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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

The Unbelievable

By now, many of us have moved on, at least a little bit, from the raw emotion of Tuesday night, the shock, despair, anger, disbelief.

There is nothing in this post that others haven’t already been saying for days (if not weeks, months, over a year), and there is nothing here that others have not said more eloquently. And I appreciate too that some people are tired of hearing the same old reactions, the same anger and frustration, and want to move past it. In that respect, my words may seem old, like they belong to last week. Which they do, because that’s when I wrote most of this post.

But, still, I wanted to post it, because for those of you who only know me through this blog, I can imagine how my silence these last few days may easily be mistaken as an indication of silent secret support for Trump, or for any number of various positions on the political spectrum. Particularly as a white male, I think it important I make my position clear.

And my position is this: I am as dismayed, as terrified, as the rest of you. … and I would never want you to think you do not have my love and support, for whatever that is worth. Whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, black, brown, Asian, Native, LGBT, US-born or an immigrant, or any number of other identities, no matter how you identify in terms of ethnic or gender/sexuality identity categories, I stand on your side in the struggle to retain what rights and protections we have, and to fight for even greater equality, protection, and acceptance.

I was on the verge of tears as I talked to my Okinawan professor and classmates the other day, as I told them I was just as shocked and dismayed as they all surely must be. I truly cannot believe that this has come to be the result. And I am fearful, genuinely terrified, for what might happen in coming months and years. This is not about whining that “my side” lost. This is not about principled disagreement about normal political disagreements – over the minimum wage, or taxes, or this or that. Though you wouldn’t know it from listening to a lot of liberals, I do believe that there is a lot of room for complexity and disagreement as to how we, as a country, as a society, should balance freedom and equality, or freedom of expression and freedom from damaging or hurtful expression, how to balance the needs or interests of one group against those of another group, and so on and so forth. What is the best way to approach this policy or that policy, this issue or that issue. But this, this is a whole other thing.

I started drafting this with the intention of it being just a very short statement, by way of a preface or note at the beginning of another post, to express some kind of acknowledgement that I do feel it feels weird, out of place, to keep posting about history and art and my biking adventures and whatever, things that seem so frivolous in the light of this week’s events – but that for the moment, at least, Trump still isn’t president, and life goes on. We all have work and play, things we did before the election that we’ve yet to post about, and things we continue to do today, in order to keep earning an income, in order to keep enjoying life before things get worse… I have posts I’ve already been working on, and I want to share them. Perhaps for some it will come as a welcome distraction.

But, as I began writing that short introductory bit, it just got longer and longer, and in the end I do think it makes more sense, it feels more right, to put this up as a whole blog post unto itself. A marker, to take a pause from the usual arts & history and whatever posts – and not a silent pause – to take note of what has happened, and to add my voice to simply be heard, that I am terrified too, and worried and dismayed. I am shocked, and saddened, and this pit in my stomach has not gone away since Wednesday (elections results, Japan time), and I don’t know that it will anytime soon.

So, even as I continue to make use of my time here in Okinawa to continue my research (which I am literally and explicitly being paid to be here to do), and to take advantage of the opportunity to explore and learn and enjoy myself – whether we want to justify it as a much-needed distraction from the mental & emotional stress of thinking about what is coming, or as enjoying ourselves while we still can, or whatever other articulation may be appropriate, please don’t think I am not thoroughly terrified by all of this, and please don’t think that you don’t have my sympathy and support. But also that I write this post not with the intention of it being a political analysis or activist call; I write this with no illusions that I’m adding anything meaningful to the conversation. There is nothing that I can say that hasn’t already been said, by others, on dozens of other platforms. There is nothing I can contribute to this conversation except my support and agreement and reiteration of what so many others have already said. And further, that I am not a political expert or anything, and so who the fuck am I to post a post about the election results as if my voice needs to be heard? No one needs to hear what I have to say on the matter, especially as the content of it is in no way new or original.

I was going to just write something short and put it at the top of my next post. But then I found I had written several pages… and so maybe I will just post this, rough as it is. Just to show my support, show my solidarity. To just get it out there, express my anger.

I feel weird continuing on with these posts in the aftermath of this week’s horrific election results. There is a temptation to think that because of this really quite potentially devastating historic event, we should stop everything and focus on that. And, indeed, I am truly upset, and terrified, for what this means for our country, for our world, for ourselves and friends and family and strangers as individuals. But, just because I’m not posting about that, just because I’m going forward with posting about things that suddenly seem particularly frivolous, please don’t think that I am not just as worried, terrified, saddened, disappointed, concerned, and fired up as all the rest of you. Please don’t think you don’t have my sympathy and my support, in whatever ways that I can offer it. When the shit hits the fan, I hope I will find the bravery to do the right thing.

Trump’s demagoguery, his racism, his incitements to violence, his normalization of numerous attitudes and positions that should never have been tolerated as within the acceptable bounds of common decency, have already led to countless verbal and physical attacks, much as we also saw in the aftermath of Brexit, as bigots were given the encouragement to believe that their views are not only acceptable but are actually supported by the majority of the country (they are not). I fear for what Trump – a hatemongering, temperamental, vengeful, racist, sexist, and just wholly ignorant and incompetent man – might accomplish with a Republican-controlled Congress. I fear for the potential impacts of his policies on Jews, Muslims, Native peoples, Hispanics, blacks, LGBT folks, women, and all the rest of us. And, here’s hoping that events prove me wrong, but I fear the real potential of the very worst; my grandparents suffered through Buchenwald, something the likes of which no one, NO ONE, should ever have to suffer through, and I have no doubt that there were millions in Germany, and elsewhere, who thought surely it could never get as bad as it ultimately did – that surely political institutions and the limits of Hitler’s office would stop him, or that the top-level government people around him would stop him, or that Hitler himself surely couldn’t possibly have really meant, really intended to pursue, all the horrible things his rhetoric claimed. So, maybe I’m going to extremes. But I will not blind myself to the possibility. If they start coming for people like they came for us, I want to believe that we will be able to see it coming, and to see it for what it is. And I hope I will have the wherewithal, the bravery, the intelligence, to do the right thing. For as much as I wish I might be a hero, I am only an individual, scrawny Jewish guy, more likely to be killed at the end of a bayonet on day one than to successfully take part in any sort of physical uprising against the brownshirts.

My grandparents, with my eldest uncle, in a US-run displaced persons (i.e. refugee) camp in Germany, making the most of a horrific situation, and trying to put their lives back together, after losing absolutely everything but their lives at the point of a gun, just years after a hatemonger was legally voted into power. They then came to the US seeking to escape from all of that, and to seek a better life in the land of multiculturalism, freedom, and democracy. How disgusting that we should be heading down that path ourselves, now, and how tragically ironic that we should be looking to Germany, of all places, and certain other parts of Europe, now, as a possible destination to escape to, if it should come to that (and I most sincerely hope it does not).

I fear, too, for the world. What a Trump presidency might mean for our alliances, for the world order, for peace. What it might mean for the beginning, or continuation, or exacerbation of innumerable conflicts around the world, or for the end of certain conflicts with victory for fascists, dictators, or terrorists. I fear for the prospect of nuclear war, something I think a great many of us haven’t felt was a real and present danger for at least about 25 years now. And I fear about climate change, which will not only continue to go ignored by our leaders, but will likely be exacerbated under a Trump presidency. If it wasn’t already too late to turn back the destruction of our planet, it will be very soon.

And I weep, too, for the lost opportunities of what Hillary (or, really, Bernie) might have accomplished. Even if, in some miracle scenario, Trump doesn’t accomplish any of the horrific things he or the other Republicans have been talking about for years, we still won’t be gaining any of the progress that we might have so hoped for. Progress on addressing police brutality. Ending the Dakota Access Pipeline and gaining some real progress, however, slim, towards greater awareness and redress for Native American groups. Progress towards maybe, just maybe, actually reducing the US military presence in Okinawa (ok, I know that’s kind of my pet one, and not something most people are talking about). Progress towards addressing student loan debt, the decline of support for Arts & Humanities, and the corporatization of the university. Not to mention any kind of progress towards actually putting power back in the hands of the people, and not the corporations.

These are not petty things. This is *not* just like Reagan, or Bush, or second Bush. This is not just like disliking Romney, or some other roughly reasonable Republican character. And this is not just whining about “my side” having lost. This is about true and genuine fear for what is to come. People’s lives, and indeed the stability of our country and of the whole planet, hang in the balance. People are literally going to die because of Trump’s policies – on healthcare, on women’s health & women’s rights, on police brutality – and because of his open encouragement of violence against ethnic, religious, and gender/sexual minorities. I am terrified and deeply saddened, and I am also utterly disappointed in my fellow Americans, millions and millions of whom seem to believe that this kind of man, his attitudes, his behavior, should be regarded as “normal” and “acceptable” within the political spectrum. All policies aside, the fact that the leader of our country, our face to the world, is now a man who is a serial sexual offender, a sexist, a racist, a hatemonger with authoritarian leanings, someone who represents to the world that the United States is all about self-important self-absorbed bluster, and a thorough disinterest in even trying to appreciate the nuances and complexities of domestic or foreign policy… this worries me, and frightens me, so deeply.

And I will keep my eyes and ears open for suggestions or invitations as to what to do about this. People are talking about “fighting back,” but few are offering concrete suggestions as to how to do so. People are talking about simply trying to be there for one another, to lend help and support to those most endangered by what is to come, and I will certainly try to do my best. But right now, in this very moment, today, there is little to be done. We will do what we can, when the opportunity presents itself, when the time comes. If there is truly to be a revolution or an uprising of some sort, perhaps I will find myself able to participate. If we have to flee for our lives, as so many in my grandparents’ community surely did, then god help us, we will do what we need to do at that time, and god willing we’ll be able to see the winds changing and be able to know, not too late, when that time has come. If it is to merely be a matter of writing to our senators, and signing petitions, and things like that, I will continue to do those things, in what small ways that I can, as only one individual in this massive nation. But in the meantime, please know that if you’re scared, I am with you. And that my decision to keep posting about the same sorts of things I have always posted about is not some grand political statement – I do not know what we should be doing. I do not know that it will be alright (for a whole ton of people it really very likely won’t be). And I am not advocating that we must get on with our lives. I’m not seeking to take a stand, on any particular position on that point. I’m just one guy, some fellow, just trying to navigate life, as I always have been, albeit in what will very soon become a far more uncertain and precarious situation.

My love and support to all of you.

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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.

—-

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.

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(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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Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…

A Lakota or Yankton robe, produced by a group of men c. 1780-1825, detailing their victories in war. Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, bird feathers, plant fibers, and pigment.

Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.

I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”

And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.

Gifts for Trading Land with White People, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1992.

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.

Breakfast Series, by Sonny Assu Gwa’gwa’da’ka, 2006, on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1

Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,

a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”

There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?

After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.

Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.

…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.

And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:

“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).

“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.

The Dole Corporation, still flaunting it today. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.

While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.

I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.

The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.

There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,

the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.

I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:

Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.

On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.

I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.

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This Upworthy post & video entitled I Never Thought I’d Want To High-Five A Teacher For Yelling At A Student, But I Was Wrong has been going around on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) in the last few weeks… I’ve seen a number of people express great support for it, as we all quite often, and quite rightfully, do when we find a video that calls out societal wrongs and aims to make a difference. I felt quite differently.

I cannot express how angry and upset this video made me. It took more than half an hour for a friend to talk me down. I put off writing this post for a long time, and considered not posting it at all, for fear of the feedback. But, I am still terribly offended, appalled, disgusted, with this teacher for treating her students this way, for thinking it okay to do so, and for thinking this an appropriate way to teach about racism, and I continue to see people posting positively about this video, so I feel I need to say my piece. If we disagree, I hope we can discuss it civilly and calmly, focusing on issues of pedagogy and discourse, without saying anything that should make anyone feel personally attacked.

The video opens with the teacher talking to students about listening skills, and body language, in a very severe, harsh, authoritarian sort of manner. She clearly expects the students to behave as she dictates, and to reiterate things as they’ve been taught, without question. One student, a young lady in a bandana, attempts to say something about how strict adherence to a set rule doesn’t actually work in all aspects, or doesn’t apply in all situations, and the teacher not only shuts her down, but does so in a manner that sets up the rest of the class against her. The teacher says “bring it on, bring it on,” as other students laugh, and then as the student attempts to make her voice heard over the commotion, the teacher says “now, does that make sense, what you just said?” The student continues, setting up a “yes, in general it’s like this, but..” sort of argumentative structure, but is rudely interrupted by the teacher who tells her STOP, you’re getting too wordy.

I apologize for this pop media reference, when it should have been a picture from a famous civil rights protest or the like. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a good picture of a single person standing up amongst a crowd, to speak out against injustice. And this one served the purpose…

She raises her hand. She attempts to play within the rules of a normal classroom, signalling that she has something to say, but is politely waiting to speak rather than shouting out. She is denied again, and harshly, being told that if she is raising her hand, it means she’s thinking about what she wants to say, rather than truly listening to what others are saying. A fair point. But, even so, this strikes me as terribly controlling, overbearing. Clearly, this is no normal American classroom. As the teacher continues to attempt to shut her down, the student continues to speak up. Finally, she says “I don’t care, because it’s wrong, and you persecuted her for standing out, and you persecuted him for standing out, and the only change that ever happens is when people stand out.” The teacher then says, “Martin Luther King…”

I was ready to applaud. I thought the girl’s reaction was precisely what the teacher was looking for – that people should not take things sitting down, that when someone demands you have to think like them, have to think their way, without questioning, that people should instead speak out. I thought the teacher was going to say “Martin Luther King spoke out against injustice. He stood up, and spoke out, when few others would, and when the status quo and the powers that be were very much in opposition to him.”

Imagine my surprise when she instead completely discredits this student’s courage, her outrage, her willingness to stand up against injustice, by saying “Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Are you in any physical danger here?” Seems to me somebody is missing the point. Martin Luther King spoke up, spoke out for what he believed in, despite the physical danger. This girl, too, stood up and spoke out, despite the dangers of a verbal chastising, detention, suspension, a failing grade, or whatever other consequences a teacher might be able to dole out.

And yet, as the video continues, we are led to believe that this student, the one student who was willing to stand up to an authoritarian presence, the one student who felt the injustice of the situation so strongly that she became quite genuinely upset, was in the wrong. That she’s the one who didn’t get it. And that all the students who simply sat there silently, accepting what the teacher told them without question, were the ones who “got” the lesson.

I don’t disagree with this teacher’s message whatsoever, of course, but I very much take issue with her methods. There is a very important lesson to be learned here about racism, to be sure, and it is a lesson that I think everyone should learn. But I do not think that being domineering and controlling is the way to do it. For such a complex, touchy, and deeply personal, topic as racism, I believe the best way to do it is to have open discussion perhaps based around readings, a film, a lecture, or the like. Allow people to ask questions. Allow people to ask why. Allow people to share what they have experienced, or what they have been taught, and help them work towards a more progressive or enlightened understanding. This is how I learned about indigenous issues in Hawaii and the Pacific (and by extension, indigenous, post-colonial and ethnic/race issues around the world), and I am extremely grateful to my professor for teaching in this manner. For understanding that if I came into the class believing certain things about the United States, about imperialism, about native peoples, it was only because that’s what we are taught in public school, and by popular media, that I am not an inherently “racist” or bad person, and that with exposure to new narratives, evidence, discussion, and debate, I can come to a new and more progressive understanding.

When you force a paradigm, a discourse, down someone’s throat, telling them you have to see it my way, you have to think how I think, without allowing for raised hands, without allowing for questions, that is how attitudes are enforced in fascist and totalitarian regimes, not here in the United States. If this were a lesson on civil disobedience, if this were a lesson on how Nazi Germany and Maoist China and totalitarian Japan ran their education system, and on why we in the free and democratic United States oppose their methods, then having the student defy the teacher, to speak out against having an ideology shoved down her throat, would be the right answer, the correct ideal outcome.

Just because your lesson, your message, is a morally superior one, an anti-racist one, does that entitle you to use such methods? How is your forcing me to unquestioningly believe one thing about race that much different from forcing me to believe a different thing about race? What sets you apart from so many others, in Germany and China and Japan, who have in such a domineering controlling way forced students to adhere to a given ideology?

I’ve heard of this “experiment” before, and indeed remember being taught about it from a very young age, albeit in a slightly different context. The metaphor was not whites and blacks, but rather Jews and Gentiles. We were taught that this was similar to how the Nazis ran their classrooms, and their society. The Jews and the Gentiles were separated, the Jews forced to wear a yellow star on their shirts identifying them as different. And so they were treated differently. And if anyone spoke out, they were not only harshly punished, but they were made an example of, so that the other students would remain in line. Adherence was reinforced not only through fear, but through ideology, making the students believe that aligning with the teacher, adhering to what teacher taught, was the right, good, proper, way to be. And in talking about this experiment, the entire point of the discussion, the entire point of the experiment, was for the students to realize that the set-up itself, the division and different treatment of people by whatever features, is unjust, is inappropriate, and is something to be opposed. In other words, within the metaphorical context of this experiment, Mrs. Elliot represents the authority figure enforcing the institution’s racism, by herself dividing people up in her classroom, and treating them differently, and as such, she should not be obeyed, but should be resisted and opposed.

Now, I don’t know what this student would have said were she allowed an opportunity to speak; many who have shared this video on Facebook have suggested that what she had to say was racist, in opposition to or resistance against the underlying lesson being taught. I’m not sure where they’re getting that from, but, have not we all struggled with our own prejudices? Have we not all struggled with the belief systems, the myths and discourses about our identities that we were raised with? Were not a great many of us raised, for example, to believe in Columbus as a great noble explorer, in Manifest Destiny and western expansion as great, noble things that allow us to have the great God-given country that we have today? Were we not taught that the United States has never been an imperialist/colonialist power, and that in fact, the US is from its origins, ultimately anti-imperialist & anti-colonialist? As someone who has myself struggled very much with unlearning these lessons we’ve all been taught in the past, and as someone who has often felt personally under attack simply for being who I am – accused of being racist, misogynist, imperialist, oppressor, purely because I am a white male from a well-off suburban New York family, regardless of my actual beliefs, attitudes, experiences, actions – and most importantly, as someone raised from a very young age with stories of how the Nazis spread and reinforced their ideology, I sympathize very much with wanting to stand up, to speak out, against the forceful blanket imposition of an ideology, whether that ideology is good or bad.

What lesson have these students learned? That Ms. Elliot is a harsh bitch? That one should not ask questions, should not question or challenge, or even consider or think about what a teacher tells you, but should just accept it at face value because she’s the teacher, and she’s right? Is that the lesson we want our students to learn? Is that what it means to be an American?

The list of things that disgust and appall me about this video could fill numerous pages. But I think this post is long enough as is, and so I shall leave it here.

Laura Willard, who created the post on Upworthy, writes “Many years ago, I could have been the girl who walked out, not understanding how this feels to the people it affects. I’m glad that’s no longer the case.” As for myself, not that long ago, I too could have been the girl who walked out. I’m glad that my teachers welcomed me back into the room more warmly, less harshly, using discussion to help me come around, rather than excluding me as harshly as this teacher, Jane Elliot, does here. I am glad that my teachers allowed me to ask questions, so that I could work through the answers myself, to come to decide for myself what I believe, and why I believe it, for such is a much stronger, more genuinely belief than something you are forced to agree to, simply because your teacher said so.

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I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about this exhibit, especially since I said so much already before even seeing the exhibition. But, since the review I posted yesterday ended up being so long, I broke it off and am now writing a Part Two, focusing on prominent Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura.

Shimomura is, of course, one of the real stars of the show. Or, at least, it is to me, as I’ve heard of him before and really like his work. Much of the media for this show focuses on his piece Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, and I have already discussed it myself, too, so I’ll keep it limited. But, just two things about it that make that piece even more incredible than I thought originally – one, that the silhouette of the original piece (George Washington and friends, in their boat) can be seen in the background, a seemingly minor detail, perhaps, which actually alters the narrative of the piece fairly dramatically. Shimomura is not replacing Washington, after all, but only upstaging him. Throughout American history, Asian-Americans have been, essentially, also-rans, or footnotes. Here, Shimomura places himself in the forefront and in the spotlight, implying something about a narrative of American history in which Washington and his ilk are still present, and still play out their important and influential historical roles, but in which Asian-Americans are shown to be Americans as well, to be present in the narrative. On a second note, I really like that Shimomura made his piece on roughly the same scale as the original now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum. It gives his piece grandeur, power, and impact, and also, if we want to read into it, says something about his piece, himself, and Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans in general, not being smaller or lesser.


In some of the other pieces included in the exhibition, Shimomura addresses American stereotypes of Japanese, along two different lines. In American Hello Kitty and American Pikachu, Shimomura incorporates a self-portrait into the iconic cartoon characters, commenting, I guess, on American associations of Japan with anime (above all else). Frankly, I’m not quite sure exactly what he’s going for here. Is it meant to be a criticism? Is it a bad thing to associate Japan primarily/chiefly with anime? The Japanese government has been actively pushing quote-unquote “Cool Japan” for the last several years, as part of a concerted effort to expand Japanese soft power, and to thereby increase pro-Japan sentiments. Would Shimomura prefer that we associate Japan instead with negative things? That is, unless Shimomura’s whole point is not about Japan, but is instead about how we associate Japanese-Americans with Japanese culture rather than with American identity. If that’s it, that makes a lot more sense… especially in consideration of the themes of his other works.


Another set of works, titled American vs Japs and American vs Japs 2 depict Shimomura, painted relatively realistically, punching and kicking cartoonish stereotypical “Japs” drawn in the style of 1940s American propaganda. My kneejerk reaction is to see this as a terribly outdated battle. It’s not the 1940s anymore, and depictions of Japan in US mass media today doesn’t resemble this propaganda at all. Yet, on second thought, I realize that there are far too many in this country who, sadly, have not gotten the memo, and still hold onto completely outdated notions of anti-Japanese hatred. Comments of “that was for Pearl Harbor” and the like, as well as much worse vitriol, have appeared in disgustingly vast numbers on Internet forums and the like during US-Japan sporting events, and, perhaps most upsettingly of all, during the 3/11 disaster. Is this what Shimomura is fighting against? Actually, I kind of doubt it. Perhaps he’s more fighting that he (and other Americans) be the target of these attitudes, moreso than actually fighting against those attitudes existing. This is just my guess, based on his personal history of having been imprisoned in the WWII-era Internment Camps, and all the surrounding issues of Japanese-Americans as loyal Americans, being continually seen as not American enough, or as still foreign. I don’t know how much Shimomura has any real connections with Japan… from what little I know about him and his work, he’s much more focused on Japanese-American issues.

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