Monday, August 31, 2015

Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Please see my original post for background: Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA.

Due to the length of this post I am publishing it in three parts. I strongly urge readers to read all three parts – they were written as one piece. Please see the introduction in Part 1 for comments on my bias.

Part 1: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: media, public, critics
Part 2: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: protesters

(continued from Part 2)


I wrote a lot about what I thought the MFA could have done to make Kimono Wednesdays better in my original post so I won't recap that here.

The protesters have claimed victory on two of the demands they made to the MFA - one was to stop Kimono Wednesdays (they felt that ending the try on was a partial victory) and the other was their demand for "a public discussion."
"[W]e demand that the MFA organize a public discussion where the organizers of this event and other community members and artists of color are invited as panelists. The MFA stated in its July 1 memo that “The Museum is a place for dialogue and we appreciate your feedback.” We demand that the MFA, then, honor their stated commitment to dialogue by holding this public discussion."
The Boston Globe reported last month that "incoming MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum, who arrives in August, has announced plans for a future symposium, developed with input from MFA audiences, on art history and traditions of representation." When I spoke with Deputy Director Katie Getchell on July 22nd she told me that their plan for the symposium is to find published scholars to talk about these issues. The symposium will present the topic of representation broadly and will not be focused only on Asian art.

On July 15th, one of the protest organizers tweeted that the MFA "has agreed to hold a symposium about cultural exchange in the modern age!" " is happy that is hearing us and we hope that they continue as we plan the symposium together with the public. ". They claimed that they would be planning the symposium with the MFA but that is not what Ms. Getchell told me. She said that the MFA had invited feedback from the protesters but that they were planning the symposium by themselves and had already begun researching published scholars to invite. (Update 1/6/16: The MFA went a different direction with the panel and it will now be focused on Kimono Wednesdays and was planned with Decolonize Our Museums.)

I was very surprised with the MFA’s decision to allow the protesters to remain in the gallery for all six weeks of Kimono Wednesdays. I went on weeks 4, 5, and 6 and I felt there was significant tension in the gallery. Visitors would occasionally yell at the protesters and I talked to some who felt uncomfortable with their presence or just thought it was completely inappropriate to have a protest in a museum. (See "The Protesters" for more on the protesters' behavior in the gallery.) I was especially surprised that the MFA didn’t ask them to leave during week 6 after the incident with the staffer, though perhaps they realized the protesters would have a field day if they had kicked them out. The MFA did have increased security during Kimono Wednesdays which the protesters complained about and implied was a racist act. It made perfect sense to me. There were often a lot of people in the gallery and the MFA had no idea what the protesters were going to do or how the visitors would respond to the protesters. It was not the responsibility of the docents to keep their eyes on the protesters and with a gallery full of millions of dollars of art it was the responsible choice. Protective services mostly stood off to the side and didn't speak to anyone unless they had a reason to. From what I saw they were very professional.

The National Coalition Against Censorship was critical of the MFA's decision to self-censor and stop the try on portion of Kimono Wednesdays. I said before that I hope the MFA will adopt NCAC's Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy. I asked Ms. Getchell what the MFA planned to do and she said they are discussing "protocol for future situations." You can read the MFA's response to NCAC here.

It seems like social media played a big role in turning this into something and I think the MFA responded too slowly. I believe it was around two weeks between the time the controversy erupted on their Facebook page after they paid Facebook to advertise Kimono Wednesdays beyond their followers (I got this information from Ms. Getchell) and when they responded on July 7th with the change in programming. It's possible that a faster response still wouldn't have appeased the protesters and others who found Kimono Wednesdays offensive but these days with social media, organizations have to respond to controversy more rapidly. I hope that whatever protocol they come up with will include the ability for them to have a faster social media response.

On their now deleted original event page, the protesters said:
"The act of non-Japanese museum staff throwing these kimonos on visitors as a “costume” event is an insult not only to our identities, experiences, and histories as Asian-Americans in America, but affects how society as a whole continues to typecast and deny our voices today…A willingness to engage thoughtfully with museum employees and visitors on the bullshit of this white supremacist ‘costume’ event are [sic] welcome."
This seems to imply that had the MFA put their Japanese and Asian American staff front and center that the protesters might not have been as offended. At the very least they wouldn't have been able to pigeonhole the event into their white supremacist narrative if Asians had been visibly involved. While I do think that it would have been nice of the MFA to try to involve Japanese people in the community, I agree with their decision not to ask their Japanese staff to participate in Kimono Wednesdays given that it fell outside the scope of their responsibilities. The event was planned by the Education Department in consultation with some Japanese curatorial staff according to Barbara Martin, Curator of Education. Why should Japanese staff be trotted out to represent their country? It seems disingenuous to say that authentic cultural sharing can only happen when an actual Japanese person is doing the sharing. (For more on this see "The Protesters".)

Although the protesters have assumed that an all white staff planned Kimono Wednesdays, that’s not something we know (I did not get a clear answer when I asked about the racial make up of the team that planned the event). One can guess that a diverse team would have planned the event differently but given the variety of opinion among Asian Americans I don’t believe that a version of Kimono Wednesdays planned by a diverse team would have necessarily satisfied the protesters. Much of their ideology seems to be outside the mainstream and museums have to plan their events with all visitors in mind, not just the white ones, on whom the protesters have focused their attention.

We do not know what the racial make-up of the MFA's nearly 1,000 employees and hundreds of volunteers is. My impression from my three visits last month was that like the rest of American society in front of house positions, people of color (mainly black people and Latinos) are largely employed in unskilled positions. I saw many people of color working in coat check, food service, and custodial. There were more white people in customer service positions (ticket booth, visitor information, docents) and protective services where fluency in English and possibly other languages likely plays a role in who gets those jobs.

The protesters are right that there’s not a lot of racial diversity in museology at the curatorial level but that is a problem the whole field is going to have to address, not just the MFA. I once worked for a graduate school professor who was often asked why there were no women in her research group. Her response was that she can’t accept them if they don’t apply. Museum studies programs will have to figure out how to attract people of color into the field since as the demographics of the US change, they will also have to figure out how to attract more visitors of color to survive. Core museum visitors are currently 91% white (see chart on page 5 of Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums). Museums will have to figure out how to tailor their programming to a more racially diverse audience, something that a more racially diverse curatorial workforce will be better equipped to do.

My Role

A lot of people I know couldn't understand why I spent so much time following the protests and writing about them. When I was first asked by a reader how non-Japanese Asian Americans could help I felt a responsibility to respond publicly after seeing that no Japanese Americans appeared to be involved with the protest. I had initially planned to write only one post but I was frustrated by the protesters appearing to be speaking for me and by their continual dismissiveness of Japanese and Japanese Americans who tried to engage with them on Facebook and at the museum. I’m used to not having representation or being allowed to speak in white society/spaces but to have that happening with other Asian Americans was outrageous and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. It’s totally unacceptable to be complaining that white people aren’t listening to you while you’re simultaneously refusing to listen to Japanese Americans, Japanese nationals, and other Asian Americans with differing opinions. If you’re complaining about oppression it’s hypocritical to then be oppressing others.

After talking to a few people who didn't agree with the protesters I wanted to make sure our view was represented since the media wasn't doing anything to share our view. I tried to keep an open mind even though I could see that I didn't agree with the protesters and tried to stick to boosting Japanese and Japanese American voices and combating misinformation on all sides. I tried not to make assumptions about who the protesters are or what they stand for but it became apparent pretty quickly that we approach the world very differently. I have become more critical of the protest and protesters in part because of the feedback I've received from Japanese, Japanese Americans, and other Asian Americans but also because I have felt compelled to speak out and say that I don't believe this group's ideology or values represent the views of most Asian Americans. I do accept that it's possible I haven't heard from enough people, but since I've talked to people both in Boston and across the country, I'm hoping I have a reasonable sample.

One thing I failed to pick up on when I was writing my initial response to the controversy was that the definitions of "racism" and "white supremacy" the protesters are using come from critical race theory and are echoed in black nationalism and Black Lives Matter. I've been criticized for using dictionary definitions. I think dictionary definitions are important because they tend to be the most widely accepted and used. If you're using a definition that is only understood by academics, legal scholars, feminists, and the social justice community, you can't expect the public to understand what you're talking about. I also have fundamental issues with critical race theory and don't accept these definitions but I'm sure it would have been helpful for the thousands of people who read my original post if I had been able to explain the protesters' definitions.

One random Japanese American on the Internet called my Japanese American cred into question because she seemed to think that all I was doing was parroting the Japanese view and that since I found the protesters' behavior rude I was, "Typical Japanese". I really didn't know what to do with that. It's not her business to classify my identity anymore than white people should be questioning the identities of people of color. She refused to believe that some Japanese Americans aren't offended by the MFA's actions and didn't think that Kimono Wednesdays were in any way racist. This controversy has unfortunately caused or perhaps revealed all sorts of divisions among Asian Americans. I guess it shouldn't come as any surprise that we don't all share the same views, but it's beyond disappointing to me that Asian Americans think it's okay to attack others and police the identity of others within our own community.

It was troubling to me that a blogger who writes mostly about ramen (me) was the most vocal Japanese American/Asian American commenting on the controversy. I would have liked to have seen more people, especially academics, Asian Americans in the arts and in the media, and community leaders and organizations weighing in.

Final Thoughts

One critic called the protesters "extremists" and I remember when I read that something clicked into place for me. They seem to hold a fringe viewpoint that the majority of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans I talked to don’t hold and their call to action to protest the MFA for four additional Wednesdays even after the MFA made changes to Kimono Wednesdays is an extreme way of dealing with what I see as merely an inappropriately marketed minor event.

It's difficult to assess whether or not the protests were successful since no one really understands what their goals were. They did not stick to their main point, which I think was that the MFA was contributing to the stereotype of Japanese women as exotic (and by extension, all women of East Asian descent who are mistaken for Japanese) and that they were demanding the MFA correct and address this transgression in a very specific manner that didn’t allow room for the Japanese view, the dissenting Japanese American view, or any other views.

If their goal was merely to draw attention to the MFA's actions then they succeeded. If their goal was to draw attention to themselves, that too was a success. However, I don't think their stated goals of more education and dialogue were successfully met. They have forced the MFA to think more critically about their programming and this may mean that the MFA will be more careful in the future, but much of the public wrote them off and are no longer willing to listen to them. However, they tweeted that they are meeting with the MFA's new director, Matthew Teitelbaum, so I'm sure that they would see the protest as a success. Prior to this it was my understanding that they had not been given a sit-down meeting with anyone in the MFA's administration which seemed to imply the MFA was not interested in working with them, but I guess that's not the case.

Looking at their "LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES" the protest had mixed success. They demanded:
  1. "An apology" – This demand was not met. They didn't accept the MFA's statement as a sufficient apology although it was characterized as such by some media outlets. They demanded, "a formal apology through multiple media outlets and on social media," which was never going to happen.
  2. "Stop “Kimono Wednesdays”" – Although they acknowledged that their demand to have people stop trying on the uchikake "was met July 7" they complained that, "The updated event, which invites people to “touch and engage with [the kimonos],” continues to be inappropriate without proper mediation and acknowledgement of the Orientalism of cultural appropriation of dress and the implications of the Orientalist gaze on often-exotified and thus dehumanized femme bodies especially given the past three weeks of museum-facilitated Orientalism. Though the replica uchikake may be a work of art in itself (the Orientalist underpinnings of its commission remaining highly problematic), a partner AAPI organization might facilitate this type of hands-on knowledge-exchange with careful curation." The event carried on for the remaining four weeks so their efforts to stop Kimono Wednesdays altogether were unsuccessful. It isn't clear to me and many others how NHK's commission of the uchikake has "Orientalist underpinnings". 
  3.  "Change the Spotlight Talk from “Flirting with the Exotic” to a more critical public discussion" – This demand was partially met. The title of the Spotlight Talk was changed to "Claude Monet: La Japonaise," and the content of the talks was expanded to include some topics that the protesters wanted to see included. The MFA will be hosting a symposium "on art history and traditions of representation," per The Boston Globe but although the protesters claimed victory on their demand for "the MFA [to] organize a public discussion where the organizers of this event and other community members and artists of color are invited as panelists," the symposium that is being organized is not on this topic, nor are the protesters involved in organizing it as they have claimed. (Update 1/15/16: The MFA changed direction on the symposium and worked with the protesters to plan it.)
  4. "Change the placards to acknowledge and explain the history of the museum’s art" – This appears to be a broader demand relating to all of the museum's art since the acquisition of La Japonaise is not controversial and wouldn't shed any light on its history. The MFA has given no indication that this demand will be met.

A critic posted this Stephen Fry meme with a quote from a 2005 interview with The Guardian to the protest Facebook page.
"It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that", as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. "I'm offended by that." Well, so fucking what?"
It’s harsh, but it’s a good question. In a piece for Little Atoms titled, "The dangerous allure of victim politics," Jamie Bartlett, Director of The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media quotes Dr. Ian Buruma, currently Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, from a 1999 piece titled, "The Joys and Perils of Victimhood" (pdf):
"Victims, he said, “cannot escape a momentary feeling of vicarious virtue”.  ... What he spotted was a bigger trend at play, where ‘communal identity is based on sentimental solidarity of remembered victimhood’. People were increasingly desirous to wear the scars of others, almost as a badge of honour."
While we should never forget the trauma faced by past generations of Asians and Asian Americans in the US, I don’t think that every act of racism or cultural misunderstanding should be linked back to the Japanese American incarceration, Hiroshima (another one they brought up), or other historic events. We would be better served by doing things like expanding K-12 curriculums to include Asian American history as part of US history, to go after Hollywood for their continual perpetuation of Asian and Asian American stereotypes, and to speak out against politicians who scapegoat Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.

Bartlett also ties together general victimhood with being a victim of Internet trolling:
"Of course feelings do matter, but how someone feels about something should not be the sole arbiter of how decisions are made. Of course it's difficult to understand what it’s like being a victim unless you are one (there's a bustling academic literature on 'micro-aggression' about this). But this makes it incredibly difficult to make reasoned judgements about who is and who is not a legitimate victim, since everyone can find a way to feel oppressed, either historically, vicariously or presently."
"I suspect the internet makes this worse, because it provides unlimited opportunity to find reasons to feel victimised and assert that claim to the world. Take the modern scourge, internet trolling. Many people – I’ve documented some of them in my book The Dark Net – are genuinely tormented and terrorised by trolls. Others appear to almost revel in it. If you’re not getting trolled, you’re obviously not famous enough.  It is very rarely mentioned that the victims of trolls are often far more often privileged, wealthy, happy, and successful than their perceived oppressors, who are often frustrated, jealous, and lonely."
The protesters were accused by some critics of wallowing in their victimhood. It wasn't clear to me initially that they were doing that, but over the course of the protest it did appear that they were incapable of presenting themselves as anything but victims. They were victims of the MFA, the white power structure, the trolls, and any white guy who had ever said "konnichiwa" or "nĭ hăo" to them. They used all of these examples as proof they were on the right track in speaking their truth. Although they claim to want White America to stop othering them, by claiming the mantle of victimhood they set themselves apart, which likely prevented the public from gaining any understanding of the issues at hand or of what the protesters have been through as Asian American women, something which Dr. Buruma theorized about:
"I think the tendency to identify authenticity in communal suffering actually impedes understanding among people. For feelings can only be expressed, not discussed or argued about. This cannot result in mutual understanding, but only in mute acceptance of whatever people wish to say about themselves, or in violent confrontation."
I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out what I was missing about the disconnect between the protesters and most of the rest of society and then I stumbled across an interesting piece (tl;dr: see appearance on CNN) by Dr. John McWhorter this week (via his appearance on The Glenn Show). His theory is that "Antiracism is now a religion."
"To say one is not to question is not to claim that no questions are ever asked. The Right quite readily questions Antiracism’s tenets. Key, however, is that among Antiracism adherents, those questions are tartly dismissed as inappropriate and often, predictably, as racist themselves. The questions are received with indignation that one would even ask them, with a running implication that their having been asked is a symptom of, yes, racism’s persistence."
Using Dr. McWhorter’s analogy I think the critics are akin to heretics from the protesters’ point of view and this also explains why the protesters were unable to answer basic questions about flaws in their logic.
"It is inherent to a religion that one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief. Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely—and the answer one gets, despite being somewhat half-cocked, is to be accepted as doing the job."
I think the protest probably speaks to larger issues of disenfranchisement among some Asian Americans. I realized as the weeks went by that people seemed to be asking all the wrong questions. The public was very focused on the identities of individual protesters and the ways in which some of them seemed to engage in hypocritical behavior in their own lives. Critics tried to understand what within the protesters would drive them to protest – imagined family grievances towards Japan, mental health issues, boredom. People demanded that they address these questions but no one was asking what is it about American society that would drive these Asian Americans to protest at the MFA. 

Do we have race problems in the US that involve Asians? Absolutely. Are some of those problems rooted in structural racism and historical inequality? Of course. Do I think that means that primarily white-run organizations such as the MFA shouldn’t be permitted to have events about the art of my homeland? No. Do I think white museumgoers shouldn’t be permitted to don a theatrical kimono replica for five minutes without receiving a detailed history lesson on racism against Asians in modern day America and 19th century France, kimono-making techniques, and the cultural significance of kimono in Japan? No. I think the protesters and I may agree on some of the larger issues, but I won't ever be able to support their tactics. This was not a life and death situation warranting extreme action. This was a minor mistake by an art museum. I think sometimes it's more important to spark curiosity than to force education upon people. I'm more than certain that Kimono Wednesdays could do that for those who didn't already have an extensive knowledge of Japanese culture. I think that treating people with respect, even those you consider to be an adversary, is vitally important. I'm a firm believer that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

It seemed that most white people dismissed the protest because they felt that since most of the protesters were non-Japanese Asian Americans and white allies they weren't really qualified to be demanding how the MFA should present Kimono Wednesdays. But I also read some commentary from people who felt guilty after hearing about it or who are so afraid of being accused of being racist that they stuff yukata and kimono they've received or bought deep into their closets when they're back in the States. That makes me sad.

I don’t believe the answer to all perceived racism is that all events should be shut down, people’s free speech rights should be infringed in the name of political correctness, artists' artistic expression should be curtailed so as not to risk the dreaded cultural appropriation. I think instances of perceived racism should be used as a vehicle for sparking dialogue on all sides, not just the offended side. Too often, offended parties aren’t interested in hearing why offending parties did what they did or said what they said. Bartlett writes that "progressives sometimes attribute a kind of superior virtue or presumed authority to those who are victimised, and a reluctance to disagree with anyone who claims to feel like a victim." The oppressed often assume the rightness of their cause because "racism."

Maybe the actions of the offending parties are inexcusable but I see a lot of Asian Americans imagining that they know what white people think which is as ludicrous as white people imagining they know what we think. We have to be willing to listen to their side as well and if there are gaps in their knowledge that might help them understand why what they did was offensive to some then we should attempt to educate, but understand that no amount of education can force a white person to adopt antiracist behavior. We're all at different stages of ethnic identity development and we all develop in our own time. White people also have to develop in their own time.

Something I noticed since I started following the controversy was how little white Americans understand about Asian American identity and culture. I saw a lot of commentary written by white people imagining what they thought we think and feel. They did seem to understand that Japanese Americans are distinct from Chinese Americans and other ethnic groups, but they didn't seem to understand that Asian American experiences can vary wildly depending on your location (Hawaii and West Coast Asian Americans who live in high Asian population areas have a very different experience from those of us who live on the East Cost and in other parts of the country), what (immigration) generation you are, your level of educational attainment, your class, what field you work in, and the choices you make about what degree you want to assimilate into American society versus sticking with your own kind.

I think it's unfair to hold the MFA responsible for futhering dialogue when this is something that many of us don't do ourselves. Rebecca Carroll, opinion writer for The Guardian, thinks that the reason we don't include white people in conversations on race is because "for the most part, they are not conversant on the subject." I think the reasons are much more complex than that. Some of us don't talk to white people about race because we're busy trying not to draw attention to our foreignness. Some of us don't talk to white people about race because when we try, they seem uninterested. Some Asian Americans may not be that conversant in the subject themselves. We all have lived experience that we can talk about, but not everyone has studied Asian American history and it's rarely covered in K-12 curriculums. If our families and friends don't educate us and we don't take an interest in it ourselves, we might not know much about the historical treatment of Asians in America from racist immigration policies to anti-miscegenation laws to the history of the Citizenship Clause in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution to the Japanese American incarceration.

I didn't realize when I started blogging three years ago that with the choice of my subject, "Japanese & Japanese American stuff around the Greater Boston area & beyond," I was demanding to be seen as Japanese-American. Many of my friends expressed surprise after reading a few posts and said, "But I don't think of you as Asian." What? Have you seen me with my thick mane of silky black hair, my round face, and my large but still almond-shaped eyes? Not one day of my life has gone by when I haven't been aware of my Japanese-ness. Whether it's feeling weird when I have to wear shoes inside someone's house, craving ochazuke when I'm sick, or my preference for Japanese office supplies, there's always something to remind me that I'm not entirely American. It's taken me many years to be comfortable with who I am. I couldn't have written this blog 10 years ago.

Writing the blog has caused me to stop self-censoring as much around my white friends and acquaintances. Some have been open to it and happy to learn, while others have been hostile and told me that I think and talk too much about race. I don't think I think and talk too much about race, but then, I don't have the luxury that white people have of being able to say, "I don't want to think/talk about race." The Daily Show made this point in a great segment last August after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri started. I think the vast majority of us think about race every day, even if only on a subconscious level when we’re watching stereotyped portrayals of our people on TV or walking into a room where we’re the only person of color or when our coworkers are telling racist jokes and thinking that's okay. Apparently there are some people of color who manage to escape racism for most of their lives, but most of us face it on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.

If you're Asian American and don't talk to your white or other non-Asian friends about race, try it some time and see what happens. If you're white and your friends of color don't talk to you about race, ask them if they're willing to share their thoughts and experiences with you. Try to approach the conversation with an open mind and to approach your friends with respect. Do not assume you know what their life experiences are. The conversations may not be comfortable but you're guaranteed to learn something.

– The Dalai Lama

It is very likely that there may be parts of the controversy I didn't touch upon in the postmortem either because I forgot or because I didn't hear or read about it. If you think there is something that I have missed, please leave a comment. If there's enough to do a follow-up post I'll consider writing one.


There are a lot of people I should thank but I think some of them might prefer not to be named so rather than ask permission I just won’t name most of them. I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to talk to me and share their thoughts and those of their friends and acquaintances. Thanks also to local community leaders for taking the time to talk and email with me about what was going on. Thank you to the couple of protesters I’ve spoken with, all the MFA staff who spoke and emailed with me, and to Timothy Nagaoka for organizing the counterprotest and ensuring that Japanese voices were heard. Thanks to my dear friend Izumi from whom I’m always learning new things about kimono! A very special thanks to Barbara and Jan for helping me think a lot of things through. Their contributions are scattered throughout my blog posts. Without their friendship I would not be sane after the past couple of months. :)

I must also thank Jim Monsonis, my former sociology professor, for seeing a gap in the curriculum and teaching an Asian American studies module. And thank you to my parents for sending me to college and insisting I stay in school when I wanted to quit to work at an NGO in a developing nation. Kids: stay in school!

My coverage would not have been possible without Google Search, Google Translate, Wikipedia English & 日本, and many other websites. Hooray for the Internet!

  • I decided early on that I would not name the protesters, post photos of their faces, or link directly to their personal social media accounts or specific posts they made on Facebook. I know that the protesters have chosen to put their names and faces out there, but as I became aware of the level of harassment they were facing I tried to balance my desire to continue writing about the protest without contributing to the harassment. I talked with one of the protest organizers on July 22nd and explained my policy and they thanked me.
  • You may have noticed a lot of links for terminology and idioms in this post. I added those to help non-native English speakers and people unfamiliar with those terms.

Further Reading

Reports, Statistics, and Guides

Articles and Papers


  • 9/2/15: Added link to John McWhorter's appearance on CNN Tonight
  • 9/8/15: Added link to NCAC's Kimonos and Controversy: What the Boston MFA Got Wrong
  • 1/16/16: Updated that the protesters' demand #3 was met. They worked with the MFA on the symposium.

Related posts

Part 2: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: protesters

Protest sign at July 15, 2015 Kimono Wednesdays protest

Please see my original post for background: Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA.

Due to the length of this post I am publishing it in three parts. I strongly urge readers to read all three parts – they were written as one piece. Please see the introduction in Part 1 for comments on my bias.

Part 1: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: media, public, critics
Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading

(continued from Part 1)

The Protesters

The final protest was the first time I saw the protesters holding two signs invoking Japanese American human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama (see also Wikipedia). The signs read "CHANNEL YOUR INNER... Kochiyama" and "CHANNEL YOUR INNER CAMILLE KOCHIYAMA". Sansei author Jan Morrill, who has been researching Ms. Kochiyama's life and work after learning that it parallels the lives of one of her characters in an upcoming book, told me that as far as she can tell the protesters are not following in Ms. Kochiyama's footsteps. She directed me to Ms. Kochiyama's creed, something that she wrote in 1939 at age 18. It was published in her memoir, Passing It On (pp. xxiv-xxv) with the following introduction: "My family found something I wrote long ago as a teenager. While my religious and political beliefs have changed quite a bit since 1939, my basic personal values and philosophy of life have remained the same." You can read it in full in this article (One error on Ohmynews: "resettlement" should be "resentment". Good catch @CYamatin!) These were the sections that stood out to me and most definitely were not exemplified by the protest itself or the behavior of many individual protesters (emphasis mine).

"My Creed...22"
"To never humiliate or look down on any person, group, creed, religion, nationality, race, employment, or station in life, but rather to respect."
"To love everyone; to never know the meaning of hate, or have one enemy. (An enemy, to me, is only created in one's mind). Should another dislike me or hate me because of some of my weaknesses, my actions, or what I have said, or how I have felt, or through prejudice, I will accept it without resentment, but all the while I will do all in my personality to better my ways and make myself acceptable.

To stay on the same "side of the track" as whoever I am with, but still live within the limits of my own ideals. Regardless of whatever my actions seem wrong in the eyes of society, I will do that which I am doing as long as I am not infringing on the happiness of another, hurting another, and as long as I can look at myself without feeling ashamed.

To never harbor a feeling that someone has been unfair to me, but rather to feel in such a case, that I deserved it; to take every disappointment, disillusion, sorrow, and grief as a part of life; to never expect another to be indebted to help me, but should I be able to help anyone, to be grateful that I could be of use.

To give the advantage, but never to ask for it; to be strict with myself, but not with others; to be humble enough to stoop to any degree as long as it is in service and another."

From the very beginning the protesters seemed to be doing everything possible to alienate potential allies including fellow Asian Americans. One of the criticisms that I saw early on was that their original name "Stand Against Yellow-Face @ the MFA" was offensive to Asian Americans. I found it absurd and offensive and refused to use it in any of my posts. I saw commentary from Asian Americans saying that the protest group's name was the most offensive thing about the whole situation. Some people couldn't understand the name because they didn't see how dressing up as a white woman was equivalent to yellowface. In spite of the criticism they stuck with that name for four weeks before rebranding as "Decolonize Our Museums", which it seems people find even less understandable than their first name.

One major misstep they made was allowing their white allies to tell Asian Americans how they should be feeling about the protest. I understand that sometimes this happened because the protesters were tired of engaging with the public on Facebook but it should not have been permitted. It was somewhat ironic given that one of the protesters' main complaints against the MFA is that due to the white power structure Asian Americans and other people of color are represented in ways they don’t want us to be represented, yet they were allowing white allies to represent the protest and speak for them. I asked a white friend who has done social justice work about this and she said that the first thing she was told when she started that work was that white allies are never allowed to speak to people of color. They are there for support and to talk to other white people but you absolutely never have them telling people of color how they should feel or taking them to task if they don’t support the protest.

There was also some feeling from Japanese and Japanese Americans that the Asian American protesters who were not of Japanese descent had no right to tell them how they should feel about representations of our culture and that if there was a fight to be had with the MFA, that it was between Japanese/Japanese Americans and the MFA, not other Asian Americans and the MFA.

If they had taken a different approach they might have garnered more support because there are some Japanese Americans and Asian Americans who are uncomfortable with the MFA's actions. However, even those who understand some of the issues the protesters have brought up don't want to be associated with them because of their rhetoric and vitriol. I don't see that changing. They have said that they never said they were against white people wearing kimono but one of their first signs said that doing so would help you "learn what it's like to be a racist imperialist !!!today!!!" I'm not sure how else people were supposed to interpret that sign. It doesn't go after the MFA, it goes after the people trying on the kimono. The photo they've used for publicity of the person holding that sign talking to the elderly white couple in the uchikake didn't help since it made it look like they were calling the couple "racist imperialists".

Many people were critical of their use of “big words” and incomprehensible short essays on their signs which may have been an anti-intellectual dig but was a valid criticism. They called out "classism" in one of the their signs yet the language of the protest itself was elitist. It wasn’t clear to me and others, who they were trying to reach. Maybe they thought that using academic language would be appealing to rich white museumgoers but even if you’re educated, unless you studied women and gender studies or critical race theory, a lot of the lingo would be unfamiliar. Some activists argue that this argument is itself elitist because if you dumb down the language of a protest for the least educated, then you keep them down by not educating them. This isn't the argument that I'm making. I heard from plenty of educated people who weren't able to understand what the protest was about because their education was in other areas of study or because English was not their first language. By using language from critical art, race, and feminist theory they made the protest inaccessible to most of the public, especially those who lack the educational background or language fluency to understand and discuss many of the concepts they brought up.

One of the biggest criticisms I saw was that the protest seemed to be poorly researched. They appeared to get many basic facts wrong as well as making assumptions without having all the information. It is also possible they obscured the facts in an effort to fit the story to their narrative. Here is a list of what they got wrong:
  • They portrayed Kimono Wednesdays as having been dreamt up and executed by an all-white MFA staff. As has been widely reported, the uchikake replicas were commissioned by NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, and similar events were held at three museums in Japan. This was something I dug up on my own with less than a day of research.
  • They assumed that Japanese people would also be offended which goes back to the likelihood that they didn't know that this event had origins in Japan.
  • They mischaracterized the "kimono" as "dress" (though it's unclear if they meant "a dress" or "clothing") and implied that the MFA had done something wrong by using this venerable garment for a "'costume' event," perhaps not understanding that the uchikake that Camille Monet wore is actually a robe that was used in a performance (believed to be kabuki) at the Exposition universelle de 1867. This information would have been harder to find – I got it from my friend who got it from a book, however the information is available online. Of course, someone with a working knowledge of kimono would be able to deduce this, as the author of this Tumblr post did. The original uchikake didn't have some sacred significance and the replica uchikake were made by Japanese people for the express purpose of being used at "costume events". Crying foul that the MFA was using a replica costume for a costume event doesn't make sense. 
  • They didn't appear to have any idea that kimono try on is something commonly done as a Japanese cultural sharing event. They took issue with both the trying on and the photographing, something which is done at Japanese and Japanese American events all over the US.
  • They seemed to conflate japonisme and orientalism. Most people seem to understand japonisme as a celebration of Japanese influence on Western culture as distinct from orientalism which is seen as "a general patronizing Western attitude" towards all non-European societies.
  • One of their signs proclaimed, "We stand in solidarity with all marginalized people whose histories have been stolen by institutions like the MFA," which if it was meant to apply to Japanese art means they didn't research the history of Japanese art at the MFA. The MFA's first Japanese curator, Okakura Kakuzō, came to the MFA in 1904 as an expert on Japanese art. Much of their Japanese art collection came from New England collectors with a deep love of Japan. Edward Morse feared that Japan's push towards modernization would bring about the loss of Japan's historical culture and he urged his friends to help preserve "Old Japan." This is why so many of Boston's art museums have Japanese art collections. I went to see the Hokusai exhibit with a Japanese woman who told me that some of the best preserved Japanese art she has seen was that which left Japan and was cared for elsewhere. The MFA's Japanese art was not stolen.

Following these errors, the protesters invited the public to "dialogue" on their Facebook page but when the public showed up, they dismissed everyone who had a differing opinion from them:
  • Japanese Americans and Asian Americans were told that they were propping up the white supremacist power structure by failing to get on board with the protest.
  • Japanese nationals living in the US were told they just couldn't understand or didn't care because they weren't American.
  • Japanese nationals living in Japan were told their viewpoint was irrelevant because they don't understand what it's like to be an Asian or Asian American living in the US.
  • White Westerners with Japanese spouses and children were told that as white people, they couldn't possibly be Japanese and it wasn't their place to speak for their communities. They explained that the reason they had come to share the Japanese view was because most of their friends and family didn't have the necessarily English language skills to follow and participate in a conversation this complex.
  • One white woman who shared similar views with the white men living in Japan was told she was propping up the patriarchy by being on their team.
  • White people were told they were being blind to the white supremacist power structure they are part of.
  • Non-white critics were called apologists for white people.

This is not how dialogue works. The definition of dialogue is:
noun A discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem
It seemed that the protesters were only willing to speak to people who thought similarly or were genuinely confused and asking them to explain themselves, though eventually they got tired of talking to those folks and stopped engaging with the public on their Facebook pages altogether. I don’t think the protests or the online "dialogue" had to be as divisive as they were. The protesters had an opportunity to educate a lot of people because of all the media attention they got. It's possible they had better luck educating people in person or in private online but from what I could see publicly, they completely wasted the opportunity.

The protesters seemed to be approaching Kimono Wednesdays and pretty much the entire world through the lens of their Western educations. Many critics pointed out that their view was a myopic Americocentric view. They appeared completely unable to comprehend that the world doesn't revolve around America and that many more groups had a stake in an event like Kimono Wednesdays than just Asian American women. The protesters had a specific agenda and didn’t seem open to other interpretations of history and art, including the Japanese one which seems pretty relevant to me. They want the MFA to teach a very particular view of history that is uniquely American – that of the West as aggressor and appropriator. I’ve been surprised to learn just how different the Japanese view is. The assumptions that the protesters made about how Japanese people feel about Japan being forced at gunpoint to open to trade, their relationship with Monet and other artists of the time who were fascinated with Japan, and even their relationship with America today were way off-base.

La Japonaise is celebrated in modern Japan. Monet is very popular and modern Japanese are very proud of the influence Japanese artists had on his work and the work of his contemporaries. They don't seem to view it as cultural appropriation or orientalism as the protesters kept insisting it was. Many people tried to share these views with the protesters but they didn't seem interested in hearing a non-American view of the world, because "we live in America." It seems the vast majority of Japanese people are more than happy to have their culture shared, used, and "appropriated" by other cultures today. They especially love seeing foreigners wearing kimono and there are some who are working actively to promote kimono outside of Japan. (For more on this see "The Public".)

The protesters didn't appear to understand or care about the things people living in Japan were sharing with them about the possible impact of their little protest on the kimono industry and Japan's already shaky relations with their neighbors (see China–Japan relations, Japan–South Korea relationsJapan–North Korea relations). It was arrogant of the protesters to demand that the world listen to them while simultaneously refusing to listen to Japanese nationals and residents. I did wonder to what degree these fears were exaggerated but I heard them over and over again. One Japanese woman who lives in Tokyo was so concerned about the protest and what it was doing to undermine Japan's efforts to share their culture that she flew in from LA where she was working to meet with the MFA and see the protest for herself. Japanese worry that American and other Western organizations may back away from promotion of kimono because they won't want to attract this kind of controversy. Even if Japanese fears were exaggerated, the protesters' self-focused Americocentric view and denial of Japanese concerns exacerbated the situation.

Many of the critics commented on the fact that the protesters were often referencing events and treatment of Asians that happened decades ago – everything from the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin to the Japanese American incarceration during WWII. I saw only two citations from incidents this year – a police brutality incident in Alabama and American Twitter celebration of the US Women's World Cup win over Japan. We've certainly had more recent examples of racism against Asian Americans so I don't know why they didn't cite more of those examples.

Some Japanese Americans, including myself, found the protesters' use of the Japanese American incarceration in service of their arguments offensive. While it's certainly one of the most egregious examples of the racism and oppression that a group of Asians and Asian Americans have faced in the US, what happened to Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII was specific to our community and doesn't reflect what was going on for Chinese Americans and others Asians who were able to keep their freedom and who didn't show solidarity with us during the war. Chinese and Korean Americans were actively letting whites know they were not Japanese and “hate the Japs more than you do". I understand that this was a matter of survival for them, but Chinese America benefited from not being incarcerated the way Japanese Americans were. Most major US cities have a Chinatown. We’re down to three US cities with Japantowns (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose) thanks to the incarceration, the post-war Japanese American push to assimilate, and a decline in Japanese immigration. Chinese Americans have had an easier time preserving their language and cultural heritage because they didn't feel the same pressure that Japanese felt after the war to assimilate into American society. To now say this is an example of how Asian Americans are oppressed to this day is offensive when many Japanese Americans who have a family camp history don't make that connection. I see far more commonalities between the Japanese American incarceration and the treatment of Muslim Americans today (some of whom are Asian and some of whom are not) than I do with current Asian American experience. People in power continue to look to the Japanese American incarceration as a template for how to handle the War on Terror, something which Japanese Americans have continued to speak out against. Comparing Kimono Wednesdays to the Japanese American incarceration is absurd.

The protesters have sent mixed messages about what they want. When they were accused of wanting to ban art they said that was something they had never said and that all they wanted was better education. When the MFA announced that they would discontinue the uchikake try on the protesters celebrated the decision. However, they responded by continuing to demand that the MFA "Stop ‘Kimono Wednesdays’" and said they would continue to protest "because the museum is still displaying the kimono and encouraging people to touch it "under a continued and creepy orientalist gaze"." Stopping an event is the opposite of providing better education. Stopping an event results in no education. Every week their complaints shifted in response to the MFA’s actions and public reaction. I heard a lot of people say it seemed like the protesters were just looking for something to complain about. I’m sure it was more complicated than that, but the fact that their messaging was so scattered makes it unsurprising that the public was so confused.

I was disappointed but not surprised to see that the protesters did not actually back up their claim that they were for education. Prior to their July 8th protest (week 3), they did spend time preparing what they called “educational literature” –  a dense two-page printout of their “LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES” which is more akin to propaganda: “a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position.” They were blocked from distributing the fliers by “a representative” who told them it was the MFA’s “policy for visitors not to hand out flyers.” They questioned whether it was true. I contacted the MFA and confirmed that “it is the Museum’s policy that visitors are not allowed to distribute pamphlets or written materials on-site.” If they had been protesting on the sidewalk, which is city property, they would have been permitted to distribute whatever they wanted, but they chose to be in the gallery. The protesters complained at every turn that they were being victimized by the MFA (at one point complaining about the presence of their "security guards") when I think the reality was quite different. The museum bent over backwards to accommodate the protesters by allowing them to remain in the gallery and by making sure they had enough protective services staff on hand for the duration of the protests.

Many people, including Japanese Americans and Japanese felt that the mainly non-Japanese American protesters had appropriated a Japanese cultural event for their own agenda. Initially I wasn't willing to go down that road because I'm not sure that it would have mattered if the event had been related to China, Korea, Vietnam, or the Indian subcontinent, I think the protesters would have objected. However, after observing the degree to which they refused to acknowledge the views of the many dissenting Japanese, Japanese Americans, and other Asian Americans I do feel that they used Kimono Wednesdays to further their own agenda, most of which had nothing to do with Japan or representations of Asian women in America. They’ve made remarks about how Japan deserves better than this even though it seems like Japan is just fine with it. Japan has a long history working with the MFA. There is no way the MFA would have moved forward with the event if Japan had been upset about it. The protest has given the wrong impression to some members of the public that Japanese and Japanese Americans think it’s racist for white people to wear kimonos which isn’t what most of us think. The protesters have continued to act like Japan is the victim here (it's not) and we don’t have the agency or education to speak for ourselves which I, and other Japanese Americans, find incredibly patronizing.

The protesters' main objections seems to be focused around the MFA's white staff and white museumgoers. I admit that I cringed when I read that the only MFA staff the protesters saw were white, however, the idea that Japanese art can only be shared with white people in the presence of Japanese people is rather tokenizing. Japanese people don't need to be present to give white people permission to enjoy Japanese culture. The protesters also assumed that white museumgoers must have a certain level of ignorance of history. I don't understand why the protesters seemed so focused on gearing the programming towards ignorant white people. They also assumed that the only people who went to the MFA to experience Kimono Wednesdays were rich white people. Two of the counterprotesters I talked to who tried on the uchikake the first week are young and not wealthy as far as I could guess based on their talking about their shifts at work. During all three visits to the MFA last month I heard languages other than English and saw a lot of Asians as well as other people of color. Also, as I keep pointing out, the museum is free on Wednesday nights if you want it to be – admission is "by voluntary contribution" – so it's completely accessible to people who aren't wealthy.

Here's some commentary from Disorderly Politics: So . . . Can I Wear a Kimono Then?. It's a point-by-point response to the protest FAQ (please note the piece contains strong language and profanity). It is the only commentary on the protest that I've found from a black writer (Seph Rodney is from Jamaica but he didn't bring his race into his Hyperallergic piece): 
"Well, I’m black and I’m offended at you calling white people racist. Also, me, I guess. I’m still not sure if other POC are included in the whole “this promotes white supremacy” thing. This [FAQ] has done a tremendous job of acting like no slightly tan person on the face of the earth was ever interested in attending that event or angered that it was canceled after someone cried racism. It was only the whites. And those poor white people. They don’t have pseudo-intellectual bullshit to fall back on to justify how saying “making people feel bad for no other reason than their race” isn’t racist. That’s something only we coloreds have."
Much of the protest language appeared to be appropriated from the Black Lives Matter movement, something that many critics commented on. That is probably because the language that Black Lives Matter uses comes out of black nationalism and critical race theory. Although the protesters have spoken of solidarity with black and indigenous people until the last couple of weeks of the protest I didn't see that solidarity returned. Almost everything I’ve read about black and Asian solidarity has focused on what AAPIs (Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders) can do for the black community, not the other way around. I’m not sure if that’s because everyone recognizes that overall, the black community is facing more serious problems than the AAPI community or if it’s due to a failure to take AAPI issues more seriously because the big problems are only happening to some members of our community.

Many people pointed out that it was false equivalence to link Kimono Wednesdays to black social justice concerns with their appropriation of the #whitesupremacykills hashtag and signs like, "This exhibit perpetuates violence against Black and Brown bodies." I think this was where the protesters lost most people who saw that they were conflating Asian American issues with black issues. There are some Asian Americans and other people of color who see the struggles of all people of color as interconnected. While I agree with this to some degree I think it varies a lot depending on where you live and what the demographics and power structure in your community are like. Many Asian Americans are part of the power structure in Hawaii and some parts of the West Coast. Asian American parents don't sit their kids down for "The Talk" that black parents have with their kids about how to survive an encounter with the police. According to The Guardian's, "The Counted" project so far this year out of 777 people killed by the police in the United States, only 14 were Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (as of this writing). Compare that with 201 black people and 115 Hispanics/Latinos. As a group we clearly don't face the same level of lethal force by the police.

It's true that some groups that fall under the Asian American umbrella may have experiences closer to black experience (strong link with poverty) but the reality is that as a group our outcomes on many measures – educational attainment, incarceration, and homicides – are better than whites. As of July 25, 2015, there were 3,186 Asian people in federal prisons compared with 78,021 black prisoners (I couldn't find state prison numbers). As of 2009, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders experience the lowest [reported] rates of violent crime, including rape, and property crime. In 2013, 4.6% of hate crimes were due to anti-Asian bias compared to 66.5% due to anti-black or anti-African American bias. It's important to note that Asian hate crime numbers are low due to underreporting but it's difficult for me to imagine that the actual numbers are anywhere near as bad as they are for black people.

I thought that one of the major shortcomings of the protest was their lack of quotes or citations of the work of Asian American civil rights activists (see also Japanese-American civil rights activists). I only saw citations of black activists, which implied to me that the protesters were unaware of the work Asian American activists have done, which would again show that the protest was poorly researched. They made no mention of Yuji Ichioka, a nisei historian and civil rights activist who is "widely credited with coining the term "Asian American"" and was one of the founders of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the first Asian American studies program in the US. They made no mention of the fact that Japanese American arts activists elsewhere in the country have been critiquing orientalist portrayals of Japanese culture in recent years (see Tina Takemoto's Notes on Camp: From Orientalism to Incarceration and Scott Tsuchitani's Memoirs of a Sansei Geisha: Snapshots of Cultural Resistance and Lord It's the Samurai: Myth + Militarism + Man-Boy Love). The protesters didn't mention that just last year we had another local controversy when some Asian Americans protested the Providence Opera for their uncritical staging of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado last summer. That protest followed controversy the month before when the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society also staged The Mikado. (The Mikado first opened in 1885 and is now widely viewed as being an outdated stereotypical portrayal of Japanese people, though it seems that the opera being set in Japan was incidental: "I cannot give you a good reason for our ... piece being laid in Japan. It ... afforded scope for picturesque treatment, scenery and costume.")

They didn't even reference the work of sansei scholar Dr. Mari Matsuda, who is credited with the development of critical race theory. (Note: Dr. Matsuda is of Okinawan and Japanese descent and identifies as Asian American.) No disrespect to black civil rights activists, who have long inspired Asian American activists, but if you're protesting about representations of Asian culture and Asian American women, it would be more appropriate to acknowledge and reference the work of other Asian American activists than to be referencing Black Lives Matter.

The protesters linked Kimono Wednesdays to a lot of things without providing proof of their assertions. They relied heavily on their feelings and lived experience, something which they may have gotten from critical race theory, which relies on storytelling. The problem with relying on lived experience is that if your experiences are in the minority, you can always find someone else with different, if not completely opposite lived experience. Then what? Do you play janken to see whose lived experience wins? I don’t accept feelings and anecdotes as proof of a trend. I want to see original sources from reliable sites. I want to see statistics. I want to see what people with credentials are saying about it. I know I’m not alone in this. These days there’s so much false information on the Internet and people claiming to be authorities on subjects they know very little about it that it’s hard to sort out fact from fiction. Sometimes there is no clear fact or fiction but only a gray area inbetween that is open to interpretation.

I think there are a few instances in which most Asian Americans would agree that someone is being racist – if someone is using racial slurs or caricaturing Asians by ching-chonging or pulling the corners of their eyes to narrow them. But once you get into situations where an individual or organization's actions and intentions are open to interpretation, you won’t have a unified reaction. Unless you can prove that the individual or the environment is a fundamentally racist one, not everyone can agree that ignorant or culturally insensitive behavior should fall into the category of "racism" nor that the cause of this behavior is "white supremacy" and white structural racism. I think the protesters' reliance on personal stories was one of their major weaknesses. If you can't back up your assertions, there's no reason for anyone to believe you.

Another major criticism that the protesters faced was that even if you accept that there is a problem with Kimono Wednesdays, there are more important problems to address. Their response in their FAQ was, "White supremacy is a major problem in the world. This kind of programming fuels and propagates it." While I don't disagree that white structural racism is a problem, this is a much bigger and longer fight than is going to be resolved by a small protest of a small event in a museum. The protest didn't do anything to help the Asian Americans who can't read, are struggling to feed their families, or are living in the United States without authorization. Many criticized the protesters as being privileged and spoiled if the most racist problem they faced was white people trying on a kimono at an art museum. I have no idea what their socioeconomic backgrounds are but it does seem that the energy spent on these protests by the protesters and everyone who spent time covering the protests and talking about them would have been better spent on helping disadvantaged Asian Americans with more immediate problems.

I have heard mixed things about whether or not people thought the protesters behaved aggressively at the MFA. A few of these comments came from people who claimed to have seen them or spoken to them, although I think most were based on the impression the public got from the signs and photos the protesters posted of themselves engaging with museumgoers. I wrote about that here and said that I thought it depended on how you define aggressive and who you talk to. I think that for some museumgoers the protesters created a tense and intimidating environment in the Rabb Gallery. When you have 10-20 people holding signs about white supremacy and racism and glaring angrily at you it doesn't make for an environment conducive to learning. Some visitors were amused and laughed it off but I saw and heard a number who were disgusted, sometimes with the protesters and sometimes with the MFA for allowing the protesters to be there disrupting their peaceful museum experience. Museums should be safe spaces for learning but some found, and I agree, that it was difficult to concentrate surrounded by an angry group, when you could overhear heated exchanges and when you weren't sure what the protesters were going to do.

During the final protest on July 29th, I witnessed the tail end of an incident between one of the MFA's protective services staff and the protesters. You can see photos of the beginning of the incident in their Twitter feed. The part that I saw, which they make no mention of was when one of the protest organizers chased the staffer across the gallery and grabbed his arm to turn him around, shouting that what he had done was not okay and demanding his name, which they shouted after reading it on his nametag. I noticed later when I was returning from a quick trip to the Japanese Garden that his boss had sent him down the hall, most likely to de-escalate the situation. It was the first time I had seen the protesters get physical with anyone. I was surprised that the Head of Protective Services opted to let them stay for the remainder of the event.

One of the things online critics struggled to understand was the protesters' assertion that they were not racist in spite of a lot of hateful speech, mostly directed towards white people, but sometimes towards others. When confronted by a critic who identified himself as half Filipino, half black, one of the protesters called him "Uncle Tom" yet was not censured by the rest of the group. Several days later that post hadn't been deleted. Although they had a lengthy list of rules that they came up with after things got ugly on their now deleted original Facebook event page, they didn't seem to enforce it for themselves, saying that they were entitled to speak the way they were speaking because they were angry and because of their deep pain as a result of all the trauma and racism they'd faced in their lives. While it's true that many times white people will tell people of color to calm down because they can't cope with the anger, it is possible to express anger and frustration without making it personal as the protesters did.

The protesters provided this article to explain why reverse racism doesn't exist (see Can Blacks Be Racist? by Dr. David Pilgrim, founder & curator of the Jim Crow Museum, for a nuanced counterpoint to this). The formula "prejudice + power = racism" is widely credited to white organization consultant Dr. Pat Bidol-Padva's 1970 book Developing New Perspectives on Race: An Innovative Multi-media Social Studies Curriculum in Race Relations for the Secondary Level. Some people seem to have adapted it to "privilege + power = racism." Putting aside the question of whether reverse racism exists there is no doubt that the speech the protesters engaged in was hateful, harmful, and discriminatory. This included a statement about hating white people, posting memes about white people, joking about white people's tears, making cracks about weeaboos, and accusing those who had Japanese families of having an Asian fetish. When called on their behavior, they accused their critics of tone policing and respectability politics.

I've really come to hate both of these terms. While I know these things do happen to women, LGBT people, and people of color, it feels like many people use it as an excuse to behave however they want, an excuse for contempt and hatred, and an excuse to vent their anger at people they perceive to be their oppressors, which I think ultimately waters down the argument and makes it useless for those times when it's actually happening. There is a big difference between expressing your anger at the MFA and talking about how you think Kimono Wednesdays contributes to the everyday racism you face versus attacking your critics for their race, intelligence, spouse choice, interests, etc.

I will never understand why some people think it’s okay to heap all their anger on a total stranger, call them names, and then when called on it say that their opponent is tone policing them. Some of it may have been a derailment tactic but I saw plenty of legitimate calls for the protesters to stop treating people with such utter contempt. Many people clued in to the double standard and it wasn't just the people participating in the conversation but those who were just reading as well. As this writer points out, "If we don’t uphold the level of respect that we expect, we’re not helping anyone, least of all our own cause. It doesn’t matter if we’re right if no one is listening."

If you approach people with hate it often just gets reflected back at you. I saw a lot of conversations on the protest Facebook pages that they could have been de-escalated but instead the protesters escalated them and then kept going. Then they complained about all the harassment. I'm sure that there was plenty of unprovoked harassment but I think they should have just blocked all the trolls and harassers immediately and ignored them. It would have made for a better environment for everyone who had genuinely shown up to dialogue.

Something else they did repeatedly was to tell people to check their privilege. While I appreciate how frustrating it can be to have conversations with people who aren’t mindful of their privilege, shouting it at random strangers at the MFA or throwing it out in a conversation on Facebook at people who don’t even understand what it means does nothing to further dialogue. It seems to me that the only appropriate time to use it is among friends and allies who already understand its meaning. I don’t think it has any place in a conversation with strangers who aren’t versed in the language of social justice.

The protesters have said that these are just facts – that Kimono Wednesdays were racist, that white people are racist, that the system is inherently racist. These aren’t facts, these are their opinions that other people disagree with. No white person who isn’t already versed in social justice lingo is going to say "okay, you’re right" and just listen. Judging all white people by the color of their skin is no better than when white people judge people of color by the color of our skin. You don’t know that all white people are racist. Looking at a white person you don’t know if they have an AAPI, Arab, indigenous, Latino or black partner or children. Unfortunately, it seems like the protesters have a lot of preconceived notions about white people and no one likes to be told that someone else knows better than they do about their life experience and how they should be in the world, which was what they did to a lot of white people, especially the Westerners with Japanese spouses.

Some people will say that we can't hold the whole group responsible for the actions of some individual protesters and organizers. I already addressed what I think of that in "The Critics" section. Protest organizers are responsible for setting and maintaining the tone of a protest so I hold the whole group responsible. Many people said to me that it was no surprise that things had gotten ugly because it was social media after all, and the protesters are young. I don't accept the "oh, that's just how young people behave on social media these days" attitude, not to mention that the protesters are old enough to behave civilly. I'm sure the harassment was hugely stressful for them but if you're going to invite people to dialogue with you and say you've created a safe space, it needs to be a safe space for all, not just for you.

Since the protesters rebranded and set up new social media accounts I wondered if that meant they planned to carry on protesting. They confirmed that they "aren't done" on Twitter last week. It will be interesting to see if they can undo the damage they've done and move forward in a productive manner. They should ask themselves whether they really want to educate or just be angry.

I spent a while reading up on respectability politics and tone policing trying to decide how to address the fact that I know I will be accused of both of these things by criticizing the protesters' behavior. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find anything in defense of criticizing tone that wasn’t ranting rightwingers but when I was taking a break and reading about Jon Stewart who just retired from The Daily Show, I came across his October 8, 2013, interview with then 16-year-old Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai. She talks about what she thought after she found out that the Taliban had made her a target. (You can watch the clip beginning at 3:46, although I recommend watching the whole interview. If you want to be humbled, watch her 2013 address to the United Nations Youth Assembly.)

"I started thinking about that and I used to think that the Talib would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, "If he comes, what would you do, Malala?" Then I would reply myself that, "Malala, just take a shoe and hit him," but then I said, "If you hit a Talib with a shoe then there would no difference between you and the Talib – you must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly you might fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education." Then I said, "I'll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well," and I'll tell him that's what I want to tell him, "Now do what you want.""
So basically, a 14-year-old is being hunted by a terrorist organization and she has the grace to think about how she will be respectful to the man who comes to kill her for being outspoken about education for girls in Pakistan. You cannot tell me that anything the protesters have been through is worse than having a terrorist hit squad coming for you. Women like Malala Yousafzai and Yuri Kochiyama prove that it is possible to fight for what you believe in without diminishing your opponents.


Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading

Further Reading

  • I decided early on that I would not name the protesters, post photos of their faces, or link directly to their personal social media accounts or specific posts they made on Facebook. I know that the protesters have chosen to put their names and faces out there, but as I became aware of the level of harassment they were facing I tried to balance my desire to continue writing about the protest without contributing to the harassment. I talked with one of the protest organizers on July 22nd and explained my policy and they thanked me.
  • You may have noticed a lot of links for terminology and idioms in this post. I added those to help non-native English speakers and people unfamiliar with those terms.

  • 9/5/15: Corrected error in Yuri Kochiyama's creed. Was "...I will accept it without resettlement..."Should have been "resentment". Added introduction and title of creed from Passing It On. Added link to Can Blacks Be Racist?

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