Promo shot from the production of The Mikado at the center of the controversy.
KIRO radio host Dave Ross, who is in the Mikado production that has stirred up a stinging but very interesting conversation about race in theater (two in the cast are Latino, the rest are Caucasian), "interviews" Sharon Pian Chan, the Seattle Times columnist who said the production was racist yellowface—but he's not really interviewing her. He's trying to mount a sputtering white-liberal defense of himself as a nice, non-racist guy who just wants people to have fun at his amateur theater show. Meanwhile, she's trying to explain that just because he can't see a problem doesn't mean there isn't a problem.
It's a master class in what not to do if someone disrupts your pleasant, moderate-liberal fantasy and suggests that you might have made a mistake.
You really should listen to this entire thing. As Slog tipper Adam described it: "The Gilbert and Sullivan society could not ask for a worse spokesperson." I don't know if that's true—but I spent those 12 minutes cringing.
As Chan patiently walks Ross through some of the issues, he pours all his mental energy into deflection and denial: What about people dressing up as geishas for Halloween? What's wrong with that? (There's a difference, she explains, between dressing up as a specific Asian person—Kim Jong Il, for example—and as a generic race-person.) What about people in martial arts classes who "sometimes wear a very non-Western... I forget what they call it"? Are the tae kwon do students racist? (No, she says, that's just a uniform.) What about people who aren't Polish who dress up like Polish people and dance the polka? Are they being racist? (Power dynamics are key—dressing up like a Canadian mountie is not the same as dressing like a Latin American farmer who can't afford shoes.) Do you want to live in a country where you have to carry your passport so people can see what race you are, which determines what you can and can't do? "I've been to those countries," Ross says with grim authoritativeness. "It's not very pretty."
Around the 4:50 mark, she finally gets tired of pretending like she's talking to a peer and breaks out the Cultural Politics 101, first-day-of-class explanation: There is a history of white people dressing up like "ethnic" people and it's an ugly one, so if you're going to do that you'd better have a damn good reason.
"It's racial caricature," she says. "Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not there."
Ross comes back with the amazing and petulant retort: "Well, just because you see it doesn't mean it is there—unless, I mean, do you speak for all Asians?"
The idea, thought up by academic Robin DiAngelo, is basically this:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.
This explains a lot, including why Ross does logical loop-de-loops trying to explain why this Mikado isn't a thorny issue. By his reckoning, he's just a guy, his intentions aren't racist, and he just wants his audience to have a good time—so what's the problem?
The problem, it seems, is actually the blinders—the inability to engage meaningfully in the conversation. According to the white fragility model, because white folks have the choice to move through the world not thinking about race very often, our race-thinking muscles atrophy and we (unless we consciously do some hard work thinking about these things) can collapse under the slightest weight when it comes to talking about it. We start to sputter, and get defensive, and become angrily dismissive instead of staying calm and talking it out in a sensible way.
Exhibit A: The Ross-Chan conversation.
A lot of people—including the African American business manager of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society—have been writing about the history of The Mikado, and the fact that it's set in Japan but its sights were really set on British social institutions, so it's not actually making fun of Japanese people. Or it's making fun of British people by way of making fun of Japanese people. (Which still raises some problems: "Us whites are as backwards, capricious, and savage as The Ethnics!" is not firm ground I'd choose to fight for.)
But as I wrote yesterday, even if that's true, one thing is crystal clear—people in Seattle have been looking for an excuse to talk about performing race and they flock to conversationsaboutit.
I'm beginning to wonder if these conversations are really a vent people are attracted to because they want to talk about race more broadly—but that's such a daunting subject, and so wide-ranging, that starting with something smaller is a pressure release.
Perhaps sombreros, kimonos, and Shakespeare are easier to chew on than prisons, poverty, and the legacy of genocide.
This whole conversation is an excellent excuse to re-watch the comic—but ultimately chilling—short film Manoj, which comedian Hari Kondabolu made before he got all famous on us. It cuts deeply into the issue of performing ethnicity onstage: