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)

The MFA


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.



Acknowledgements

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!



Notes
  • 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

Other



Updates
  • 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

14 comments:

  1. OMG - this was amazingly comprehensive!! (And long - I can't believe you lost a draft!!! That must have sucked!!)

    So as I was reading, I copied and pasted thoughts/sentences that I liked/had thoughts about... I'm sorry about the weird bullets/quotes format - I just wanted to make sure I was responding to your actual words and not my memory/paraphrase of them:

    - "if after six weeks of protesting your Facebook group has only 124 likes (as of this writing), I think it's fair to say you do not enjoy broad support." hahahahahahaha - sorry, I just burst out laughing when I read this sentence. Totes true. (^o^)

    - "....but did not publish comments from any female community leaders who may have had a different view." [Re: Boston Globe's last article] I thought this was an interesting observation. Thinking along the ever present theme in this conflict of "who gets to speak for who" and given that one of the many things that the protesters were protesting was the depiction/sexualization of Asian/Asian-American women, it would definitely have been important to hear from a female community leader. Patriarchy is still very much alive and entrenched in the academic world in Japan (I was talking about this with a friend who is a professor in both Japan and the US), and it's hard not to see glimpses of that here as well.

    - Loved the quotes from Yuri Kochiyama! I'm going to try to use them as writing prompts in my class this year!!

    - THIS: "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."
    PLUS THIS:
    "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."

    The last few years in particular have been years of growth for me because I work in a school that primarily serves black students, but teach in a program in the school that primarily serves Chinese and Hispanic immigrants. I'm still growing and trying to figure out my own voice, my responsibility to help my students find their voices, and how to advocate for the needs of my immigrant students while acknowledging the history of black oppression in education and advocating for them as well. I think that's why the second Kochiyama really spoke to me... (actually, I think I'm going to post that in my room as a reminder this year... but *resentment* not *resettlement* right?).

    - "... 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.""
    I was relaying exactly this same thing to my (white) sister in law because she suggested that I think/talk about race "so much" because I'm a "particularly thoughtful" person. And I was like - yeah, no.

    ----------------------------------
    Lastly, somewhat unrelated - thank you for the list of Japanese health providers in Boston!! Actually, Dr. Okamura was my OB/GYN (and she's awesome!!!) but I didn't know about all of the other doctors! (Especially b/c I've been looking for an acupuncturist...)

    ReplyDelete
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    1. LOL. Thank YOU for reading it! I just kept writing and it kept getting longer… and longer… and after a while I was like, “Is anyone going to read this??” but at that point I’d written so much I thought I can’t not post it. :) I was pretty heartbroken after I lost the much shorter draft because I thought I was close to being able to publish but it ended up being a good thing since I did more research and was able to dig into some of the bigger picture stuff more. If I’d been able to finish the first draft it would’t have been as good. So, silver lining. :)

      - "if after six weeks of protesting your Facebook group has only 124 likes (as of this writing), I think it's fair to say you do not enjoy broad support." hahahahahahaha - sorry, I just burst out laughing when I read this sentence. Totes true. (^o^)

      Well, I figured it was a pretty objective measure of how much support they have. :)

      - "....but did not publish comments from any female community leaders who may have had a different view." [Re: Boston Globe's last article] I thought this was an interesting observation. Thinking along the ever present theme in this conflict of "who gets to speak for who" and given that one of the many things that the protesters were protesting was the depiction/sexualization of Asian/Asian-American women, it would definitely have been important to hear from a female community leader. Patriarchy is still very much alive and entrenched in the academic world in Japan (I was talking about this with a friend who is a professor in both Japan and the US), and it's hard not to see glimpses of that here as well.

      Drs. Watanabe and Oye are both great men and have done so much for the community but they are men and the sorts of discrimination they’ve faced has been a bit different from what JA women face. I’m sure they’ve heard from a good cross-section of the community though. I’ve since found out that The Boston Globe did approach a female community leader for comment and she declined the interview. No idea if the author even considered the gender implications of who they were talking to or if they just reached out to random contacts and ran with quotes from whoever got back to them quickly enough.

      - Loved the quotes from Yuri Kochiyama! I'm going to try to use them as writing prompts in my class this year!!

      Yay! :) I’ve been meaning to do more reading about her life and work but just hadn’t gotten around to it. So grateful to Jan Morrill for pointing me to her creed, which I had never seen before.

      - The last few years in particular have been years of growth for me because I work in a school that primarily serves black students, but teach in a program in the school that primarily serves Chinese and Hispanic immigrants. I'm still growing and trying to figure out my own voice, my responsibility to help my students find their voices, and how to advocate for the needs of my immigrant students while acknowledging the history of black oppression in education and advocating for them as well. I think that's why the second Kochiyama really spoke to me... (actually, I think I'm going to post that in my room as a reminder this year... but *resentment* not *resettlement* right?).

      I thought of you when I was listening to this last night though I wasn’t sure the demographics of your school. Dr. McWhorter talks about how he thinks that having low expectations for black students and setting the bar low does them no favors. The introduction is long and rambly so I’ve linked to just before he starts speaking. It’s followed by a Q&A which I haven’t watched yet.
      https://youtu.be/_pCePlFT1KI?t=12m50s

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    2. My reply was too long so I had to break it up. :)

      - "... 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.""
      I was relaying exactly this same thing to my (white) sister in law because she suggested that I think/talk about race "so much" because I'm a "particularly thoughtful" person. And I was like - yeah, no.

      LOL. I do know some AAs who think and talk about race less though I’ve never asked them why. People have been using the word thoughtful to describe me since I was a kid so your SIL may not be completely off-base. I’m sure that some of us think more deeply about it than others and some of us may talk more about it than others because we’ve thought about it enough to be able to articulate ourselves. Or because talking helps us to figure out what we’re thinking. :)

      ----------------------------------
      Lastly, somewhat unrelated - thank you for the list of Japanese health providers in Boston!! Actually, Dr. Okamura was my OB/GYN (and she's awesome!!!) but I didn't know about all of the other doctors! (Especially b/c I've been looking for an acupuncturist...)

      Oh you’re welcome! I found out about Dr. Okamura from one of my friends who was her patient. Only a few of the healthcare providers I’ve listed were names people mentioned to me. Most I’ve just found through poking around.

      I know Kenji-san socially and he had recommended Matsumoto-san as someone he thought might be a good fit for me but I haven’t gotten around to setting anything up. He didn’t know her personally (just knew her work - I guess she’s famous) but said she takes a more modern (less traditional) approach to acupuncture. I have some complex stuff going on that my other acupuncturist hasn’t been able to figure out so he thought maybe a modern approach might help.

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  2. Sorry - I saw one place that quoted her as 'resentment', but most sites say 'resettlement'... oops!

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    1. Oh, hmm, I think I did think it was an odd turn of phrase. I'll see if I can find out what it actually says in her memoir.

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    2. I got the book! You were right, it should have been "resentment" not "resettlement"! Good catch! Just corrected the post. I made sure to credit you!

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  3. Keiko,

    Your breakdown of this event was passed onto me after I discussed with a friend here in Japan about my experiences online (just reading, not commenting) with views similar to those of the protesters. I was once very active, as an American white queer woman, in social justice circles, but I've increasingly found it disconnected with my evolving identity as a long-term Japanese resident who is in the process of naturalizing to Japan. This has included a lot of cultural assimilation, including a change in how I handle conflict, resolutions, apologies, and issues of cultural, ethnic, and racial exchange. I have legally taken on a Japanese name which I spent a significant time choosing to reflect the meaning of my original name and to reflect my history in Japan.

    In my research for an essay or a book some day on my experiences, I ran across some discourse which seemed tangentially related to the type of protesting behavior observed by the participants here. Namely explanations of why it was never acceptable for white people to wear kimono or yukata (I own yukata, and wear it, as expected to local festivals), why white people should never adopt Japanese names, etc, etc, etc, even as nationals. As someone well versed in the language of social justice movements, I knew the history of the words that were used, but it just didn't seem to fit what Japanese in Japan were doing and saying about naturalization to Japan or about cultural sharing outside of Japan.

    Frankly the reaction to my decision (and it took years to come to) to assimilate and naturalize has been overwhelmingly positive. My neighbors, my coworkers, my students would be very confused by the MFA protests and website discourse I mentioned earlier. It doesn't seem like it would make very much sense at all to them. Many Japanese textbooks on English include English phrase structure around the idea of sharing Japanese culture with non-Japanese. This includes instructions on kimono and yukata, as well as many other things. Frankly, I'm not sure most of the people I interact with on a day to day basis (and I am seriously thinking of asking tomorrow) would even comprehend that something they actively promote is considered by some Japanese-Americans and apparently plenty of non-Japanese Asian-Americans as cultural appropriation.

    I appreciate you calling out the protesters (and by extension those who espouse their ideas in other venues) for their behavior towards white Japanese nationals/residents with Japanese spouses and children. It seems to me that the only people who can decide who is Japanese in Japan is Japanese people in Japan, and by and large, it seems that in my personal experience and the experiences of many who have gone through this process, Japanese in Japan are the most accepting of the Japaneseness of naturalizing persons.

    The longer I stay here, and the more I invest myself in Japanese media sources, Japanese clubs and groups, my relationships with my Japanese coworkers and Japanese students, and just live my life as a person inside of and contributing to Japanese society, the less interest I have in the fracas of American-style identity politics. I have seen the same extremes in queer groups and women's groups, and have the same disinterest in them. Increasingly it seems like there's a push for everyone to choose an identity "corner," to treat it like turf to be defended and battled over, all while yelling about issues with the other corners, and no one taking any time to listen, let alone engage in actual conversations which might lead to consensus or resolution.

    I used to be in the thick of it myself, but now, from a culturally and physically imposed distance, it seems more harmful than helpful.

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    1. Dear A.K.,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! As far as I saw there were only white men living in Japan participating in the conversation on the protest Facebook pages and I had been wondering what white women might think. Other than Rachel of Rachel & Jun (https://youtu.be/kwoSYWIgV9Y) I didn’t see any responses from white women living in Japan.

      I have heard that some Japanese folks did agree that the MFA event wasn’t as well planned as it could have been but it does seem that overall Japanese nationals aren’t especially concerned with who is sharing their culture and how they are doing it, whereas there’s a belief among some Americans of color that culture can only be shared by the people whose culture it is. I think the crux of the protesters’ issue with the event was not so much the Japanese cultural sharing aspect of it but the fact that it was white people doing the sharing with other white people and the initial marketing of the event as “flirting with the exotic”. I have no idea what they would have done had Japanese people (or other Asians or POC) shown up to try on the uchikake or if Japanese people had hosted an event with the original name. It’s hard to imagine the protest could have happened if a local Japanese organization or NHK staff had been visibly involved.

      That’s very interesting to hear what things you’ve had to change in order to assimilate into Japanese society. It must be quite a change from your previous life in the States!

      I wonder if we read the same thing. I came across a blog that was giving very peculiar advice to white people on how to treat/interact with Japanese culture (including wearing of kimono, names, etc.). Much of it made no sense to me, and I say that as someone who grew up in a bi-cultural household. Although my mom is of Okinawan descent, she was born and raised in Hawaii and considers herself American. My dad was born and raised in Japan and although we lived there for a few years we’ve been in the US for decades. While I’m sure my mom was more “Japanese” than a white woman would have been, there was a lot she had to learn when she moved to Japan, including the language. She was always teaching me about cultural differences between Japan, Hawaii, and the mainland. I feel like in many ways my upbringing was more Japanese than American (at home anyway) but it was certainly a mix of both. I wasn’t entirely constrained by Japanese gender expectations although I was taught both Japanese and American comportment and switched depending on where I was and who I was with.

      That’s really wonderful that people have been accepting of your decision to naturalize. We always hear about how Japan is so inhospitable to foreigners and that Japanese people are unaccepting of them. I have heard that non-Japanese Asians can have a harder time than whites but it’s still nice to hear that Japan is changing. It seems like accepting gaikokujin is going to become increasingly necessary given Japan’s low birth rate.

      “I appreciate you calling out the protesters (and by extension those who espouse their ideas in other venues) for their behavior towards white Japanese nationals/residents with Japanese spouses and children.”

      You’re welcome. I really don’t understand it because they are clearly fighting for full acceptance in the US and to not be seen as perpetual foreigners and Other so I don’t understand how they can turn around and tell white folks who have chosen to make their lives in Japan either by marrying a Japanese person and having Japanese kids or by choosing to stay there and naturalize as a single person that they (you) are foreigners in their own land. How would they know? It sounds like many of you may be more accepted in your communities in Japan than many Asian Americans are in our communities in the US.

      (continued)

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    2. “the less interest I have in the fracas of American-style identity politics.”

      I’ve heard this from some other Westerners living in Japan.

      “Increasingly it seems like there's a push for everyone to choose an identity "corner," to treat it like turf to be defended and battled over, all while yelling about issues with the other corners, and no one taking any time to listen, let alone engage in actual conversations which might lead to consensus or resolution.”

      Unfortunately I think social media sometimes contributes to the problem. Have you seen How Internet Fighting Works? http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2939 One of my friends sent it to me during the protests and it’s pretty much what I saw happening.

      I’d love to hear more about what you think of life in Japan as a queer person! It’s something I’ve long wondered about. Years ago I picked up Queer Japan: Personal Stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals
      http://www.amazon.com/Queer-Japan-Personal-Transsexuals-Bisexuals/dp/1892281007/. For the longest time it was the only thing I’d been able to find about queer life in Japan written in English. If you’re on Twitter you can DM at @keikoinboston or you could email me at keiko (dot) in (dot) boston (at) gmail (dot) com.

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    3. "Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! As far as I saw there were only white men living in Japan participating in the conversation... I didn’t see any responses from white women living in Japan."

      I think when dealing with English as a primary language, especially in relation to American political issues, the voices will be heavily white men. Although the numbers are balancing out, when I first came to Japan, women were always a small minority of English speaking expatriates.

      "I think the crux of the protesters’ issue with the event was not so much the Japanese cultural sharing aspect of it but the fact that it was white people doing the sharing with other white people and the initial marketing of the event as “flirting with the exotic.”"

      This is an excellent point. Although I am not sure it would have occurred to NHK to be more visibly involved. That the MFA didn’t reach out or partner with a Japanese/Japanese-American organization is definitely an issue. And I’m certainly not saying I think the MFA was blameless. Just saying that even if it was “white people sharing with other white people,” since the NHK was initially involved, I think most people I know in my daily life wouldn’t see an issue (which just goes to show the difference in experiences).

      "That’s very interesting to hear what things you’ve had to change in order to assimilate into Japanese society. It must be quite a change from your previous life in the States!”

      …Yes and no. I never had culture shock upon moving to Japan. Truth is many of the cultural and social values in Japan are ones which I held as a child or a teenager, and ironically, in addition to the issue of queerness, I have always been at odds with American society, at least in the South and Southwest where I largely grew up. When I finally moved back to the US for an extended period of time (grad school), and thought I had moved back maybe for good, I had terrible “reverse culture shock.” That was a main motivator for exploration of the decision to naturalize. When I visit the US, I feel far more like a foreigner than I do within Japan, even when visually, I am assumed to be one until I give a history of my time in Japan. It’s hard to explain, and it’s something I think most white native-born Americans don’t really initially understand.

      "I wonder if we read the same thing. I came across a blog that was giving very peculiar advice to white people on how to treat/interact with Japanese culture (including wearing of kimono, names, etc.). "

      That’s perhaps likely. When I discussed it with my friend, and he sent me to your site, he knew exactly which site to which I referred. If it is the same thing, then it’s been gaining a lot of traction in certain circles, and Google is rating it quite highly. You’ll forgive me if I am not more specific, I do not want to give them views or higher ranking by naming or linking them.

      "That’s really wonderful that people have been accepting of your decision to naturalize. We always hear about how Japan is so inhospitable to foreigners and that Japanese people are unaccepting of them. I have heard that non-Japanese Asians can have a harder time than whites but it’s still nice to hear that Japan is changing. It seems like accepting gaikokujin is going to become increasingly necessary given Japan’s low birth rate.”

      When I first came to Japan, better part of a decade ago, the situation was different, in my personal experience. Visibly mixed children, or with obvious non-Japanese names, were not seen as Japanese by their peers. Bullying was rife. Likewise, I would have been surprised to be taken as Japanese by my students, even if my coworkers might have done it (of course at that time, I had no idea I would stay for life).

      (continued)

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    4. Over the years, I have seen a rather dramatic change. Right now the only birth demographic on the rise in Japan is where a child has at least one non-Yamato (as opposed to non-Japanese, because the parent could be a Japanese national), parent. This means where as a decade ago you’d be hard pressed to find one mixed child in a rural area, now I usually several, sometimes one per class. This may be a small number vs the majority, but it’s a massive increase in a very short period of time. If you take my experiences just from the last three years, and especially last year, my mixed students are quite popular, with plenty of friends. They have few issues with bullying from those who see them as gaikokujin, and the couple of bullies who do exist are often the most troubled students in general, and students who are unpopular with their peers. Their commentary is seen as not only inappropriate and uncouth, but patently untrue by the majority of the students, especially those who are friends of the mixed students being insulted.

      No, the bigger issue I have seen is that some of my students have trouble grasping the concept of dual nationality and dual identity. They accept their mixed peers are Japanese, or even accept that other people (like me) can choose to become Japanese and are therefore Japanese, but they struggle with why say, a Filipino-Japanese or a white American-Japanese, or even a naturalized non-Yamato Japanese person might say, “Sure, I’m Japanese, but I’m also _____ and my _____ culture/history/name/etc is important to me.” This may be an effect of the way that Japanese political elites like Abe are supporters of civic nationalism, the idea that one can be legally Japanese, and Japanese law stipulates you must only have Japanese nationality as an adult. I’ve experienced this myself with my students discussing “gaikoku no jijyou” and hearing “What about A. K. Sensei, she does x and y” and hearing the response, “A. K. Sensei is becoming Japanese, she’s an exception, she doesn’t count.” For me, this isn’t a big deal, because I have chosen to move from one culture and nationality to another. But it really bothers my mixed students who value both sides of their heritage.

      "so I don’t understand how they can turn around and tell white folks who have chosen to make their lives in Japan either by marrying a Japanese person and having Japanese kids or by choosing to stay there and naturalize as a single person that they (you) are foreigners in their own land.”

      Not to mention it seems like it’s speaking for Japanese people in Japan, who ultimately have the political power. And if they continue to support the 1947 Nationality Law, which they do, then I’m not sure how this isn’t a case for speaking for, and indeed, over, others.

      "How would they know? It sounds like many of you may be more accepted in your communities in Japan than many Asian Americans are in our communities in the US.”

      As individuals, perhaps. I once asked a coworker, and one I had a fairly antagonistic relationship with about her views in immigration to Japan, and specifically about naturalization. Her response was: “I don’t think most foreigners in Japan should become Japanese. Most are only here for a short time and don’t really respect or understand the culture. I would be against lots and lots of people trying to become Japanese. You are an exception, and as long as Japan only takes the exceptions, I think there’s no issue with it.”

      (continued)

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    5. I think this fits very well with how Japan operates as a group-oriented society. As a member of my in-groups in Japan, of course, I am an exception. I am known. It would be unreasonable to suggest that I couldn’t become Japanese. The difference is when Japanese consider the idea of mass immigration and naturalization, and then there’s a general problem with foreigners as a group. Even white ones. Although, yes, we are treated better (in a way) than non-Japanese Asians (or other PoC, like Africans, or even African-Americans). A good example of this was when I had some wheels for my car stolen and when I reported it to my local police officer, he said, “It was probably foreigners…” I gave him a look. He lives near me. He knows me. "Uhm… I mean… not like you… Like Chinese.” That wasn’t better.

      And of course, once the documents are changed over and everything is finished and legal, I will never not run into someone, somewhere making the first question they ask, “what country are you from?” Nor will I not have someone at some point ask, “is this really your name?” or get asked, as I have already multiple times, “Are you half, you know, since you’re naturalizing…” Given the tiny percentage of white Japanese nationals, these aren’t statistically unreasonable questions. They are, however, othering. They’re also part of the price of admission and they become part of your self-introduction. You talk about them before they have a chance to be asked, so you can move on.

      As for queer issues in Japan… where do you want to start? That’s a very wide topic.

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  4. Hi Keiko. I just wanted to say that I appreciate your thoroughness as well as your willingness to dialogue. It has been interesting following the developments and it was hard to see the larger picture of what was happening on the Facebook group. I know many people who feel or would feel that sharing Japanese culture is wonderful, but I do believe that the MFA could and should have done much better in planning the event. I am grateful to the protesters for speaking up, as I think/hope the MFA will be more culturally sensitive and education-focused going forward into the future.

    I felt horrible reading the comments on Facebook, and I am glad that your blog is a place where people could actually have a dialogue about these issues.

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    1. Thanks, Go. It isn’t clear to me how much impact the protest had on how the MFA will plan their programming going forward. They have partnered with local Japanese groups in the past and I’m sure would have been doing that in the future regardless. They have always produced plenty of education-focused programming and my guess is that wouldn’t agree that this event didn’t have an education focus. They did provide education from the beginning but it was focused on Monet, not on the kimono or Japan.

      “I felt horrible reading the comments on Facebook, and I am glad that your blog is a place where people could actually have a dialogue about these issues.”

      Facebook doesn’t seem like a great place to have thoughtful, reasoned discussion. It may have helped that right after I published my first piece on the controversy I switched the comments to being moderated and so you had to have an account to post. People can still set up a sockpuppet account and post anonymously if they like but if you don't already have an account it means that people would have to be really motivated to leave a comment. Of course I also think there are fewer people reading my blog than were reading Facebook. You have to be pretty motivated to read my blog since some of my posts are very long. :)

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