorts of issues, in order to navigate the inevitable criticisms, in order to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you are well familiar with the anti-Orientalist critique, and that you are deftly, informedly, and not ignorantly, proposing a new or different interpretation. I imagine that the curators did intend, did aim, to be as careful as could be in the wording. Whether they succeeded, though, and whether it is possible to ever succeed, whether it is possible to ever avoid any/all possible critique, are separate questions however. There must be some way to talk about these fashion trends, and to exhibit these beautiful pieces, without either devoting the whole exhibit to their demonization, yet also without sweeping Orientalist concerns under the rug in the name of celebrating cultural exchange and creativity. But if there is some totally different way of doing it, a different direction to take other than just walking a very tight line, I don’t know what it is.

The inclusion of Chinese artists, such as Guo Pei, was a smart choice, demonstrating that (a) Chinese artists made use of many of the very same motifs and styles, so it’s not as if the Western designers are doing it wrong, misrepresenting China, or mis-using Chinese cultural elements inappropriately, and (b) Chinese artists also borrow from other cultures – such is the post-modern world that we live in. This nuances the conversation in an important and much-needed way.

But, I think it still needed to have gone further. We need to talk about Chinese reactions to these European fashions. How did Chinese people, Chinese scholars, Chinese fashion designers, react to these Orientalist designs, and what do they think of them today? The topic could be even further nuanced by bringing in fashion designs by Chinese designers who appropriate aesthetic elements from China’s ethnic minorities, or from other cultures entirely. No one owns the culture entirely by themselves – to be the one whose permission is needed – and no one in the world, Western or non-Western, white or non-white, is innocent of appropriation. We need to talk too about how Western designers worked with Chinese designers, studied China, lived there, did it respectfully or at least tried to. I personally know nothing about St. Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, how much any of these people really spent time in China. For all I (we) know, maybe they did. If there is vindication to be had, it would be found in discussing the extent to which these designers “did their homework,” so to speak, and the extent to which they have the support of Chinese artists and fashion designers.

Left: Pieces from Craig Green’s 2015 Ensemble.

I think we do need to question and investigate, and not just assume, the experience and background of the artists. Craig Green (one of the artists featured in the exhibit) could be of Chinese descent, for all you know. All it says on the gallery labels is “British.” Or, even if he’s white, he could have been born and raised in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taiwan. I’ve met people purely of European descent who are native speakers of Mandarin, and I’m met people who could certainly pass for “white,” based on appearance, but who are in fact both by upbringing and by ancestry, part Chinese, part Indian, or part Okinawan or Japanese. You don’t know. Or, even if Mr. Green were from a rather mainstream white Western background, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have worked closely with traditional clothiers in China, who gave him their “permission” to share this art out in the world, and to adapt it in this way. Cultural permission is central to many people’s definition of cultural appropriation; how do we know these artists don’t have permission?

Evening Gown, 2007, by Guo Pei, Chinese fashion designer who agreed to be in this show, who borrows extensively from both Western & Chinese inspirations and motifs, and who likely works with, at least to some extent, European fashion designers and does not (so far as I know) openly oppose or denounce them as Orientalists.

BY WAY OF CONCLUSION

In the end, does this show do a good job of walking that line, critiquing Said’s argument, and yet without outright celebrating Orientalist appropriation? Or does it do a horrible job? You would think it would be clear which is the case. And yet, in the end, I remain uncertain.

As I’ve already said, there were definitely portions of this exhibit where I felt I had fallen back in time, where I felt I was seeing a show just as the Met would have done it decades ago, celebrating Yves St. Laurent for example with the only critique being a few lines on one gallery label on one wall. I think the curators, at times anyway, really did fail to distance themselves sufficiently. It’s one thing to show Orientalist creations by fashion designers, but it’s quite another to contribute to the Orientalism, to add to it. Dragon headdresses and the like, for example, added onto the mannequins were clearly intended to look haute couture and “fit in” in that respect, but these were blatantly Orientalist as well. Really, what the museum perhaps should have done is toned down the spectacle considerably, and then, even if not excoriating the designers in the gallery labels, at least then the Orientalism would be limited to the objects on display – objects not created by the museum – and would not be repeated, or extended, into the exhibit design itself.

The focus on China as fantasy is further destabilizing. One feels inclined to rail against the perpetuation of these fantasies. After all, at the core of Said’s argument is the allegation that our idea of the Orient, the vision of the Orient which is allowed to perpetuate within the popular consciousness, is one constructed by Westerners, denying Orientals (to use his own term) the power to define their own culture, their own history, their own existence. And yet, which is better, to juxtapose these fashions with fantasy, or with reality? In one gallery, garments are displayed alongside projections of kung fu films – these are not misrepresenting Chinese reality, because they were never meant to represent reality, but were consciously and intentionally drawing upon fantasy. In another gallery, dresses are juxtaposed with historical artifacts, which seem to have inspired their aesthetic design, though devoid of actual cultural/ historical context. And, in the basement, we have “The Last Emperor.” Whether that is fantasy or reality I guess depends on the designers’ intentions.

What I think is missing from all of these conversations – whether about the kimono thing at the MFA, or on dozens of other topics – is nuance and complexity. As I said in my post about the kimono, not all appropriation is the same. Is it better to be inspired by the fantasy of kung fu movies, rather than by actual history & culture, or worse? I don’t know, but they’re certainly different, right? They’re not all simply of a type, to be lumped together, right? People want it to be very starkly one way or another. If it’s racist, then it’s wholly racist, and in order to be not, it must be perfectly spotless, as according to a very standard set of criteria. But, nothing in the real world is in fact that simple. Is there any way to talk about the positive aspects of the beauty and creativity of these works, at all? Is there a way to get the audience to understand that we – as art historians, as curators, as a whole, as a field or discipline – genuinely truly do denounce the negative aspects of Orientalism, stereotyping, and appropriation, while still acknowledging the creativity, aesthetic beauty, and positive elements of cross-cultural exchange involved?

If showing these works is so horrifically offensive, then I wonder what it was, for example, about the Asia Society’s show of Maoist propaganda art that made it so innocuous, that no one thought it was celebrating or promoting Communism, or excusing or condoning the horrible offenses of the Maoist regime, by virtue of showing these paintings and praising their aesthetics, skill, and so forth? It is possible, after all, is it not, for a museum to reject, to stand opposed to, or at least to not wholly support, the positions of the artists it shows? Whether the Met did this sufficiently I leave an open question, I suppose, but it has to be possible for a museum to engage with a phenomenon, to discuss it, and to show some appreciation for the beauty and creativity involved, while there still being some implicit understanding that “the views expressed [by the artists] are not necessarily those of the institution,” right? After all, problematic though the Orientalist / appropriationist aspects of this may be, these garments are still artworks. They are still beautiful, inspired, inspirational, expertly crafted, and they are still representative of particular cultural and artistic trends that genuinely exist – and they deserve to be shown in a museum, just as much as Maoist propaganda paintings, shunga prints, or any number of other kinds of works of visual and material culture do.

Art Deco Hawaii did a rather good job of this, I think, showing many beautiful objects and celebrating their beauty, while at the same time being very explicit in the gallery labels as to how all of this constructed and perpetuated fantasies explicitly for the benefit of the tourism industry, papering over the loss and tragedy experienced by the Hawaiian people, and eliding any accurate or earnest documentation of actual Hawaiian culture or history. Perhaps that is what was needed here – a more explicit, forefront, discussion of the problematic intentions and impacts of these fashions.

But, then, that wasn’t the curators’ intention… They explicitly expressed their desire to escape from having to always see Orientalism that same one way. And, as scholars, we should be questioning and pushing the boundaries, and encouraging the broader public to do the same – not giving in to the popular attitudes of the day. In one part of the exhibit, they talk about Manchu robes, and their design features, being taken out of context, and European designers explicitly breaking Chinese cultural rules… Should a museum have to be judgey, and expound on why this is problematic? Are museums supposed to be judgey? Or are they supposed to simply present things with a certain disinterested distance? Do museums judge Japanese art for its (occasional) sexual explicitness? Do we display Melanesian or African art just so we can talk about how horrible the culture was that created it? Certainly not. So, why should we do the same for our own culture, to do an Orientalism show just to tear it apart, tear it down? I think the point of scholarship, and museum exhibits, more so, is to highlight and examine from a certain scholarly distance, to acknowledge the complex and diverse phenomena of our world, and to attempt to understand them. Not necessarily to be judgey – or at least not in certain ways, or to certain extents. I think maybe the curators here expected or intended that distance, and didn’t execute it properly, giving the impression (mistaken or otherwise) that they agreed with all of the designers’ cultural decisions when, in fact, hopefully, presumably, they do not.

I’m still on the fence about all of this, despite having studied Orientalism, and East Asian history and culture fairly extensively. But, maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we should all have some humility. Question our own assumptions. Consider the possibility of potentially seeing it a different way. Is this all about appropriation? Maybe very much so. But maybe not. Has the museum dealt with this subject in a way that would please everyone? No, of course not. That would be impossible. Have they demonstrated considerable cultural sensitivity, education, awareness in the relevant politics and problematics, and so forth? Maybe. Maybe not. Are these European fashion designers culturally ignorant, insensitive, appropriators? Maybe. Have they spent extensive time in China, more extensive perhaps than their critics, actually working with and learning from Chinese fashion designers? I don’t know. And neither do you. Would it make a difference if they had? Maybe it should.

Maybe, in this broader debate of Orientalism in museums, and in our society as a whole, let’s not rush to condemn – nor to vindicate or excuse – quite so quickly. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a real discussion that’s not a shouting match. And through that discussion, let us all, on all sides of the debate, maybe learn something from one another.

“China: Through the Looking Glass” is still open for a couple more weeks, until Sept 7, at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.

All photos my own.

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(1) We should note that Edward Said spoke almost exclusively about what we call the Near East and the Middle East, and about British and French attitudes as expressed largely in literature. Said was in no way a China or Japan expert, and makes very little mention of East Asia in his book. So, while the core central argument of his book is extremely valuable, and this is where it all stems from, please just note that wherever I refer to “Said,” really I’m referring to the far more well-informed, and well-written, critiques that have emerged out of East Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and so forth, drawing upon his ideas.

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I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. – Kurt Vonnegut.

I do not know if it may just be the accidents of what I have and have not read – the echo chamber or confirmation bias effects – but, it has been very interesting in the last week or two to see a shift in the conversation, and I am very glad to see the conversation continuing. I hope that at least some of the protesters feel satisfied – they wanted a conversation, and they are getting one. Hopefully this can be a productive conversation, informing views on both/all sides, and representing some kind of genuine step forward, even if a very small one. I have certainly learned a lot, and further nuanced my views on such matters.

Here, I share a few of the articles and blog posts I have read in the last couple weeks, simply to share what perspectives have emerged. I attempted to inject as little as possible of my own commentary or positions, but I don’t think I was very successful at that.

One blogger, by the name of Keiko, on her blog Japanese-American in Boston, has provided by far the most detailed, informative description of the background of the “Kimono Wednesdays” activity that I have yet seen. It answers a lot of the questions I had had, beginning with who made the replica kimonos: they were commissioned by NHK, and made by traditional textile artisans in Kyoto, working for Takarazuka, a prominent and well-established theatre company in Japan which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

We are still seeing a number of posts emphasizing the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, and providing valuable insights into just how and why such things can be so hurtful to many Asian-Americans.

However, we are now also seeing many posts that stand in defense of cultural exchange, and critiquing the protestors, as well as the museum for retreating so quickly/easily. I have seen a great many really interesting FB posts and mailing list comments in the last week or so, but I will refrain from sharing them, because (1) I lost a previous draft of this comment, and simply cannot find all the relevant comments again, and (2) because most were shared in various private circumstances, and probably should not be re-shared without explicit permission from each and every one of the commenters I might seek to quote. So, there’s that. So, this addition will only include a sprinkling of some of the additional perspectives from the last week or two.

*Keiko of “Japanese-American in Boston” provides a thorough description of why she personally does not feel this is racist, “yellowface,” or cultural appropriation, and also discusses what would have needed to be different for this to be offensive to her, while also noting that there are a number of things the museum could have done better. In another, more recent post, she breaks down a number of Myths and Facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the Protests.

*Major art critic blog website Hyperallergic, in a post entitled The Confused Thinking Behind the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has been one of a number of voices recently emphasizing that the idea of getting a feel for the weight, the heft, the feel of a garment is not itself an act of “dressing up” as anyone, or any type, and that what was really key to altering the character of the event, and moving it into more problematic territory, was encouraging visitors to take photos of themselves in the kimono.

The Hyperallergic writer adds:

However, protesters have been too quick to use the term “racist” to describe this program. To suggest, as one commenter has, that this event is akin to visitors attending museums to see people from Africa in cages, is a mistake. To be racist is to employ or advance the rhetoric and (economic, social and political) practices of reducing another human being to a set of signs (within a certain pre-existing hierarchy) that are primarily physical features, and thereby dehumanize him or her. I do not see that happening here, particularly because the woman being mimicked is Camille Monet, who is signifying a type of ridiculous European posture vis-à-vis fascination with Japanese art.

More, there is a kind of megalomania at work here with protesters conflating Japonisme with stereotyped images of Asian-Americans. The Japanese are not the same as, nor should they be confused with Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai. The Japanese were a colonial power. In the late 19th century they willfully provided their art for Western consumption and consciously contributed to its circulation in markets fueled by exoticized fascination with the East.

Of course, it is important to remember that Japan engaged in such “cultural export” specifically within a context of desperately trying to prove their worth to Western notions of “modernity,” in order to avoid becoming colonized or otherwise exploited. I thank my friend Nick for reminding us of this; it is a point that is very much prominent in my mind when thinking of the Meiji period, in architecture, in politics, in imperialism, in court ritual, and in the World’s Fairs, as well as in painting, sculpture, ceramics, and so forth, but I am embarrassed to admit it didn’t occur to me to link that with textiles. So, the Hyperallergic commentary misses, a bit, on this point. But, still, this adds valuable nuance – not all Asian cultures are the same, and not all Asian-American experiences are the same. The kimono, Japan, Japaneseness, are particular, just like everything in the world is particular, and should not be painted with a broad brush, under umbrella notions of appropriation, racism, etc.

The Hyperallergic article concludes:

For me, the worst aspect of this debacle is that it feeds the notion that culture is a kind of precious object that may only be doled out to those outside the specific culture by those designated as appropriate cultural handlers. I do believe that culture is a precious resource. However in the view propagated by the Boston protesters, the emphasis for non-Westerners should be on guarding and regulating the representation of culture, instead of making it available in ways that are productive to a more profound understanding. …

… This was an opportunity to really engage the museum in a conversation around cultural appropriation and useful types of enhanced interaction and Japonisme. This chance seemingly has fled because of fear and the protesters mistaking umbrage for insight. We need to allow people to play with charged cultural symbols. This is how we learn. Museum visitors should not be learning the lessons of fearing an engagement with cultures not their own, even if they don’t get it right the first time.

To be sure, the museum absolutely could have done better, in a great many ways, to contextualize the activity differently, to discuss Orientalism and its impacts and implications more explicitly. It seems well-established at this point that, in this particular case, they really didn’t think about it sufficiently before doing it. And I am still unclear as to who was involved (European art curators, Asian art curators, Education), and to what extent. But, at its core, I agree, and I have read many others – top experts, with decades of experience in Japan and in the field of Japanese art – saying essentially the same thing, that we need to work to engage with one another, to talk and exchange and learn about one another, in order to move forward with greater understanding, and not to shy away from such exchange (or encourage others to refrain from such engagement) at the slightest hint of offense; we should find ways to engage in cultural exchange and experience in respectful and productive ways, and not shut down that discussion by compartmentalizing culture away – especially when it comes to something like kimono, which is not sacred, which is not traditionally associated with only being allowed to be used by particular groups; hula and feather headdresses would be a different story.

Indeed, in fact, today as well there are a great many people in Japan and in the US – traditional textile makers, traditional dance experts, and so forth – for whom the kimono is the centerpiece of cultural outreach, encouraging foreigners to try on kimono and to engage in Japanese culture. And some of them have begun appearing in the gallery, staging small, quiet, counter-protests. It simply goes to show that neither Japanese nor Japanese-Americans are a monolith. One Japanese-American wrote in an op-ed piece recently, which I touched upon and linked to in my previous discussion, “To consider that the OK of one Japanese friend who likes your kimono doesn’t mean wholesale approval from all Japanese people, let alone Asian-Americans.” This is extremely valid and important, and indeed her entire op-ed piece is extremely thought-provoking, and sympathetic, and I encourage you to read it. However, these counter-protests, both in person, and on Facebook, blogs, and elsewhere, clearly show that the reverse is true as well – just because one, or fifty, or a hundred Asian-Americans are offended, doesn’t mean that all Asian-Americans find it offensive.

As a friend pointed out, one of the really key elements of offensive, inappropriate, cultural appropriation is when someone is practicing something incorrectly, and mistakenly believing they are learning or experiencing the authentic. This is highly problematic, as it perpetuates misinformation and misunderstandings; it perpetuates a skewed, incorrect Western imagination or understanding of “the East,” of Asian cultures, and worst of all it perpetuates Westerners believing themselves to be correct when they are not – and then acting upon, or passing along, that mistaken knowledge. But, not all cultural exchange is incorrect cultural exchange. Here are experts in traditional dance, in traditional kimono-making and kimono-wearing, encouraging people to engage in this, to learn about it.

As Japanese sources – newspapers, blogs, individual commenters – continue to express their confusion at Asian-American protestors’ reactions, many protestors and critics have dismissed the Japanese viewpoint as deriving from ignorance of the Asian-American experience, and of the politics of race/ethnicity/identity in the United States. To be sure, there is that to a certain extent. I saw it myself, as Japanese newspapers reported that protestors were describing the kimono-wearing event as “racial discrimination” (人類差別) or as “imperialist” (帝国主義), which many protestors were, but which misses the point entirely. One wonders what the popular Japanese conceptions of “Orientalism” and “cultural appropriation” are, if they mistake these accusations for being the same thing as “discrimination” or “imperialism.” No wonder they were confused – this is very clearly not a case of discrimination, or imperialism. Then again, one wonders what these protestors are thinking, to themselves also confuse Orientalist perpetuation of stereotypes, and cultural appropriation, with every brand of oppression under the sun, from imperialism to white supremacy. I have even seen some Tweets tagged with “#whitesupremacykills” or something to that effect, as if white people trying on a kimono for five minutes was actively killing anyone; as if this was problematic in precisely the same ways and for the same reasons as the Confederate flag, police violence against blacks, church burnings, and so forth.

Now, I would like to reiterate, as I did in my previous post on the subject, my sympathy for the protestors’ views and positions. These are extremely valid attitudes and emotions, stemming from as genuine/authentic a lived experience as could be, and I think these perspectives absolutely need to be considered in the conversation as it continues. However, what continues to annoy and frustrate me about the attitudes many are expressing is the complete disregard, and dismissal, of the authenticity and authority of cultural experts. A tenth-generation kimono maker from Kyoto may not have the lived experience of the particular ethnic/racial environment of the United States, but she’s not an idiot. She has grown up her entire life surrounded by the people who have been the center of kimono production in the world, for centuries, people who have centuries of inherited experience in thinking about cultural issues – how to make and wear kimono, how to respect traditions, how to maintain them, and also how to allow them to change, and how to encourage others to engage in that cultural experience respectfully and appropriately. If they can’t be said to have authenticity and authority to say that it’s okay for foreigners to wear kimono – that it’s not offensive to the tradition, that it’s not a violation of cultural context – then who can?

As a recent Japan Times piece indicates,

The reaction… from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono. … In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival.

Meanwhile, both in Japan and in the West, many people of Japanese descent, from fashion designers to everyday sartorialists on the street, wear kimono in all kinds of ways, mixing it up, bringing it very much into the postmodern contemporary world. Kimono are, quite simply, *not* exclusive to particular traditional contexts. Manami Okazaki, Yohji Yamamoto, and Hiromi Asai are among those fashion designers seeking to bring the kimono out of its culturally-specific context into being “a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”” This is a considerable step further, beyond what traditional arts practitioners, cultural exchange workshops, and the like are trying to do, and, frankly, I’m not sure what I think about this. But, this too is a valid, genuine position, coming from a place of authenticity and authority, and should not be lightly dismissed. Speaking of Okazaki’s book Kimono Now, as well as interviews with Yamamoto, Asai, and others, the Japan Times goes on to say that

those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. … Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist. … “Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”

So, this is a complex issue, and I am glad to see the conversation continuing.

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Or, On Dressing as an Orientalist

Right: “La Japonaise,” Claude Monet, 1876, MFA collection, 56.147. Image from MFA online catalog.

Well, if you haven’t heard about it already, there’s been some controversy this week over the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) offering an interactive gallery activity in which museum visitors can try on a replica of a costume kimono worn by Monet’s wife in one of the artist’s most iconic artworks. I have sat on this blog post for days, through upwards of 25 revisions, believe it or not, and the more I think about it, the more I’m not even sure what I think about it. I wrote pages and pages trying to cover every different side of this – and mainly, to cover my ass, in case anyone were to say “Oh, sure, you addressed X, but what about Y?” But, here, let me see if I can try to whittle it down to a more manageable size.

Here’s the basics of it, best as I understand it. I’ve read a whole bunch of blog posts & news articles on it, but it did very quickly get to the point where I just couldn’t keep up anymore. So, please do forgive me if I miss something. First, the MFA loaned the painting, Monet’s “La Japonaise,” to its own branch/sister museum in Japan, the Nagoya Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The painting then traveled around to a few other museums in Japan. The Japanese staff of the Nagoya museum, or perhaps one of the other museums, created this replica kimono, and this in-gallery activity where museum visitors could try it on. Then the painting, and the kimono, returned to Boston. I’m not sure how long the exhibit, or this kimono-dressing activity, have been going on, but sometime within the last week or two, controversy erupted over it. There have been quite a few blog posts, Tumblr threads, and most recently threads on a professional mailing list for scholars of Japanese art, while some small number of people have begun protesting within the museum gallery itself.

Many (including the protestors protesting in person at the museum, judging from their protest signs – this is why I’ve never liked protest signs; no room for a properly nuanced argument when you make it all about slogans) have leapt to simply accuse that any wearing of kimono is blatantly Orientalist and racist, pointing to the long history of yellowface, of inappropriate Halloween costumes, of “Yellow Peril” political cartoons, Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan films, erasure of Asian & Asian-American presence by casting white people as Asian + relegating Asian(-American) actors to stereotypical roles, racist jokes, slanty-eyed thick-accented racist impressions, and so forth and so on. Some went so far as to tag their tweets #whitesupremacyskills, because obviously wearing a kimono for a few minutes is exactly the same as believing that all non-white people should be exterminated from this earth. Others labeled their one-way accusations of racism a “dialogue.” There has, indeed, been a long history of racism, appropriation, stereotype, and discrimination against those of East Asian descent in this country, and it absolutely does continue to go on, even among groups who really should know better. And the innumerable instances of this continuing to go on do, absolutely, continue to contribute to the Othering of those of Asian descent, to the perpetuation of truly harmful misunderstandings about their culture and identity. There is a lot out there in the world, in our society, to be very rightfully upset about. But not all Orientalism = imperialism = racism = appropriation = white supremacy. These are all very broad-ranging, complex, intertwining, overlapping things; they are not synonyms.

I think there is definitely an argument to be made that this is Orientalist and problematic. Yet, here’s the trick – a general hand-wavey “it’s about power structures” backed up by impenetrable post-colonial theory jargon doesn’t actually explain specifically how and why this might be offensive, or inappropriate. And a blunt assertion that “it’s racist, period, because, obviously,” certainly doesn’t.

Because not all racism, Orientalism, appropriation, is the same. All of it may be harmful, or damaging, but is it not the case that what’s important is the reasons why, and the ways in which it is problematic? I do not mean to veer into the over-wrought territory of saying that it’s the responsibility of the offended or the oppressed to have to educate the oppressor, because it certainly is not. It is everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves about other cultures, about racism and sexism and imperialism, by seeking out teachers, readings, and cultural experiences. It is everyone’s responsibility because if we, all of us, whites, blacks, Asians, all of us, do not work to better understand precisely why and how things are harmful, or offensive, then we will only continue to say and do hurtful things.

The unnuanced accusation – I won’t even call it an “argument” – is that wearing a kimono is instantly, automatically, the same thing as the classic example of the geisha Halloween costume, or its ilk. To wear a kimono is to pretend to be a Japanese person, or a geisha or courtesan, and to thus be appropriating that identity, and perhaps most importantly appropriating it within the context of performing it incorrectly, according to insufficient or incorrect understandings of the culture. To wear a kimono is automatically wrong because it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck – a duck that is wearing bad red and white face makeup and saying stereotypical things in a racist accent.

This goes back to what I was saying (and I think Ube Empress would agree, though I shouldn’t speak for her) in my earlier post, that every culture is different, and every case is different. And part of what makes this particular case so interesting is how it differs from the standard case. Frankly, I’m surprised that so few of the commentaries and conversations about this “Kimono Wednesdays” seem to acknowledge what I saw pretty quickly. (I will not take full credit for this – I believe I may have read this insight initially on a Tumblr post, which I cannot seem to find again. My thanks to whomever that was, for pointing it out.)

In Japan, where this “dress up as Camille Monet” thing began, it was just that – it was dressing up, not as a Japanese, but as a French woman, as Camille Monet – to dress up not as an “Oriental,” but as an Orientalist. In the context of this taking place in Japan, with an audience of museumgoers who are presumably overwhelmingly native Japanese, the issue isn’t really one of Orientalism, because Japanese people own the rights to their own culture, to be Japanese, to perform Japaneseness, however they choose. If permission is the key thing to avoiding inappropriate cultural appropriation,1 they, as Japanese, have the power to give themselves permission. In Japan, rather, the issue here is one of Occidentalism – of the Japanese romanticization of the West, and of Impressionism and late 19th / early 20th century Paris in particular. This is what causes Paris syndrome.

In Boston, too, it’s the same painting, the same kimono, the same gallery activity. Fundamentally, the wearing of the kimono in and of itself is therefore not an act of dressing up as an “Oriental,” but as an Orientalist, as the Frenchwoman Camille Monet. And, not only that, but, I don’t think that Madame Monet herself is dressing up as an “Oriental” either – she’s got a blonde wig on. She is either simply being herself, in a kimono, or, as some have suggested, it may be a satire, a critique, in fact, of Orientalism, in which case, she too, is dressing as an “Orientalist.” So, just to be clear, it’s not even the case that the museum visitor is dressing as Mme. Monet dressing as an “Oriental.” They’re not. But, still, here in Boston, dressing as an Orientalist has a different meaning than in Japan. Here, it is a reenactment and perpetuation of the Orientalism of the late 19th / early 20th century, something that is problematic in its own ways, but that is, I would argue, decidedly different from the flat-out racist thing that these protesters are claiming it is.

As I see it, really, the key problem with dressing up as an Orientalist (as Madame Monet) is that it connects us to – rather than distancing us from – the Orientalist attitudes of the past, and the rampant cultural appropriation and questionable collection practices which resulted. To be sure, the MFA, and indeed the field of Japanese art history, owe a lot to late 19th / early 20th century Orientalist types like Edward Sylvester Morse, William Sturgis Bigelow, John LaFarge, Denman Waldo Ross, and Ernest Fenollosa, who started the MFA’s collection – and those of the Freer, the Metropolitan, the Gardner, and so forth – bringing back shiploads of Asian art, and introducing it to the American audience as something to be appreciated.2 But, as some of the protestors and critical commentators have said, the museum needs to be doing a lot more to engage critically with that history, not sweeping it under the rug, and certainly not celebrating or perpetuating it.

Here’s a radical idea: how about, for once, a major art museum turns the attention away from strictly aesthetic or stylistic concerns (the beauty of the artworks), and actually uses the artworks to talk about complex cultural and historical issues? I’m not even saying the museum has to be hostile towards itself, towards its own history – though I’m sure that’s what some of the social justice protestors are looking for. There are absolutely ways to talk about Orientalism, in general, as a historical phenomenon, without it having to be a violent tear-down of your own institution. In fact, I was about to link to photos from the Met’s current exhibit, on the history of its own Asian art collections, as an example of how to talk about these things, but, I am disappointed to see (again) that they really don’t address the issue at all, and to the contrary are fairly self-congratulatory. One would think the 100th anniversary of their Asian Art Department might be a fine time to acknowledge how far we have come – not just in amassing a larger collection, which is what the labels mostly focus on – but in terms of changing attitudes, and increasing sophistication of cultural understanding and appreciation. But, no, apparently not so much. At least they have a Timeline of Art History article on Orientalism in Nineteenth–Century Art, but this, too, doesn’t quite cut to the quick, and paints over it in not-quite-negative terms. But, then, that’s a whole other topic unto itself – whether the detached, removed, reserved, academic voice should or should not be, instead, a more impassioned, boldly scathingly critical voice.

*Sigh*. In any case, this is my key point for the post. Museumgoers at the MFA are (or were) not dressing up as a Japanese person, not as a geisha, not as an “Oriental.” They were dressing up as Camille Monet, as an Orientalist. And that’s problematic, but in different ways, for different reasons, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

Let us be critical of the museum, let us be critical of the decision to do this, but let us be critical for the right reasons, pressuring the museum to work harder to properly contextualize things, to more directly address the history of Orientalism as intimately intertwined with the institution of the museum itself, to more clearly distance the museum today from that history – to make a real change and not paper it over. Let us be critical in a way that addresses the issue at hand, and does not confuse the issue, or distract from the issue, with over-generalizing, unnuanced, all-inclusive accusations of “racism.” Let us be critical in such a way that all involved gain a better understanding of what is harmful, and what is not, and for what reasons, and in what ways, so that we all can move forward towards making real change, not only in how we behave, but in how we think about it, so that we understand on a deeper level what to recognize as racist, and what to recognize as not racist, in order to have a deeper, better understanding of what to do, and what not to do, in future.

Any institution, and all the more so in our PR-driven society, will succumb to pressure, to efforts to shame them. The Museum quickly stopped the kimono activity, and Walmart and numerous other retailers pulled the Confederate flag from their stores. But do they really know why? Have they genuinely changed their attitudes, and their understandings? Or are they liable to just commit similar offenses again?

The front facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Jan 2007. Photo my own.

I would also like to point out that this is not simply a matter of the museum, as a monolith, being woefully disconnected from the community, elitist, or whathaveyou. I have no inside knowledge of conversations or politics within the MFA, specifically, but, as a curator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum wrote, relating to a similar controversy,

museums are more concerned than ever with numbers
of visitors and revenue generated from exhibitions
(increasing “the gate” of a show), and that this
impacts the work of curators in complicated ways:
As public museums, we have a dual duty to
encourage our public, woefully underinformed
in their education about Asia, to look
at unfamiliar works of art from foreign cultures,
and simultaneously to advance the
field of art history. As you can imagine,
these priorities sometimes clash. The Asian
Art Museum’s marketing department apparently
got the reins on promoting the gate,
calling the exhibition, “Lords of the Samurai”
(too close to “Lords of the Dance”), and
putting a Darth Vadar-like image on the
poster. The promotional video was cute and
silly, and fairly insulting to the whole idea of
the samurai.3

So, for whatever it is worth, let us not simply shame the museum, either as an individual institution (the MFA) or as an institution in general (all museums, the very concept of the museum). Let us have a conversation about the problems within the museum industry, about how and why the messages and presentations created by curators’ scholarly expertise – challenging harmful stereotypes and standard narratives, introducing nuance, and above all, being sensitive to complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. – so often get compromised by Education, by Marketing, by Trustees & Donors, and what steps can be taken to fix this. Maybe it’s just my own bias, based on where I come from, but I generally prefer the sympathetic approach to the antagonistic one, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to work with them to make it better, rather than working against them to tear them down, an approach which generally only creates further tensions and rifts.

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Kimono hanging up on a clothes rack, in a folding screen painting of a conventional Japanese theme known as Tagasode, or “Whose Sleeves?”. Is it ever okay to wear kimono? Why or why not? Object owned by Metropolitan Museum; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the kimono itself, and why it is (or isn’t) problematic. If trying on the kimono is an Orientalist act, or, worse, racist, then in precisely what ways is it harmful? What stereotypes is it perpetuating?

(1) Because it’s being taken out of its proper cultural contexts.

Okay, so, in what ways is the kimono sacred, or reserved for only particular occasions or uses? In many cultures, there are particular garments which are to be worn only in religious contexts and not secular ones, or the other way around, or only for this festival or that occasion, only at certain times of the year, and wearing them outside of that context is at best odd, and at worst, culturally or religiously offensive. Or, they are to be worn only by men, or only by women, or only by people of a certain class or caste, because of beliefs about spiritual power, spiritual purity & pollution, or because of belonging or association with that particular group. This is a serious concern for museums like the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and indeed for all museums with extensive collections of objects from indigenous cultures from around the world, in particular. Museums like NMAI in Washington, and Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, store sacred and profane objects in separate places, have only female staffers handle certain objects, and only male staffers handle others; certain objects should only be handled by members of a particular tribe or nation. And conservators work closely with Native specialists to allow the objects to be rubbed with oil, consecrated with ash, or whatever the Native practice may be, while also looking to conserving the object’s physical integrity, to prevent physical damage, so that it can be kept for posterity, for study, and for sharing with museum audiences. When the Bishop Museum held an exhibition welcoming back to Hawaiʻi two statues of the god Kū which had not been seen in the islands since the 1820s, they worked with Native Hawaiian elders to have the proper ceremonies performed, to have the statues treated appropriately, and, during the course of that exhibition, photography was not allowed in the gallery, out of respect for the gods.

The Lakota feather headdress is another such item, of powerful cultural specificity and sacredness. As Jennifer Weston writes, “While ceremonies varied among the diverse plains tribes who produced these headdresses, most involved specific prayers and actions, often relating to EACH single feather.” A gallery label at the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Plains Indians exhibit explains that it is a mark of bravery, leadership, and political rank, with each feather representing a distinct honor earned in war, an honor not earned by Pharrell. Similar beliefs hold for Tahitian maro ura and Hawaiian feather cloaks and headdresses, which are believed to be imbued with the mana of their previous wearers, and of major events they have seen, and are not only restricted to the use of the elites (chiefs or monarchs), but are in some cases believed to be quite dangerous – the mana of the chiefs of the past is quite powerful, and could kill you.

Then there are things like a priest’s collar, which are not (so far as I know – I’m not Christian) really sacred in and of themselves, but are symbols of a rank or position, and should not be worn willy-nilly by anyone who hasn’t earned that position. Māori tattoostā moko – “tell the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations, and their place in these social structures. A moko’s message also portrays the wearer’s genealogy, knowledge and social standing.” And so, someone from outside the culture, for whom the moko does not have that meaning, and who does not possess a Maori genealogy or social standing to represent, should not be wearing moko. In Ming and Qing China, the wearing of dragon robes featuring dragons with five-clawed feet were reserved for the Emperor alone. I don’t know what goes on in China today, but, historically, within the culture, that would have been a major no-no.

But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean the garment is “sacred.” It doesn’t mean that having the wrong person handle it or wear it is spiritually polluting or destructive, just that it’s associated with a particular group, with the perquisites of that office or lineage. Each of these things has particular meanings, particular contexts outside of which they should not be worn. I am sure there are plenty of cases, too, of certain garments that should not be worn outside of a funeral, or outside of a wedding, not to mention special foods, things that should never be placed on the floor, things that should always be placed vertically, things that you can put on the floor but should always step around and not step over – the cultures of the world are incredibly diverse.

So, in what ways is the kimono (as a garment type in general), or this kimono in particular (its design invented by Monet), like a religious or sacred garment, or an object deeply traditionally associated with only particular contexts or only particular classes or clans of wearers?

It’s not. The word kimono means, literally, “something you wear,” and historically just about everything that Japanese wore in every context was kimono. Today, of course, kimono are not nearly as common as they once were, and outside of traditional performing arts and certain other specific occasions – graduation and weddings, for example – it is quite rare to see men wearing kimono. But, Japanese women (and sometime men) do sometimes wear kimono as part of regular youth fashion on the streets of Harajuku, or as part of their everyday wardrobe in Kyoto. Men and women both wear yukata to visit Tokyo DisneySea, as well. Now, admittedly, Madame Monet’s kimono is much more lavish, reminding me of that of a geisha or courtesan, or just a wealthy samurai or merchant wife – it’s not a summer festival yukata. But, in what contexts is a kimono not only out of place, but offensively so?4

As this post on Tumblr so informedly explains, this is actually not a geisha’s kimono, nor that of a courtesan, nor that of a commoner/merchant or samurai. It is a costume kimono, one made explicitly, originally, to be a costume. So, that, first of all, eliminates any considerations about it being offensive because it’s taken out of context – this is not, for example, a bridal kimono being worn inappropriately outside of a wedding, or a Shinto robe being worn in a secular context, by someone who is not a proper Shinto priest – and it also complicates the issue of whether or not this constitutes dressing up as a geisha, or as a courtesan. When the kimono itself doesn’t even belong directly, properly, to the culture, but is an Orientalist invention, does that make the whole thing better – because it’s not being taken out of context, and not used incorrectly or inappropriately – or worse, because it’s perpetuating misrepresentation of the culture? Both? Neither? I don’t know.

(2) What stereotypes is this perpetuating? How does this (mis)represent the Japanese people, or their culture, as being [insert stereotype here]?

Since the museum is not encouraging people to dress up as a geisha, or a courtesan, or as a Japanese person at all, but rather to dress up as Camille Monet, or, to dress up simply as themselves (the museumgoer him or herself) in a kimono, I think it’s fair to say that the museum activity is not, innately, one of perpetuating any stereotype at all. If a museum visitor chooses to behave in a certain way while in the kimono, making slanty eyes or saying racist things in a stereotypical accent, that’s their fault. And maybe the museum staff should have seen that coming, and maybe they should have headed it off at the pass. But, inherently, I don’t think that’s what this gallery activity is, or is meant to be, at its core. Remember, this activity was invented at the Japanese museum. For the Japanese people, wearing kimono is not a special occasion or a special opportunity – to have simply trying on kimono in the museum as a special activity is not something they would ever do. But, wearing Mme. Monet’s kimono? That’s a different story. Try on Mme. Monet’s kimono, and pretend to be an elite 19th century Parisian lady.

(3) Okay, but it’s still appropriation, right?

Yes, it is still appropriation, and it is still problematic. One person I spoke to about it emphasized the idea that this “Kimono Wednesdays” dress-up photo-op contributes to, or encourages, the idea of kimono, and of Japan/Japaneseness more broadly, as accessory. I had not thought of this, and I think it’s a really important and valid point. This is why I don’t wear kimono, or Chinese scholars’ robes (cool as that would be), out in public, outside of any particular context in which it might be more appropriate – because I would feel awkward, because it’s not my culture to claim, and perhaps more so than that, because it’s evocative or reminiscent of the Orientalists of time past. But, this I guess is the key point – if I did dress in kimono, just out in public, I still would not be pretending to be Japanese, perpetuating stereotypes about the Japanese, or using something (the kimono) in a sacrilegiously inappropriate cultural context. But, I would be evoking an association with *Westerners* of the past with whom I should not want to associate myself, because of the appropriation they committed, and the racist, Orientalist, and/or paternalist attitudes that go along with that.

In a sense, this is perhaps the dictionary definition of “cultural appropriation” – we are a culture, not a costume, and our culture is not yours to pick and choose from, like a cultural grab-bag, to just use whichever elements you want purely for aesthetic purposes, as decoration. This type of appropriation is, essentially, what Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and the like are guilty of in their appropriations of kimono and so forth. They are not dressing as geisha, or as some stereotype of a Japanese person, and then misrepresenting that identity, or perpetuating that stereotype. They are not slanting their eyes and speaking in a bad accent. They are not dressing as a Japanese woman and then, as that Japanese woman, being passive or subordinate, seductive & exotically mysterious. They are merely dressing as themselves, in cultural elements appropriated without proper permission or authority.1 And that is wrong enough, problematic and offensive enough, in itself.

Come get your picture taken with Mr. Freer, and pretend to be an Orientalist just like him, traveling the world, romanticizing and exoticizing foreign cultures, buying up their cultural treasures. Fun, and adventure! Photo my own.

So. Finally, finally, to wrap up. I trust Mia Nakaji Monnier when she writes that “when I tell you that I’m offended, as protesters told the Museum of Fine Arts, that’s not a superficial, knee-jerk reaction, but one that comes from that deep, raw place within me where all those intangibles about culture live.” I have no doubt she is being honest, that her pain is genuine. I quite liked her piece in the Boston Globe, which gives her personal perspective as a mixed-race Asian-American, and I encourage you to read it. It really made me think. I sympathize with her terribly, and I think she is right, that as the title of her piece says, this controversy should “spark deeper conversation.”

I am ashamed, horrified even, at some of the things I used to believe, and used to do, within this vein. But, that’s what education, and experience, especially international and intercultural experience, are all about. We learn, and we grow. We learn to understand that the world is an immensely diverse, complex, nuanced place, that things can have a multitude of connotations and associations, many of them innocuous, and many of them harmful, and that extreme views on either side, which form massive umbrella categories, accusing everything of being racist, or defending everything as not – not to mention the inevitable ad hominem attacks – stifle that conversation, and prevent anyone, on either side, from learning, from growing. We need to have a conversation, therefore, that spurs thought, consideration, for these complexities, so that we can, all of us, learn better what offends us and why, what offends others and why. We need to talk about precisely why and how a given thing is damaging, or hurtful, so that we can learn to understand one another better, so that we can understand why what we do is sometimes hurtful, so that we can try to do better in the future.

We all need to work to improve our own.understandings of why and how these things are hurtful and damaging in a variety of different ways, in order to better understand one another, to feel sympathy, to understand what not to do, and perhaps most importantly in order to understand what we can do – what forms or modes of cultural engagement are appropriate, are comparatively unproblematic. To do otherwise, to seek to expunge anything and everything that even vaguely resembles racism, to some people, even if not to others, is terribly stifling, in this increasingly globalized world, where intercultural understanding, and not compartmentalization, is so needed.

And despite the fact that I’m being hypocritical with this long blog post here, I think we need to have this conversation in person. Sit down with someone else, and work it out. Discuss it in person. Hear them out, line by line, not page by page, post by post, and talk about it. How about this? What about that? The conversation will be constituted not in rants by one side, and rants by another side, but by a mutual exploration of the various aspects and multiple permutations of this complex topic. And through such a conversation, one’s ideas, one’s perspectives, can change – and you can change others’ attitudes too – so much more than by simply laying out your thoughts as I am hypocritically doing here, and just sending it out to the Internet, inviting excoriation in return.

There is a whole complex of things I have not addressed here. That does not mean they are unimportant, or irrelevant, or that I am intentionally ignoring them. I have tried, in this rather lengthy post, to focus in on one aspect, one set of points, simply so as to not make the post even lengthier than it already is. One could write entire books on this subject and still never cover all the nuanced different aspects. And that, in a way, is essentially my point. So, here is one opinion, on one aspect, one view of the controversy. There is certainly a lot more to be said, on other implications, other sides of this massive issue, and I hope you won’t take this as my final definitive word. These are just some thoughts I had, as of this week, and I may in fact think differently, based on reading more. I hope you, too, might think differently after reading other perspectives, too. Thank you for your understanding.

—–
(1) Going back to Prof. Susan Scafidi’s definition, quoted by Ube Empress: “Cultural appropriation is taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
(2) Incidentally, it’s kind of irrelevant to this argument, but let’s not forget that there were plenty of Japanese engaged in this too, both at the national level, and as private art dealers, who were quite eager to promote Japanese art to Western audiences – from export art and the World’s Fairs, to figures like Okakura Kakuzô and Hayashi Tadamasa.
(3) Hollis Goodall, “A museum curator’s response,” weblog entry, quoted in Morgan Pitelka, “Should Museums Welcome Parody? Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family,” Early Modern Japan, 2011.
(4) Can I ask also, and I mean this sincerely, not trolling, when cultural outings on field trips for study abroad groups, in Japan, involve dressing up in kimono explicitly as an act of cultural engagement explicitly, specifically, for foreigners, how is that different from doing it in the United States? What makes the cultural authority of the Asian art curators of the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, some of them of Japanese descent, and with extensive experience both in Japan and in studying Japanese art, who have quite literally dedicated their careers, their lives, to studying Asian art and sharing it with the public, so much lower, so much less authorized to authorize such dress-up, than, say, a Lions Club in Japan? I’m not saying there are specific right or wrong answers, but I am saying this is the conversation that needs to be had.

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What with exams and everything, the links have really piled up. So, here we are, two (somewhat?) recent articles from around the Internet. I shall endeavor to keep my commentary short, but, we all know I will fail to do so.

To start off, we have a sort of masterpost by Ube Empress on “An Exploration of Orientalism & Asian Cultural Appropriation as Found in American Music (And Why Being a Non-Asian POC Doesn’t Excuse You).” In this lengthy and extensive post, Ube Empress covers everything from Geisha to Bindi – and I am so glad she does, because, surprise, not all cultures are the same! and not all appropriation is the same! – and then lists out a long list of celebrities (mainly in Western pop music), from Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, who have arguably committed crimes of cultural appropriation in their music videos and performances.

There’s still a lot to be said here. But it’s a really good foundational post, from which we can springboard and ask further questions. If appropriation is all about “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” then whose permission is necessary? Who stands as representative of the culture, and arbiter of the appropriate? In some cases, it’s a bit easier, as there are traditional practitioners well-respected, well-established, or even officially licensed, as “teachers”, who can provide that permission. But, in other cases, if one group of POC friends gives permission, and another group of POC individuals say it’s offensive, are you in the right, or in the wrong, for having performed that thing? And if you are of that heritage yourself, and someone else of the same heritage says it’s inappropriate & offensive, that you should be ashamed of yourself, and/or that you’re perpetuating negative stereotypes, who is in the right? Do you, as a member of that identity, have the right to perform that identity how you wish, based on what being of that heritage means to you? Or are the other people in the right? Who gets to play appropriation police?

I wish, too, that Ube Empress had gone further to say just a little more boldly, a little more explicitly, why being a Person of Color is not a transitive quality – why it’s not only whites who are horrible when they appropriate, and that being Latino or black doesn’t give you the right to appropriate elements of Asian or any other culture. Because it’s not about being a fellow minority, or sharing in having been oppressed. It’s about having proper respect for other cultures, and borrowing elements in ways that are respectful, knowledgeable, and appropriate within that culture. This is the same reason that Gananath Obeyesekere’s arguments that as a Sri Lankan he has some special insight into Hawaiian culture, as a fellow non-white/non-Westerner, are, frankly, bullshit. Every culture has different attitudes about what is sacred and what is not, what “sacred” means and how it works, what is and is not offensive, what is and is not deeply associated exclusively with particular purposes or occasions, and should not be performed outside of those contexts. A kimono is not a qipao is not a bindi is not a hula skirt, and being black or Latino does not mean you have any more intimate knowledge than the average white person as to the precise meanings and connotations of elements of particular cultures.

The comments on this article are quite interesting too (though, of course there’s also plenty of racist bullshit mixed in), as some people have expanded on the post, and even offered corrections. Nicki Minaj, of course, is not simply black, but of Trinidadian background, which is a particular thing, different from mainland US African-American background, and she’s apparently 1/4 Indian, which some argue in the comments makes her a fellow “Asian.” Yeah, no. You don’t get a free pass simply for being “Asian.” You cannot go on TV talk shows and talk about how Miley Cyrus twerking is cultural appropriation,1 and then go dress as a geisha in your music videos, followed by a sequence of a karate dojo with all (seemingly, apparently) black participants and no Japanese or Okinawans in sight, as if being 1/4 Indian gives you some special permission or authenticity in Japanese culture.

That said, though, life is complicated. Our identities, our lives, are complicated, and as I return to this post to edit it for the umpteenth time and prepare it for final “publication,” so to speak, I hesitate to even post it at all; I hesitate to contribute to a discourse that says we can (and should!) make assumptions and attack people without considering all the possibilities and asking all the right questions. Are there plenty of cases out there that are just straight-up gross examples of cultural appropriation, in which someone (and their production teams, costumers, choreographers, whomever) just blatantly took cultural elements out of context and used them just for their aesthetic, or worse, to play to certain stereotypes? YES. There absolutely, absolutely, are. And I do not mean to excuse or condone those acts one bit.

But, as I looked for additional photos with which to pepper this post, I came across the following two from Beyonce’s own Tumblr.

In the first, Beyonce is wearing a so-called “coolie hat,” and a yellow top that seems to recall elements of the aesthetic of Qing Dynasty robes. Plus, she’s making a very stereotypical gesture. Very easy to jump on this and just cry “appropriation.” I very nearly used this at the very top of this post, with a caption simply reading “Seriously, B? Really?” But, you know what, we don’t know anything about the context of this photo. Beyonce’s a world traveler – I could absolutely believe that this might have been taken in China, or Vietnam, or Taiwan, and that the local people right there could have been perfectly fine with it. We have no idea who gave her cultural “permission,” and we have no idea the context within which this took place. Maybe people did use that hand gesture with her, in that part of China, to show appreciation, and encouraged her to do the same. Maybe they didn’t.

Here’s another question. Plenty of tourist sites around the world give tourists the opportunity to “dress up” in traditional clothing. I’ve certainly done it once or twice, but I’ve also declined to walk around in public in kimono, outside of cosplay conventions + traditional festivals (when everyone else was also wearing yukata). If Beyonce were wearing something culturally authentic, as part of taking part in a demonstration or workshop, or even just as a touristy “dress up” thing, but totally authorized by the local tourist site, and with the clothes provided by the tourist site, would that be okay? Would it not? Given that the clothes she’s wearing in this picture are terribly inauthentic, but are clearly only inspired by Qing fashions, does that excuse it (how can it be appropriation if it’s not even all that close to the real thing)? Or does it make it worse? I don’t really know…

In the second picture, she’s wearing a hula skirt, and seemingly dancing the hula, or at least trying to. First thing I did was look on her biography on Wikipedia to see if she has any Polynesian ethnic background, or if she lived in the islands for any amount of time. Teen Vogue recently got chewed out on Twitter for using a light-skinned model with dreads, and talking to her about dreads. Well, surprise, the girl is half-Fijian, coming from a culture that has been wearing dreads for centuries. So, it pays to ask questions, and to not just jump to conclusions. In the second half of this post, I return to the point that a “black/white” dichotomy conception of race excludes, erases, the great diversity of other racial/ethnic identities that exist in the world, such as Fijian.

Returning to Beyonce’s photo, the leis, aloha shirts, and white slacks on the musicians in the background lead me to believe this is not just some backyard party, but that this is likely taking place in Hawaii (or another Pacific Island), and that these gentlemen are hired professional musicians. Thus, there is the possibility that there is an authentic kumu hula (hula instructor) present. Again, Beyonce is a professional musician & dancer, and a world traveler, and I really don’t think it out of the realm of possibility that she’s receiving proper formal hula lessons, even if only for a one-time workshop, and that she at least tried to be respectful, best as she knew how. Granted, she’s also extremely wealthy and I wouldn’t put it past her to have all kinds of lavish expensive parties (e.g. renting a beachhouse on Maui and then having a “Hawaiian” party). So, it could go either way. We don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to argue against Ube Empress at all. Quite the contrary, I’m sharing her post in order to promote it. She does a really good job of explaining out the intricacies and complexities of cultural appropriation – what it is, why it’s wrong, how it varies from case to case, because not every cultural element is equally sensitive, sacred, or meaningful – and calling out a long list of very prominent celebrities who I think are almost unquestionably guilty. Perhaps most importantly, she holds non-white celebrities to the same standards. Being black or Latina or 1/4 Asian Indian does not give you any extra claim, or rights, to other cultures, any more so than being white.

When cultural appropriation is taking place in an offensive way, it is offensive. Period. And it should be stopped. But, all I mean to say with these Beyonce pictures, and with the Teen Vogue Twitter link, is that culture and identity are complicated. Really complicated. Cultural appropriation is not as simple as “if it looks like a duck.” We need to ask questions, before we condemn someone. Who is the person doing it? What potential cultural authority or rightful claims might they have to these cultural elements? What is the context? Who might have given them permission? And then, if the answers to these questions are that the person does not have rightful claims to authority, and do not have permission, and if the act is offensive to the culture in question, because of the way the cultural element is used or because of the stereotypes it perpetuates, then it is cultural appropriation, and should be lambasted with all due piss and vinegar.

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Okay. So, let’s move on. On a somewhat related topic, we have an article from the Good Men Project by Warren Blumenfeld, on the In-Between “Racialized” Category of European-Heritage Jews. In this excerpt from a longer essay, published in the book Everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories, he discusses something I have touched upon before, when I asked Are Ashkenazi Jews White?.

I’m not sure I have anything much to add to what Blumenfeld has to say, except to quote some choice bits from his article, and invite you to read more if you are so inclined.

…the workshop would concentrate on the concepts of “race” and dialogue across racial divides, and include two separate panels of participant volunteers: one composed of four people of color, the other of four white people. … As she explained the intended focus and agenda, great confusion came over me: Should I volunteer? Well, maybe, but I really can’t because I’m not sure if either of the categories on which the panels are organized include me. I know for certain that I am not eligible to volunteer for the “persons of color” panel. But, also, I feel as if I somehow don’t belong on the “white persons” panel either.

I think this speaks to a lot more than just the Jewish experience alone. Our society is incredibly diverse, ranging from Irish-, Italian-, and Anglo-Americans to blacks of slave ancestry, both from the mainland US and the very different circumstances of the Caribbean; blacks with no slave ancestry, coming more recently from Africa, and from very different parts of that massive continent; Arabs; Turks; Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews; Persians; Tamils, Sinhalese, Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi; Mexican, Guatemalan, Chilean; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; Samoan, Chamorro, and Hawaiian; Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese; Haida, Lakota, and Muscogee; and so on and so forth. And yet, our discourse on race in this country, all too often, is very black and white (plus Latinos). Where do all of these people fit? Are all People of Color, in all their diversity, all essentially the same, a single category situated oppositionally against Whites?

Blumenfeld suggests a different model:

As a visual organizer, imagine a vertical line dissected by a short vertical line. Below the left side of the vertical line, write “People of Color,” and below the right side, write “White.” Now imagine how your society constructs or places identity groups upon the top side of the vertical line, including such groups as, for example, English American Protestants, Irish American Catholics, Italian American Catholics, Greek American Christian Orthodox, Polish American Catholics, Mexican American Catholics, Puerto Rican Catholics, Argentinian American Catholics, Afro-Caribbean Americans, Cuban Americans, African American Protestants, African American Jews, recent African immigrants to the United States, Native Americans, Chinese American Catholics, Indian American Hindus, Jewish American Ashkenazim, Jewish Ethiopian Americans, Jewish American Sephardim, Iranian American Muslims, Iranian American Christians, African American Muslims, Honduran American Atheists, Atheists of any ethnicity, and so on.

I see Ashkenazim primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the horizontal line upon the vertical continuum, and I contend that we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis all the groups placed on the left side of the horizontal line of “people of color.” I argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants, or other white non-Jews. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well in the United States.

All of this, of course, is an ongoing conversation. I hope I have spurred some thought, or at least just provided some interesting articles. None of this is my complete or definitive word on the subject… and my own thoughts and attitudes on these exceptionally complex and touchy subjects are constantly shifting, too, as I read and think and learn more. Let us all give one another the benefit of the doubt, yes?

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(1) Okay, I admit, I’m stretching it a bit. I can’t seem to find a clip of Minaj really talking at any length about appropriation. But, still, the point remains the same. We could instead cite Azealia Banks, who has been quite vocal about appropriation of black music, of twerking, and so forth, and who then goes and wears bindis and the like all over the place.

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