|Left to right: Christina Wang, Dr. Elena Tajima Creef, Dr. Paul Watanabe, Shiliu Wang|
- Please see my original post for background: Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA.
- See Kimono Wednesday protest postmortem, parts 1, 2, and 3 for more detail on the protests.
- See here for statement on my bias. Tl;dr: I don't support the protests.
- Links to all of my coverage are at the bottom of this post.
- Details about upcoming panels are at the bottom of this post, including one tonight that will be livestreamed.
Note: I have tried to provide links to all terms and words that may be unfamiliar to some readers. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
Update 1/28/16: They released the audio recording of the panel, though there is
Update 1/31/16: They released the transcript.
The first of what I imagine will be many panels about issues related to this past summer's Kimono Wednesdays protests at the MFA was held last month on Saturday, September 19th at MassArt (Massachusetts College of Art & Design). "Kimono Wednesday: What it Means for Asian America" was organized by two local AAPI community organizations – the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW) and the Boston chapter of the National Asian Pacific Women's Forum (NAPAWF). AARW has a long history in Boston's Asian American community. They were founded in 1979 when they "spun off from the Boston Chapter of Pacific Asian Coalition" and "work for the empowerment of the Asian Pacific American community to achieve its full participation in U.S. society." NAPAWF's Boston chapter was founded in December 2014, but the national organization has been around since 1996, an outgrowth of the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. NAPAWF is "building a movement to advance social justice and human rights for AAPI women and girls in the United States." Both groups have Japanese American participation, although the organizers were non-Japanese AAPI.
There was some confusion over whether the event was sponsored or organized by MassArt. It was not. The organizers were able to secure the room because Christina Wang, one of the organizers and panelists, is a student at MassArt. Presumably the event was approved because it was related to the arts. From the website of the office that handles room reservations:
"The Office of College and Visiting Events strives to ensure that all events occurring on campus speak to the educational mission and vision of the College. We support programming which appeals to its Student Body as well as its Academic and Administrative components, and work to establish and maintain event policies that foster an environment of transparency and inclusivity within our campus Community."Some of you may have read about the controversy that was generated when the panel was announced on Facebook as "POC only". I will address that below.
Photography was not permitted (I got the above photo before this was announced) so I will describe the room set-up and audience. The panel was held in a large conference room that was set up in what is called theater, lecture, or auditorium style – a six foot table at the front of the room for the panelists and two rows of seating facing them. Although Facebook RSVPs were at 96, I think attendance was around 40, maybe 45. When I did the first count shortly after we started it was around 25 or 30 but one of my friends said a lot of people arrived late and some left early so it was hard to get a sense of what the total was. One of the organizers thought it was around 45.
I think the audience was probably 3/4 Asian descent, 1/4 other and at least 80% female. I counted 5 people who seemed obviously white (this does not include mixed race people). My friends saw 2 black people who I didn't see and 2 they read as Latino who I may have seen. Sometimes it's difficult to tell people's heritage. I'm only aware of 2 Japanese nationals who were there and 6 Japanese Americans (including me) though there could have been more. My friends counted 7 people over 50 in the audience. My sense was that most of the younger attendees were millenials in their 20s and 30s though there could have been a few gen Xers like myself. I think there may have been about 10 AARW & NAPAWF members (4 of whom were panel organizers who had protested). I'm told that there were some MassArt students and the rest seemed to have come because they heard about it on Facebook or through word of mouth. Besides Christina, one of the other protest organizers was there along with a few protesters and 2 counterprotesters.
Some people were wondering about the Asian American police officer stationed outside the room. I asked one of the organizers about it and they didn't know why he was there. He initially tried to stand in the back of the room but organizers thought he might make some attendees uncomfortable so asked him to stand in the hall. I heard some speculation that MassArt had expected trouble after the POC only controversy but it was actually just policy. I contacted MassArt to ask about his presence and received the following from Ellen Carr, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications.
I wish I'd thought to ask him if he'd been assigned to the event because he is Asian American. Many assumed he was. One of my friends talked to him and said he was friendly. He just stood in the hall the whole time. Nothing happened that required his intervention."MassArt has certain polices that we follow for managing our on-campus events, supports that we put in place whenever an organizer books an event space. One of those procedures is to have a police officer present at events expected to draw 75 or more people, or when members of the public or non-MassArt ID holders are expected.According to the event's facebook page, there were 75 rsvp's for the event, so this policy was put into place."
Welcome and Introduction
The panel was opened by Carolyn from AARW who explained how the event would be structured, asked people not to take photos or have their phones out, and to actively listen. She said that questions would be taken via index cards and that if people had any questions including about terminology or arguments being made they could write them down and raise their hands to have them collected by one of the organizers and given to the moderator, though no one did this while the panel was speaking. She also announced that they had a Japanese language translator if people preferred to write questions in Japanese. They also had two "wellness support" people who were there to "check in with folks who need support during the event". Neither of these resources were announced in advance. She also said that they would make a recording and transcript available at a later date (this was announced in advance).
Shaina and Catherine, two NAPAWF members and panel organizers then provided background about Kimono Wednesdays and the protests. (This was something I helped to fact-check.) They said that NHK had commissioned the uchikake and that they had toured Japanese museums. Once the uchikake came to Boston members of the local Asian American community, including panelist Christina Wang, "criticized the museum for failing to contextualize either the painting's imperialist history or the kimono's cultural significance." They mentioned the MFA's apology and change to the event that stopped the try on but allowed visitors to touch and photograph the uchikake. Shaina then talked about the counterprotesters who "showed up to protest the protesters" and support Kimono Wednesdays and she acknowledged that some were present in the audience.
This was not mentioned at the panel, but panel organizers tried to invite Timothy Nagaoka, the counterprotest organizer, to sit on the panel, but he didn't respond to their attempt to reach out. I spoke with Timothy and he expressed that he wasn't interested in participating in a panel that the MFA was not involved with so he would have declined the invitation anyway. I found out as I was working on this post that I had a misunderstanding with my panel organizer contact. Three of my friends counterprotested and she thought that I had let them know the organizers would like to have a counterprotester on the panel but I never extended that invitation to them because I was certain they would say no. I contacted all of them after finding out about the misunderstanding and one of my friends said that she would have declined because she wouldn't have felt able to keep up with the discussion in English. Although I didn't hear back from my other friends I'm quite certain they would have also declined. There were other counterprotesters whom the panel organizers did not attempt to invite.
Shaina wanted to make sure that the counterprotest view was represented so she read the statement that Timothy sent to me in July.
"As a Japanese teacher in Boston, I feel that any opportunity for the community to interact with Japanese culture is a good thing, and I was disappointed when I heard that the MFA had cancelled an opportunity for the people to put on the kimono that Monet drew in his painting. I believe that the protesters have a right to be offended, however it should not dictate the enjoyment of others to appreciate the novel interaction with the artwork."They went on to talk about political and cultural differences that they felt divided the two groups and how these differences became clear from conversations between protesters and counterprotesters at the MFA (the counterprotest was two weeks - Timothy was alone one week and had others join him the following week). These included differences in experience and identity and individual understanding of race, ethnicity and cultural change. They talked about how Asian American reaction to Kimono Wednesdays ranged from anger to indifference to confusion and that there was also reaction from Japanese nationals and members of the Japanese diaspora. They wanted to acknowledge the diversity of perspectives and felt it was very important to have an inter and intra-community dialogue to discuss representation and cultural appropriation. They ended by saying that although Kimono Wednesdays are over, "our lived experiences are ongoing and dialogue is also ongoing."
The panel was moderated by NAPAWF member Shiliu Wang (no relation to Christina). Shiliu introduced the panelists and then asked them to talk about why they were participating and what perspective they were bringing.
The panelists, in the order in which they were introduced:
- Christina (also known as Xtina) Huilan Wang, second year graduate student in photography at MassArt. Christina was one of the original five Kimono Wednesdays protesters and was also a protest organizer. She is a NAPAWF member and helped to organize the panel. Christina is a second generation Chinese Tawianese American. She wanted to be on the panel because she feels there needs to be a conversation between Asian American and Asian nationals of any background, though in this case, Japanese nationals in particular. She said there was "a lot of misconstrual of the intent of the protesters" and which people should and shouldn't be allowed to speak out. She expressed the hope that she would get a lot of questions so she could address some of these misunderstandings for the Japanese community.
- Dr. Elena Tajima Creef, Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. She has taught Asian American women's studies for 22 years. Dr. Creef is the author of Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body and is published widely on Asian American women in art, film, and popular culture. She has "devoted [her] entire academic career to teaching [her] students histories of Asian American studies and critiques of racism." Dr. Creef was traveling during the summer but followed the controversy by reading the "complete coverage on the online archives" (not sure what she was referring to - perhaps the Decolonize Our Museum Tumblr) She cited a 1972 essay by Frank Chin and Paul Jeffrey Chan titled "Racist Love"that she has her students read. (Published in Seeing Through Schuk, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. See Wikipedia page on the term, pdf of essay, Word document of essay.) Their theory is that for all POC in the US, white supremacy constructs two stereotypes: good minority and bad minority. The former is constructed out of racist love and the latter out of racist hate. Both exist together as products of a racist framework. She suggested if the MFA had staged events called "Mamie Mondays" or "War Bonnet Wednesdays" "everybody would have freaked out" because the racism would have been obvious. Kimono Wednesdays, on the other hand, sounds nice but it's part of the long history of portrayals of Asian women as geisha that is part of racist love. Racist love allows for the "complicity and the silence of people of color and Asian Americans". Dr. Creef said that what she found "stunning" about the protesters was that they "dared to break silence and dared to raise voices in anger. When Asian women in American dare to speak up or get angry, it freaks people out." She said she was there to "engage in conversation."
- Dr. Paul Watanabe, Director of the Institute of Asian American Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at UMass Boston. His other positions include chair of the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations; President of the Board of Directors of
the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund; a former member of the Board
of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (I couldn't find him listed on their board page and confirmed with their communications director that his term ended this summer); a member of the Advisory Board of the New Americans Integration Institute; and a member of the Board of
Trustees of the Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund.
Dr. Watanabe started off by saying "I have the longest biography and the least to contribute." He held up a notepad with no writing on it and said we could see that his notes for the meeting had nothing on it. His reason for attending was to listen to and understand some things he doesn't know about or understand well. "What was the nature of the protest, who were the objects, what was the specifics about it?" "What did the counterprotesters have in mind? What were their particular concerns? What were their particular issues?" He said that understanding those questions would form the basis for addressing the question posed by the title of the panel of what it means to Asian Americans. He also suggested that the protester/counterprotester binary needed to be "interrogated".
Dr. Watanabe went on to address the "POC only" controversy. He said he heard from a lot of people about whether people who aren't Asian American should participate in the discussion. As a member of the board of the ACLU he said it's an easy answer: "assuredly everybody has the right to participate," but he hoped that given the subject, people would use "a little bit of discipline". He hoped that those who are white and male who usually dominate conversations even when Asian Americans are asking a question about what something means to us or about race in general could hold back and allow the conversation to take place (among Asian Americans). (He was presumably speaking more generally because as I recall there was only one white male in attendance.)
This was not mentioned in their bios but I was told by someone in the community that Elena is sansei. Paul is nisei.
The Panel Discussion
For about an hour, Shiliu asked the panelists questions that the organizers had come up with in advance and allowed them to answer in any order and without time limits. After that we had a brief break and attendees were invited to submit questions on index cards. Organizers went through the cards, selected a few questions and a statement from a counterprotester. Shiliu read the statement first then moved on to the questions. That took up about 30 minutes. Then they seemed to deviate from the plan and opened the floor to spoken questions from the audience even though some of the written questions had not been asked (some people told me later that they were frustrated their questions hadn't been selected). The audience members spoke and asked questions for 20 minutes including a Japanese woman and and a Japanese American man.
The panelists talked with each other so this isn't entirely chronological. I have also included corrections and clarifications in parentheses to the erroneous things that the panelists said. There was a lot of repetition in what panelists said but I've included that so you can see how each question was responded to. I have included quotes where I felt like the specificity of what the speaker said would be lost if I paraphrased it.
Who gets to speak up about Kimono Wednesdays and why?
Christina & Paul: Christina cited the First Amendment of the US Constitution which she feels allows anyone to speak about it. (I talked about the First Amendment in one of my posts in response to people claiming the protest was illegal). She thinks the more important questions are ones that aren't being asked – who gets heard or who should get heard when they speak up? Paul said that Christina had mentioned in her introduction that she wanted to see a conversation between Asian Americans and Japanese nationals and he wondered why the conversation was between them and why it wasn't among them. He asked if she saw a barrier between the two groups and wondered if there might not be some overlap. Based on her experience during the protests she said she felt that there were two sides. Paul questioned if she thought that Japanese and other Asian nationals were on one side and Christina (and presumably other Asian Americans) were on the other. She said there is some overlap but she sees "gaps in experience" between the two groups.
Elena: Who gets to speak? Everybody. Who gets to wear a kimono? Everybody.
Christina: Feels the people who should speak are whoever the event is most relevant to and has an impact on. Japanese Americans, Japanese nationals, any Japanese diaspora people and Asian Americans, "especially those whose identities – in this country – are tied up with how Japanese people are perceived. That's where I insert myself." She said she didn't want to use the word "authority" but felt like she had some "agency" or "investment" in how the MFA staged Kimono Wednesdays.
Christina perceives that Japanese nationals and people of Japanese ethnicity who were opposed to the protests, see Japanese ethnicity as the most important part of Kimono Wednesdays. She thinks that ethnicity is non-existent in America because race flattens ethnicity. (I couldn't find a web dictionary, encyclopedia, or scholarly reference for this concept. I think that it may come from Dr. Henry Yu's article on ethnicity in Keywords for American Cultural Studies.) Christina cited the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin as an example. (Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered by white men who perceived him to be Japanese.) She stated that there were no indictments. (This is the wrong term. See below.) Chin's murder helped Asian Americans to realize that using the "moniker" Asian American was necessary for solidarity. This was Asian Americans recognizing that's how white America perceives us (as a single group). Her being non-Japanese isn't relevant because she is treated as though she is Japanese in some contexts in "extremely racialized ways."
(Indictments (charges) were brought against both of the men involved in Vincent Chin's death, but the consequences were minimal which I think is what Christina meant. They took a plea bargain and received only a $3,000 fine plus court costs of $780. Federal civil rights charges were then brought against them and one of the men was sentenced to 25 years in prison but the decision was overturned on appeal. The other man was acquitted. Chin's estate later filed a civil suit which was settled out of court. Both men were ordered to pay but there was no means to collect so the estate is currently owed over $4.5m with interest and other charges adding up over time.)
Paul: Agreed 100% with this. Told anecdotes of himself and his children having non-Japanese ethnic slurs said to them – chink, gook – because their ethnicity doesn't matter to those people and also that for a while when Asians were opening up stores in the suburbs they would always have grafitti written on them that said "Go home gook" regardless of their ethnicity. He found it ridiculous that observers of the protests were scouring pictures in The Boston Globe saying they didn't see any Japanese-looking people protesting.
Paul thinks it's too narrow to look at this as just a discussion of how Asian Americans are treated by powerful institutions such as the MFA. He thinks the discussion should be about how all people without power – non-Asian POC, income groups, sexual orientation groups, and others – are treated. These groups are also not well represented, so you have to consider the kind of tactics that those without power have available to them to be heard when the powers that be may be trying to silence them or just failing to represent their voice.
Elena: One of the legacies of orientalism in America is that it blends Asians into a "homogenous indistinguishable mass". She referenced the MFA's advertising saying something like "Flirting with the exotic: come and unleash your inner Camille" (The original event title was "Claude Monet: Flirting with the exotic" and on the MFA's Facebook page visitors were invited to "Channel your inner Camille #Monet and try on a replica of the kimono she's wearing in "La Japonaise."") Elena said this is clearly written from "a white vantage point" as "an invitation for white people to come and try on an orientalist fantasy of Monet's wife performing as an object of an orientalist gaze." She referred to the kimono as a "wedding uchikake". (Although there are types of uchikake that are worn for weddings, this one would never be worn at a wedding. It is a replica theatrical uchikake thought to be from a kabuki performance at the Exposition universelle de 1867. Read more about different types of uchikake here.)
"From an Asian American framework to imagine yourself as Camille – to unleash your inner Camille could get really complicated, interesting and kind of creative... Imagine yourself as an Asian American woman pretending to be a beautiful white woman in a blonde wig unleashing an orientalist fantasy so you get multiple layers of orientalist fantasy that can be sort of decontructed and performed. Now that is amazing."
American/western orientalism is a western construct that doesn't transfer to Japan so that context wasn't there at the Japanese museums. She thought the photos of Japanese women in blonde wigs at the three Japanese museums were "genius". (Only the Setagaya Art Museum provided blonde wigs at their events. The other two museums did not.) You imagine Japanese women "participating in western fascination with japonisme or orientalism". She said the MFA should have had blonde wigs for whites and Asians to try on.
Christina: Regarding the scouring of the photos looking for Japanese people she thinks it speaks to the way the racial hierarchy is set up as a white and black binary. White = "best, normal, human". In Japan, the context was fine – the MFA got publicity for La Japonaise which was recently restored and "the Japanese got to affirm their cultural influence through Western art on the home court". When the painting and uchikake came to the MFA, the context was different because the audience was different and the history here is different. When the "white-dominated" MFA used NHK's involvement (Japan's public broadcaster) to defend the event she saw them as pitting "real, authentic Japanese people" against "fake Japanese people" (Japanese/Asian Americans). Sees it as a "messed up way of authenticating identity and experience". Said Japanese Americans as real Japanese. In the US Asians are already Other and are marginalized and under/misrepresented. "For the MFA to say, "Well these real Japanese people... We already marginalize you as white people but these real Japanese people also said it's okay for us to continue with our event" there's a double Othering that's happening. So, not only are we othered by our normal white supremacist culture but the real authentic Japanese people say that we're also wrong and you also don't get representation in this context either."
Paul: Doesn't know enough about the MFA's decision-making for Kimono Wednesdays so he didn't want to jump to the assumption that this was their intention. He did feel the MFA failed to properly contextualize the event and that the only frame given was the photo of the white model posted on Facebook and the language Elena talked about which some people "found clearly objectionable." He thinks it's legitimate that the protesters filled the void of the lack of context.
Christina: Referenced a short essay by Jean Baudrillard titled, "Carnival Cannibal" that talks about Western imperialism. (I think this is a reference to Baudrillard's play titled, Carnival and Cannibal, Or The Play of Global Antagonism.) Western imperialism comes in to a place and takes the culture and makes it consumable. Baudrillard used the example of Pablo Picasso being influenced by African masks which led to the development of Cubism and Picasso being praised as a genius. The cannibal part happens when the assimilated Africans then have to consume Picasso as the height of culture. She said that speaking for herself, she wasn't interested in censorship or stopping people from trying on the uchikake. The way racism functions for Asians, the stereotypes are always misogynistic – "emasculated men and hypersexualized or very submissive women" – and her problem was with the lack of context.
Shiliu: Said the panel didn't need a moderator and that they were already answering questions she hadn't asked yet.
How do you think Kimono Wednesdays relate to AAPI representation in mainstream American media?
Elena: Thinks American musician Katy Perry would be very excited about Kimono Wednesdays since she already did her own version (with her November 24, 2013 American Music Awards performance of "Unconditionally"). It was a "performance around geisha beauty and a celebration of kimono that we've already seen a thousand times." She went on to say, "What we've not seen for a while though is a type of intervention by Asian American feminist voices."
Paul: Thinks it represents a phenomenon of the investment Asian Americans have in any representation of us in any kind of media including art because there's so little of it. Whenever we see representations of ourselves it leads to two things. One is that we sometimes love even problematic representations of Asians. He cited the 1957 film Sayonara which his parents loved. He didn't think they understood the failures of the movie in terms of cultural representation (ie: a white man as the main character) but they were "yearning to see somebody that looked like them appear on that particular screen" who wasn't playing a Japanese soldier. Those were the main types of representations they had of Asians up to the 1950s. The second is that "there is a sense in which when you see something representing something in Asian culture – Japanese culture – like a kimono, you consider it a gift that you're opening this thing that is so important to you – growing up as a Japanese person – to a broader range of people." White Americans don't have to wonder about the kinds of media representations there are of white people nor do they get invested every time a white person says something bad.
Christina: Doesn't think that what Paul talked about is a generational thing but an experiential one. Both she and her parents were excited about any Chinese representations when she was growing up (in the 80s and 90s). She believes that the difference between her and her parents is that they have somewhere to return to where they will be accepted "as the status quo". Even though she speaks Mandarin and grew up in a Chinese and Taiwanese community in Los Angeles with those cultures, as an American she would never be accepted in China or Taiwan.
She questioned Timothy Nagaoka's statement that "any opportunity for the community to interact with Japanese culture is a good thing" and said she wanted to resist it. She doesn't think that opening up culture to more people is necessarily bad but the way in which it's done opens it up to consumption, meaning it's disposable. Alternately you can make it a "milestone"/"monument"/"entrance" to really participating in a culture. She thinks the way the MFA presented Kimono Wednesdays was as a consumable, novel experience without genuine participation. Insisted that La Japonaise is racist (I should note that there is no agreement on this in the art world or among other people. La Japonaise is celebrated in Japan.). She took issue with the title which she translates as "the Japanese woman". (I don't believe this translation is correct. See below.) Said the uchikake has been taken out its Japanese context and used by Monet to "glorify white beauty using oriental or Japanese accessories". Christina also took issue with the fan Camille is holding because it has the colors of France's flag. She sees the MFA's actions of celebrating or "flirting" with the painting as perpetuating the "legacy of racism".
(Christina did not cite any sources but her argument, however, it sounds very similar to art historian Paul Hayes Tucker’s critique of La Japonaise in Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings.
My French is quite rusty, but Christina's translation didn't sound right to me so I consulted Jean-Noël Lafargue, professor of art and new media at l'Université Paris 8, and Barbara Martin, the MFA's curator of education. Jean-Noël consulted his friend, art historian Johanna Daniel, who located the original catalogue, Catalogue de la 2e exposition de peinture, of the 1876 Impressionist exposition where the painting was displayed. It is listed as "153 – Japonnerie".
Later, Barbara sent me the article that one of their curators wrote for the catalogue of Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan ボストン美術館華麗なるジャポニスム展 : 印象派を魅了した日本の美, the show with which La Japonaise was exhibited in Japan. In "A Parisienne en Japonaise" Emily Beeny writes that japonnerie "was a late-nineteeth-century neologism, a word invented to describe genuine or imitation Japanese trinkets and bric-a-brac." She cited the definition from Dictionnaire des Dictionnaires, Supplément Illustré (Paris: Paul Guérin 1895) "Japonnerie ou Japonaiserie: object d'ornement venant du Japon ou imité japonais." Emily does not explain how the painting came to be called La Japonaise but it seems to have come into use around 1918 when it was sold again and Monet refers to it that way in correspondence.
These days, English and Japanese speakers seem to refer to Monet’s painting as La Japonaise or「ラ・ジャポネーズ」La Japonezu whereas French speakers and others seem to prefer Madame Monet en costume japonais (Madame Monet in Japanese Costume). On the MFA’s page the painting is titled La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume). Barbara believes the "(Camille Monet in Japanese Costume)" was added by the MFA "when it became standard to provide a translation for any works whose titles needed to remain in a foreign language".
Jean-Noël and I talked at length about the translation of La Japonaise. I told him that my understanding of it would be "the Japanese" not "the Japanese woman". He said that "the Japanese" is correct and pointed out that in French, even objects are gendered so there isn't a gender neutral way to say "the Japanese." He also said that "the Japanese woman" isn't wrong. In colloquial language if he wants to refer to a Japanese woman whose name he can't remember, he would call her "la japonaise" meaning "that random Japanese". A Japanese woman he isn't acquainted with would be "une japonaise" meaning "a Japanese". What's interesting to me is that Monet and others sometimes referred to the painting as simply Japonaise without a gendered article which leads me to the conclusion he meant to refer to the Japanese art in the painting, not call his wife a Japanese woman. Given that La Japonaise was not the original title, I'm not sure you can judge the painting as racist based on that title, regardless of its meaning.
I'm unclear if Christina was taking issue with Camille's fan because she believes it to be Japanese. The uchiwa on the wall are known to be wood block prints that Monet purchased but it's unclear what sort of fan Camille is holding. I have seen speculation that it may not be a Japanese fan, but a French one. Emily refers to it as an éventail, which is the general French word for hand fan. The fans in La Japonaise subsequently appeared in two Pierre-Auguste Renoir paintings of Camille: Madame Monet and Her Son and Madame Monet Reading in which there is no Japanese context.)
Were Kimono Wednesdays cultural exchange or cultural appropriation and why do you think so?
Christina: Called the question a "slippery theoretical hole" because intent plays into whether something is exchange or appropriation and she said she didn't want to get into it by projecting or assigning intent to people. She cited Katy Perry's AMA performance and Mickey Rooney's portrayal of the character Mr. Yunioshi in the 1958 film Breakfast at Tiffany's as clear examples of cultural appropriation or racial hate. Though she said Katy Perry was more like "very non-consensual racial love". She thinks the question of whether something is racial (she did use this word, not cultural) exchange or appropriation is a way of deferring the conversation because if it's racial exchange then it's good and if it's racial appropriation it's bad, but she thinks it's more complicated than that. If a white or non-Japanese person has Japanese family and are asked to participate in a ceremony or holiday in traditional Japanese dress it would actually be offensive or inappropriate for them to decline to participate. Christina didn't want to "give a formula of how to interact with a kimono" but feels that people should be paying attention to the context and to what it means to people and the impact it has on people which is what was missing from Kimono Wednesdays.
Elena: Didn't want to get "trapped in the binary around cultural exchange or cultural appropriation. What's at stake is so much more complicated." Called Kimono Wednesdays a "cultural blunder" with mistranslations. Even though it was celebrated in Japan that didn't translate to Boston. She thinks that what white museumgoers thought they were doing by trying on the uchikake and taking pictures was different from what the protesters saw. The problem with Kimono Wednesdays is that it's part of a longstanding tradition of orientalism. Elena drew the comparison again to "Warbonnet Wednesday" and thought everyone would understand why it was inappropriate and why Native Americans would be upset about it.
Christina: Doesn't buy the MFA's claims that Kimono Wednesdays were a way to appreciate Japanese culture because the uchikake were made in relation to a painting by a white man. She thinks the appreciation of Japanese culture should have been in relation to the Hokusai exhibit (in a different gallery) because he's a Japanese artist.
Elena: Says that's due to "the power of racist love". "There is no greater emblem of Asian femininity and beauty than the kimono. The kimono is the most fetishized, glorified object that comes out of Japanese culture." She mentioned the crisis in the kimono industry in Japan and that she read online that for some people the fact that NHK had commissioned the uchikake from "Takurazaka" (she actually means Takarazuka Stage Co.) "which does cross dress women's performances in male drag" raised some flags for people (not sure what she means by this) but that she read that a "traditional kimono maker" that made the uchikake. (I don't know where she read this but I think it's correct. The MFA told me that "Skilled artisans [in the costume section] made the kimono based on the design by Takarazuka’s costume designer.") She doesn't think that the Kimono Wednesdays protest was an attempt to hurt the kimono industry in Japan but that "in some ways it helps to support that and shore that up." (She didn't explain how the protest supports kimono makers.) In the language of orientalism women wearing kimono are a "weird symbol of Asian femininity and sexuality". The MFA completely failed to contextualize this fetish. It's "weird to watch white people gleefully putting on these sort of accoutrements of Asian female sexuality and stereotyping."
Christina: Talked about the business phrase "opening the kimono". Thinks it's "a totally sleazy, extremely misogynistic term" related to the fetish.
(NPR says that the phrase has origins in feudal Japan so I consulted my friend Izumi Noguchi, who runs the Boston Kimono Club, about what the phrase might be in Japanese and what the origins are. She in turn consulted her mother in Japan! They said the Japanese phrase is "kyokin wo hiraku" 胸襟を開く. Kyo means chest and kin means collar so the idea is that you're opening your collar to show your thoughts, meaning "I have nothing to hide and I'm letting you see inside because I have complete trust in you." Her mother pointed out that this phrase would be used by men in important positions when having high levels talks, such as when President Obama and Prime Minister Abe met in April to discuss the US-Japan security alliance. The phrase is still in use by the media but not something you hear colloquially. It's unclear how the etymology of "opening the kimono" is related to "kyokin wo hiraku," but I thought it would be worth sharing. If anyone knows a linguist who can answer this question, we would love to know.)
Paul: Going forward he wants to remind people that "The MFA is not a monolith, it's an abstraction. It's people." The MFA and other powerful institutions are not going to disappear so the question is whether Asians in American can be involved with institutions as they plan programming, exhibits, and displays. We need to be involved with these organizations before the events. Thinks it's important to empower people who already work at the MFA who have an understanding of cultural appropriation and who can ask "Is this cultural exchange or cultural appropriation and what are the impacts of it?" as they are thinking about the event. If those people don't exist in the MFA's organization he hopes they will bring some in. Paul said he's not only talking about the MFA and called out the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet and other "powerful cultural institutions within [Boston]". He hopes that one of the consequences of the protest is that people who are capable of answering the question of "Is something tinged with cultural appropriation even though it's within a contest of cultural exchange?" will be attracted to work at these types of organizations.
Christina: Recounted her personal experience of what led up to her being pictured in The Boston Globe holding her sign next to the elderly white couple. (I couldn't find the photo on their website but I think it originally ran with this article and may have been this photo or this one or something similar.) Before the first Kimono Wednesday there were many posts to the MFA's Facebook page where "community members" were complaining about how the event was being advertised and also complaining about the event itself. They received no response from the MFA, though there was "infighting" on the page with other community members. (Not clear if she means the Boston community or the AAPI community.)
She went to the first Kimono Wednesday to talk to someone on the curatorial staff or anyone on staff who could speak for the event. When she asked if there was someone she could talk to or some way to make a comment she was directed to "the visitor suggestion page they have downstairs" (I think she may be referring to a desk where you can talk to staff if you have questions.) She was told that the MFA gets a lot of comments so "at some point" she would be contacted. She didn't feel that was acceptable since this wasn't just a casual comment. Christina felt she was dismissed and said that was problematic, especially since the event was only happening for 5 weeks. Eventually she was directed to Deputy Director Katie Getchell, who she said very quickly said "Well, we don't think it's racist." She said that's easy for Ms. Getchell, as a white woman in authority, to say.
(I spoke with Ms. Getchell to get her recollection of what happened. It started with Christina being hostile in her conversation with the protective services staffer on duty in the gallery that night, which I should note was not the only time she was hostile towards protective services staff. Following that, Ms. Getchell spoke with Christina, who would barely let her get a word in edgewise. Ms. Getchell recalled that what she said was that giving visitors tactile experiences to better understand the art is something they've been doing for a long time and that given the success of similar events in Japan, they thought that MFA visitors would appreciate having this type of interactive experience with La Japonaise. They certainly would not have staged Kimono Wednesdays if they thought it was offensive or racist.)
The next week, after a lot of thought, Christina and another protester made signs with the intent of making it "uncomfortable for the MFA". Her sign read: "The MFA is all about cultural experiences. Try on the kimono and learn what it's like to be a racist imperialist !!!today!!!" She meant "Get your inner Camille on." She used "the chopsticks font to emphasize the racial aspect of this typographically because I'm a nerd." She said that when people were saying "You went too far by calling them racists!" she thinks that what they mean is that she was calling them "bad people" because that's the American understanding of racism – either you're a good person or a bad person. That isn't her understanding of racism which is that "you are participating in a system and have power and privilege to perpetuate these racist stereotypes." Christina doesn't think that people's intent and whether she was offended or not is relevant to the conversation. If her sign had said "This event is somewhat problematic" it wouldn't have been effective.
A lot of people asked if they tried to have a conversation with the museum before protesting and she said, "Yes we did. To a lot of deferrment. And these are the recourses that as marginalized people we have to go through to be heard." The alternative is that she fills out the form and doesn't hear from anyone for six months at which point the damage has been done.
After that the MFA changed the event so that visitors couldn't try on the uchikake but still had them on display and changed the title of the talk from "Flirting with the Exotic", which she said the MFA tried to "innocently characterize as 'Well, we're not going really deep; we're just flirting with it.'" She called that a bold-faced denial of the sexual connotations. She wasn't impressed with their "non-apology" which she described as "we're sorry that we offended some people". Christina said it isn't about offense but about the impact that it has on Asian American women and that events like this make us more susceptible to violence, objectification, and dehumanization.
Shiliu directed this question to Paul and Elena.
What accounts for the various reactions among AAPI folks about Kimono Wednesday? As Shaina mentioned earlier the reactions have ranged from indifference to support to anger.
Paul: "I think that about covers it." He called himself a "professional Asian American" because he's often asked to talk about what Asian Americans think. He never says "Asian Americans believe this" because many Asian Americans don't think of themselves as Asian Americans. He and his colleagues will usually qualify whatever they say by saying "most Asian Americans". He talked about believing in the "agency of individuals" and "that people have a right to what their perspective is on things." He can question people's perspective and talk about the consequences but "I seldom tell a person that based upon your individual experience in your life which is not mine, I'm telling you the way that you're supposed to believe." He's not going to tell people what they can believe about Kimono Wednesdays, all he can do is educate. He hoped that educating had been happening at the panel and said that he learned a lot.
Elena: She called Christina's comments "brilliant" and said that lukewarm, mild-mannered activism or voicing criticism doesn't go very far. "You inspire me. And the other protesters inspire me for putting themselves out there and daring to be angry Asian women in a public place. There's such a long legacy of Asian Americans behaving as model minorities. The loud angry stereotypical people of color are African American or our Latino brothers and sisters. Asian Americans are always constructed as the well-behaved ones, the good ones, unless we're being anchor babies and then we're bad." If the protest had not happened this would not have become an "international incident" and she applauded them for making Kimono Wednesdays visible.
Elena found the social media attacks on protesters "stunning and disturbing" and described them as "misogynistic, racist, extremely hateful, and violent comments that were made about the Asian American protesters based on their gender and their bodies". The "violence of that hatred... provoked me to jump in with both feet." Christina said that's what she meant when she talked about the susceptibility to violence. Elena added that "really hateful violent statements were made and threats." (Elena did not comment about any of the racist and hateful comments the protesters made to their critics.)
Christina: Called the protest "just a spark". She protested because of the lack of conversation and dialogue. "Ultimately one individual putting on the kimono doesn't really make or break white supremacy. But community-scale consumption and discussion of history, of community interaction – that does matter." She said that's why it's important to have this panel.
Paul: "Well I applaud the protest." He said he understand the protesters and sees this protest as part of the long tradition of Asian American protest. "I think Elena is absolutely right that there's this notion that Asian Americans have been pawns, they haven't been players when it comes to activism and politics and so forth but that's just the stereotype. It's ahistorical. It's wrong. The history of Asian American is the history of people protesting. Small people protesting. And you have to protest because if you're weak and powerless relative to the structures that exist, the only thing you have available to you is your protest." He got emotional when he talked about his parents being incarcerated during WWII and said people did oppose the incarceration of Japanese Americans. His mother was one of the "no-nos" who had her citizenship revoked. The current discussion we're having about birthing and citizenship is because some people went against policies that denied them citizenship. "The history of Asian America is the history of protest even when they're denied citizenship and rights as citizens, the ability to vote, the subject of oppression of various kinds, the people have risen up and opposed them. They're not the famous names that we see. But they're voiceless people. They're small people as we see it." He called this "The tradition of Asian Americans. The lost history of Asian America." Protests are "a very important vehicle – weapon if you will – of those who are struggling for something that they're being denied because of the power and the oppression that exists."
Shiliu directed this question to Christina.
How do you account for people who disagreed and found the event either inoffensive or actually were supportive of it?
Christina: Said it was a little easier for her "characterize" white people who wanted to have fun and take pictures in the kimono. Her understanding of the Japanese nationals who found the protest frustrating or felt that it "diminished their voices" is that they think that "Japanese ethnicity is the most important aspect" of Kimono Wednesdays. She thinks it should be that way but in the American context of race, because we live in a racist country with a long history of racism, race flattens ethnicity. She thinks ethnicity is dangerous for race because when it pushes against the boundaries of race and reveal the flattening. Her definition of racism is "the operation of race". Her definition of ethnicity as "cultural commonalities based on geography, based on a shared place".
She cited the example of Jewish people and how they became white by flattening their Jewish ethnicity. One of the ways she says this happened is the 1927 film The Jazz Singer which stars Jewish-American, "Al Johnson" (his name is actually Al Jolson). She said the film contained blackface/minstrelsy performed by Jewish-Americans. Since they have to wear make up, it shows they're not black, therefore they are white. (I talked to some of my friends about this, including a rabbi, and I have a lot to share from them, but it's a bit off-topic for this post so I'll include that in my follow-up post.)
Monet & japonisme contributed to orientalism by flattening Asian ethnicities because the uchikake isn't in a Japanese context.
What kind of social dynamics within Asian communities does this event reveal?
Elena: The idea that we're living in a post-racial society is a myth. She talked about Black Lives Matter and how a lot of the violence we've seen in America in the past year have become "social media events". She sees "a real sense of intolerance by people of color for racialized violence, for racist depictions, representations." Elena was fascinated by how the Kimono Wednesdays controversy unfolded on social media and how quickly that happened. There's a big difference between the activism of POC 20 years ago when she was a graduate student and now where social media can bring mainstream media attention and "generate momentum in a way I've never seen before" on a "national and global scale". She sees "a real zero tolerance for any sort of action/depiction of racist hate or racist love." She also urged Paul to get a Twitter account.
Paul: Thought the framing of the discussion as being among "Asian Americans and people of Asian descent globally about these issues" is a legitimate discussion to have. He thinks that people of different Asian ethnicities need to have this conversation. Some of his Japanese national friends were unable to understand how Japanese Americans could agree with non-Japanese Asian Americans about Kimono Wednesdays. He said being a professional Asian American has made him a better Japanese American. He also thinks that his understanding of Asian America has helped some of his friends in Japan and other countries gain a better understanding of what it means to be Asian American in American society.
We should be having this conversation and it's reasonable for make space to have this conversation although it's not the only one that needs to be had. "In the run-up to this particular meeting there had been some questioning about whether creating an opportunity for people of Asian descent to have that conversation among themselves was exclusionary and legitimate. I think it's important. I don't think we should exclude any voices, but I think it's a legitimate conversation to make. It's one of the conversations that we should have and I'm glad that we're having it.
Christina: Felt there has been a disconnect between those of "national origin with a country that will receive them as belonging and diasporic people who have been cut off from those places of their ethnic origin where they get represented and celebrated." There needs to be more conversations about "what is Asian American" – that there was no discussion of South and Southeast Asians in this context, and that "there are complicated webs of what it is to be a different kinds of Asians" and what solidarity and recognition looks like among Asians Americans. We need to figure out how to acknowledge those different experiences and the differences even within the same ethnicity, such as her and her parents. The only way we can move forward is to have these conversations, ask hard questions, and try to be honest.
Statement from a counterprotester
This is the statement that Shiliu read before going into the questions.
"As a counterprotester, I would like to offer my own stance and those of some of my fellows. We can easily agree that the MFA did not do a good job of contextualizing the exhibit. Where some of us took issue with is the words and signage of the "protesters". Some of the signs called the event yellowface, something we disagreed with, other protesters accused our white members of being racist for wearing kimonos ever. We became worried about what message the visitors of the event would pick up. We wanted to support another side to the issue and express that the event was not as one-sided as the protesters made it look. We wanted to express our sorrow over losing the opportunity for visitors to try on the kimono. We wanted to let visitors know wearing a kimono is okay. We were reassured by one person that this wasn't about wearing the kimono but yet the signage told a different story. I personally was afraid of spurring on the decline of the kimono industry by not addressing the real issue of the context of the exhibit and instead telling visitors that wearing kimonos make them an imperialist, full stop. I personally agree with having a protest – I think this one was ineffective and damaging to the community."
Christina: Said the comment about the signage being different was "totally valid" and that she would take responsibility for the imperialist sign she made. "In this amount of space there's not a really a lot of ability to have the full discussion that I wanted to have. And this is not by any means an exoneration of that choice." Thinks the focus should be on the responsibility the MFA had and "their mischaracterization of the event". She said they can disagree about the tactics and how Kimono Wednesdays was protested but there is common ground about the lack of contextualization. Called the comment fair and said she would accept it. Said he MFA needs to be held accountable for providing the discussion that was missing. Thinks that the protesters and the counterprotesters did the MFA's job for them by contextualizing and educating the public. "The purpose of the protest was to try and hold the MFA responsible for their actions."
Paul: Agrees that there is common ground regarding the need to contextualize. Moving forward this could be done better.
Christina: Says everyone can wear a kimono but "with full participation in the culture from it comes from, not in the sort of consumable, disposable way" that the MFA was staging Kimono Wednesdays.
Paul then said you have to tie your obi correctly and Elena said that it's offensive to Japanese people when you don't have your "flaps right".
(Youtubers Rachel & Jun say you can wear kimono how you want to. I consulted Izumi about what Elena said. She said it's not offensive, just incorrect. Elena is referring to the fact that today kimonos are worn with the left side on top of the right side if you're alive. For the deceased the right side is over the left. This is called hidarimae 左前 ("left over right"). The word also refers to a downturn in a business or individual's financial fortunes. Some trivia: kimono were worn in the hidarimae style until the 7th century when Chinese court costumes came to Japan. These were worn migimae 右前 ("right over left"). They had mass confusion for a little while before Empress Genshō said everyone had to wear kimonos migimae.)
As someone who is Japanese American I understand very well that the kimono is fetishized, however, I am very sensitive for those of us who want to wear and reclaim kimono culture. How can we do this in an empowering and supportive way without making kimono into a fad?
Elena: You should wear your yukata and kimono as she noted one audience member was "with pride and no apology". She said that people in Japan are selling their kimonos for nothing and it's easy to buy kimonos in eBay or at temple sales.
Paul: Agreed, but said "just don't wear it to events where the context is that you're doing it to "flirt with the exotic".
How can Japanese nationals promote Japanese culture in the US in a sensitive way? They want Americans and foreigners to interact with Japanese culture and don't understand or relate to cultural appropriation.
(I submitted this question on behalf of someone in Japan. The lack of understanding is certainly not true for all Japanese nationals living in Japan or the US, however, for the majority it seems to be a concept that they don't understand.)
Christina: Didn't want to address the question directly because she's not Japanese but said, "White Americans need to figure out how to represent Japanese culture in a sensitive way and privilege Japanese national voices."
Paul: Spends a lot of time in both Japan and US talking to Japanese nationals about the Asian/Japanese American experience. Most don't know much about it and they usually find the conversations "eye-opening". He said there's a lack of dialogue between Japanese in Japan and Japanese Americans that he sees as related to WWII. Historically Japanese in Japan haven't had much interest in the Japanese diaspora but that has changed and he thinks they're eager to learn more. He thinks that part of the difficulty for Japanese is just their lack of understanding about what it's like to be Japanese in America. They find it difficult to understand how we can have a connection to other Asian Americans or other POC so he tries to help them understand.
This event helped me understand the importance of questioning AAPI representation but my question is how we can transcend the question of representation more towards addressing systemic injustices?
Christina: Speak, ask questions, learn every time it comes up. Systemic injustice is not just about representation, but the US is media-driven so much of it is about representation. Thinks it's difficult to tackle other systemic justice until we address representation.
Elena: Called Kimono Wednesdays an example of "racial pretend, racial drag, racial masquerade, crossdressing, and all that. Mentioned that American sculptor Cyrus Dallin's Appeal to the Great Spirit sculpture in front of the MFA that appears to be of a Native American on a horse was actually an Italian model (named Antonio Corsi). She had no idea it was a "redface sculpture." "The MFA has a longstanding tradition of unexamined and unquestioned art exhibits that are completely invisible in terms of problematic racial politics."
Christina: Racism is prejudice based on how people are represented so it can't be separated from systemic injustice which makes representation part of racial politics. Elena added that it is an "interlocking system."
Paul: Power and race are inextricably entwined. US's population is shifting and will become majority POC soon and some people thinks that means we'll be post-racial and don't have to think about race once whites are no longer dominant. Race and power will be relevant even if whites are no longer dominant and Paul thinks it should be the frame for the discussion.
Christina: Pointed out that white supremacy can exist even if whites aren't the majority. Paul agreed and said it's not like it will automatically stop at a certain point in the future. Christina brought up the fact that Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans were not seen as white until "it was convenient or useful for white supremacy as an institution to allow them in for the purpose of subjugating black people."
Paul: Called the next presidential election "fundamentally an election about race and the future of American". He sees it as the agenda that the conservative right is pushing over all other issues.
What would be the best way to talk to your fellow Asian Americans/Asians who don't realize the racist systems we're in and engage them in racial discussion?
(This question sounds a lot like "how do you convert people to Antiracism". For counterpoint I recommend Dr. John McWhorter's Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion)
Christina: You have to evaluate this on a case-by-case basis. Consider your own boundaries but try to have those conversations whenever you can. Be compassionate. Validate their experience, but try to broaden the conversation. It isn't about whose voice should be on top - that's the model of white supremacy. "A conversation is amongst many peers." Differences have to be recognized and accepted. It's not about who's right/wrong - it's a faulty way of framing the conversation that creates division.
Paul: Doesn't tell people "they live in a racist society and that they're being treated in a racist fashion" but talks to them about their life experience instead. He often gets invited to talk to Asian American executives. He doesn't go in and tell them they're being treated badly and deserve promotions. He asks questions about how long they've been there, what their work performance is, and who gets the promotions in the company - usually a white person who hasn't been there as long. He doesn't have to spell it out for them. People understand when they're being discriminated against.
What does building solidarity between/among Asian American and Asian communities, those who don't identify as Asian American, anyone in the Asian diaspora look like?
(This is a paraphrase of Shiliu's own question.)
Christina: Solidary and allyship aren't just about empathy. She participated in the panel as an attempt at this. Talk to people, listen to them, find common ground. Finds the term "solidarity" politically charged – "the personal is political". "Sometimes you don't have the space to bring someone along on a conversation if the purpose is to change really concrete policy. You have to move forward with your movement and calling people and petitioning and things like that. And then there are other times in which you have to make space for the different experiences and hear that someone disagree with you or doesn't see things in the same way and try and recognize that those are acceptable ways of existing or perceiving the world." There is no one way to build solidarity, which is building trusting relationships.
Elena: Participated in the panel in solidarity with the protesters getting "slammed" on social media. Plans to use Kimono Wednesdays as a case study in her classes going forward because it's "mulit-layered and complicated and has global complexities." Sees her teaching as part of her activism.
Paul: Wanted to answer the question beyond Asian Americans. How would you build solidarity among Asian Americans and Latinos on immigration? He talked about a conversation that a local Asian American community organization had with elderly Chinese people about the topic of undocumented and illegal immigrants. They think it's a big problem. Then they were asked how many people had "paper sons" in their families. Most did. Then they could understand that what their families did was no different than what undocument immigrants from Latin America are doing today. Many Asians don't understand what the big deal is regarding the name controversy of the NFL's Washington Redskins team. He said Louisiana State University's football team used to be called the Chinese Bandits. (This is not accurate. In 1958, the defensive unit of their team was given that nickname by their coach and it was subsequently the title of one of their songs.) Part of the structure, the genius of the predominance of white supremacy is in fact to not allow us to have these overlapping experiences and conversations." The power is the united capacity that exists... That scares the bejesus out of a lot of people within the United States. The possibilities that that power exists. It's not going to happen automatically."
How can we make sure that the term Asian American does not continue to flatten race? As someone who is of Japanese heritage I find it problematic that the voices of Japanese heritage were not prioritized [by the protest group] and made it difficult to feel connected to my Asian American comrades. I think you have to be careful to make sure our organizing strategies do not reinforce a flattening like Christina speaks about.
Christina: Asian Americans banded together after Vincent Chin's murder as a way of resisting this sort of flattening but it's complicated because then it makes the flattening more concrete. She said she protested because she wanted "to insist on the ethnic specificities of the event, of the uchikake and not to allow it to become an orientalized fantasy, not to allow it to become "Asianized." Which is may be not what the MFA on its face presented the event as, but because of the decontextualization of both the painting and then the sort of re-presentation of the painting along with the uchikakes is the impact of what the event had. Why I'm here is that this is a follow through - this is my way of following through insisting that that conversation about the specificity of the ethnic and cultural legacy of the kimono needs to be respected and a way of both contextualizing why identifying as Asian American is important but also not allowing that or insisting that Japanese people have a particular history that is different from being Chinese American [or other Asian Americans]."
Elena: Talked about the media coverage being overly simplistic and disseminating misinformation about what the Kimono Wednesdays protest was about and she could see how that could be interpreted as an attack on kimono, Japan, and Japanese people "which creates this tension and gap between Japanese nationals and Asian Americans". She understands Asian American as being a "powerful, collective political term that brings together Asian people from across the diaspora". She mentioned an essay on this topic by Tufts University Professor of English, Dr. Lisa Lowe, that was written about 20 years ago (she may have been referring to a chapter from Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics). Asian Americans don't come from a single place. The identity came out of the activism in the 60s and 70s. (As I've written before, nisei historian and civil rights activist Yuji Ichioka, was "widely credited with coining the term "Asian American"" in the late 60s.) "It's disheartening that in the social media representation that this schism was created between Japanese nationals and Asian Americans. Asian Americans are heavily invested as a political group in Asians in American and the Asian diaspora and that includes Asian nationals."
We heard from a Japanese national who lives and works in Boston.
She took issue with saying that Japanese nationals don't understand what's going on because it's flattens them as a group. Her passport says she's a Japanese national but she understands racism and oppression that happens here. She wanted to know what exactly the definition of "Japanese nationals" is in this context.
Christina: She understands it to mean anyone who can go to Japan and be accepted by society as Japanese (which she believes is not the case for Japanese Americans), who has both political power and media representation. Paul agreed.
The woman said that as a Japanese national living in the US without US citizenship she feels that she can't be fully part of conversations like this. She described feeling as though she was "a little bit in, but out".
Another woman who was born here responded that as Asian Americans we also sometimes exist in an inbetween space where we're neither fully American nor fully Asian. Her coworker had just told her "You don't look American" meaning she doesn't look white.
Paul: The lines of identity between Asian Americans and the countries their families came from are blurred regardless of how long we have lived in the US. This is not true for most European Americans. The majority of Americans with European heritage are of German descent but most people don't question whether German Americans are American or where their loyalties lie. If Germany does something bad that doesn't reflect on German Americans. Whether we want it or not the fates of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals are tied together. He said Japan's actions had an impact on his life and livelihood in the past and continues to have an impact today, so he has a vested interest in understanding more about Japan (which he does have a personal interest in) and what Japanese people know about Japanese Americans. This is why it's important for him to communicate to them what it's like to be a Japanese American.
The Japanese woman said that although her passport says otherwise she feels American in some ways so she didn't like the Asian American / Japanese national binary.
Christina: Said that her voice needs to be added to the conversation that Asian Americans are having.
Another woman talked about how Asian cultures value hard work (this notion is part of the model minority myth) and that because of this, Asian American workers are seen as a "workhorse" and given a larger workload. In the American workplace, especially at higher levels, being extroverted is rewarded. Questioned whether extroversion was the best way to run a company and suggested that maybe more people should have a better work ethic. She wonders how we can find solutions and not assimilate into this paradigm.
Paul: Talked a leaked memo from Lucent Technologies around 10 years ago. They analyzed the work force based on race and they found that Asians worked hard but they're not leaders so you don't put them in charge or in creative positions. (This story sounded familiar to me but I tried a lot of searches and wasn't able to find anything.) He called this notion "bullshit". It serves to protect the structures of power (which tends to be white and male) that exist in corporate America.
Christina: Doesn't think we should question stereotypes by proving them wrong. She describes her self as "sometimes a loud Asian" which goes against the stereotype that we're quiet and meek, but she doesn't think we should substitute stereotypes with different stereotypes. She said we have to insist that we're not binary - that we are diverse.
An older sansei Japanese American man who is an AARW and JACL member spoke at length about positive experiences he's had with the MFA. The MFA has a the largest collection of Japanese art outside Japan. He mentioned the Hokusai exhibit which was on display at the same time as Kimono Wednesdays, talked about the large amount of money spent on the renovation of the Japanese Garden behind the MFA. He mentioned that The Japan Society of Boston is the oldest Japan society in the US. The MFA was one of the first to invite Odaiko New England, one of New England's oldest taiko groups, to perform. He did express frustration that Japanese events happening at the MFA don't always get communicated to the Japanese community. Expressed concern about the amount of "venom" around the protests.
He also urged people to go to the Stone Gallery at Boston University to see "Murakami mural panels" (he means the Muraki's The Hiroshima Panels) until Sunday, October 18th. (There is also a performance this Thursday, October 8th at 6pm.)
Paul: Feels that one of the costs of Kimono Wednesdays is that it makes people like Paul and this man question the MFA and could lead to disassociation from the MFA would actually be their loss. Paul mentioned that he noted that day that his membership lapsed, something which wasn't intentional and was not a political statement. He said he will probably renew his membership but said that he'll take a moment to really think about his membership means. That could be his form of protest, his way of saying to the MFA that "Until you being to get your act together and think about these sorts of things, maybe Paul Watanabe's little protest is 'I'm not going to give the MFA my $110/year. And I'm going to be the lesser for it based upon what you've just said."
Christina: She was glad to hear from a Japanese American about having a good relationship with the MFA but said "that a relationship is ongoing process and to continue to have a relationship that's fruitful and productive and consensual I think that it's important to be able to be honest enough between the participants of a relationship to have the hard conversation of "This is possibly problematic in some ways". She doesn't think the MFA a pass on Kimono Wednesdays because of their Japanese art collection and past support of Japanese culture. She said we have to be "really vigilant about every single interaction. That's what a fruitful, healthy relationship looks like to me."
Carolyn closed by saying "We do hope this is the beginning of many conversations and that we can continue to come together across our different viewpoints and experiences." She said there may be future events. If you would like to sign up to be notified, you can contact AARW.
"POC only" Controversy
I first saw details for the panel on August 30th in the New England Japanese American Citizen League September newsletter. There was no mention of there being any restrictions on who could attend so I invited a lot of people who were Japanese American, Japanese, Asian American, and white. In turn some of my friends invited some of their friends.
Some of you may have read Franklin Einspruch's "Event Violating MassArt Non-Discrimination Policy To Be Held at MassArt " published on his blog. I know that some people were upset by Franklin's piece, but the fact is that the original plan that the panel organizers had to have a POC only event was both illegal (due to the venue) and discriminatory. They may not have had ill intent and they may not see it that way but when you organize a talk and bar a group of people from attending based solely on their race/the color of their skin, that's discrimination. Some would argue that POC safe spaces are needed and while I do see their merit, I don't agree that it was warranted for this event.
This is the timetable of how the controversy unfolded. On Friday September, 11th, I found the Facebook event page that had been created the previous morning via this NAPAWF post. Although the event description on the event page did not include any language limiting who could attend, the NAPAWF post stated "This event is POC only" and Christina (as Xtina Huilan Wang) had posted on the event page: "I'm going to be a panelist for this discussion. This will be a POC space only, so if you're not please reach out and pass it along to folks you know who are and would be interested in attending this." The message was clear: "whites not welcome". On top of that, the language in the event description stated, "Accordingly, this panel discussion invites AAPI folks and people of color to listen to and reflect with one another. Because exclusively AAPI spaces rarely exist in mainstream institutions and otherwise, only self-identified AAPI will be privileged to speak. All people of color, however, are invited to attend and share questions, thoughts, and experiences through writing, for which materials will be provided. This event is free to attend, and for those unable to physically attend, the discussion will be recorded, transcribed, and (hopefully) translated for public use at a later date."
The first thing I did was uninvite all the white people I had invited and also notify all the Asians in case they had invited white partners or friends. After that I realized I should ask the JACL if they were aware of this since there are white members in the group (they were not aware). Later on I realized that this likely was not legal and checked MassArt's non-discrimination policy. I had forgotten it was a state school making it even more problematic. The policy seemed pretty clear but I contacted MassArt to find out if this went against their policy and they expressed their concern and indicated it would be a problem. I considered writing about it but decided to see if the JACL would take any action. I also talked to other Japanese American community leaders and chatted with my friends about it.
By Saturday the confusing event language in the event description and Christina's post had been removed, but it still remained on the NAPAWF post. I texted my panel organizer contact and asked if the event was POC only and was told it was not. I found out that Paul contacted them on Friday to let the know that was a problem so they made the decision to open it to all. I also pointed out that it was likely illegal, so I was glad to hear they had opened the event to all.
They later changed the language to "Accordingly, this panel discussion invites Asian-identified folks and people of color tolisten to and reflect with one another. Because exclusively Asian spaces rarely exist in mainstream institutions and otherwise, those voiceswill be prioritized in this discussion." AARW also posted something clarifying that "Due to community feedback, this event is free and open for all to come listen and share questions, thoughts, and experiences. However, we hope to prioritize the voices of people of Asian descent during the discussion."
In the meantime I heard from other people that they had contacted MassArt and on Monday, September 14th, the day that Franklin published the piece on his blog, I heard from multiple sources that MassArt's administration had spoken to Christina and clarified for her that the event had to be open to people of all races and that they could not prevent non-AAPIs from speaking. I'm told that her response to MassArt was to reassure them that the event was open to all and that what they meant by "only self-identified AAPI will be privileged to speak" was that all the panelists were AAPI. On Monday NAPAWF finally removed the "POC only" language from their post.
Legality aside, I have some additional thoughts about POC only spaces. A few things were clear with the initial event description posted to Facebook. The first was that they didn't want to include whites, perhaps believing that was the only way to create a safe space for the Asians they felt needed to have this conversation alone, although why they would then want to include other POC is unclear. They apparently didn't think carefully about the language they were using nor did they stop to consider that what they were doing might be illegal (because of the location at a state school, it would have been illegal to bar whites from attending). Several people asked me if by saying that "only self-identified AAPI will be privileged to speak" they intended to bar Japanese nationals from speaking. I guessed correctly (I confirmed this with my contact) that they had included Japanese nationals under "AAPI" and simply meant that all Asians would be permitted to speak, but the confusion is understandable since most Japanese nationals living in the US probably don't identify as Asian American.
I talked to one community leader who is an advocate for POC only safe spaces but said you need to be really thoughtful about how you approach their creation. I have participated in events that were women only and queer POC only and I do understand their utility, however these were usually small discussion groups, not talks ostensibly open to the public. I also think that when event organizers are restricting who can attend they should provide a clear explanation that details the rationale of how they feel it will create a safe space that gives people the understanding that the goal is not to exclude certain groups. I don't think that saying that an event is "POC only" accomplishes that.
The organizer I was in touch with said it wasn't their intention to exclude whites but to create a space in which Asians would feel more open to speak freely. Many marginalized groups self-censor in the presence of others not in their group, so in theory this makes sense. However, with racial and ethnic identity and looks becoming increasing complex, I think it can be hard to justify a POC space, especially at an event that is a bit like a lecture. Although the event was billed as "an intra-community dialogue," most of the talk time was given to the panelists, not to the audience so the dialogue was mostly among the panelists.
Something I said to several people I talked with was that POC frequently complain that whites aren't versed in race issues, a complaint that I saw leveled against whites on the protest Facebook pages and on Twitter. I don't see how whites can be expected to learn more about these subjects if we exclude them from educational events. These days Asian American families may include whites as partners/spouses, parents (biological, adoptive and step), children (adopted or step). Perhaps some immigrants and second generation Asian Americans don’t understand this. For me it's normal. On my mom’s side we’ve been here for over 100 years and I’ve had whites in my family my entire life. One of my aunts married a white man so I have hapa cousins. Some of my cousins married white people so they have hapa kids. Some of my cousin’s kids have married white people. The reality is that whites have been part of Asian American families for many decades. Whites in Asian American families should absolutely be included at POC events, especially educational ones. Even if they themselves are not Asian American as the relative of an Asian American they have even more reason to learn about and understand Asian American issues.
I had really interesting conversations with some light-skinned non-Asian POC friends about the complexity of identity and how people are viewed based on their perceived race. They were all deeply uncomfortable with the idea of supposed POC only spaces because they've been challenged to prove they were POC and excluded from POC groups/events because people mistook them for white. One said, "I'm African-American, but don't look it, and the whole conversation about "POC only" makes me so deeply uncomfortable it's hard to articulate." A blonde-haired Mexican-Hispanic friend asked, "Would I be rejected in that space because of my complexion? Welcomed because of my name?" and then "How colored is colored?" I did see some people who attended the panel who I know to be mixed race, although I've heard that some of them pass as white among those who don't know what hapa Asians look like. It would be terrible if someone like them or my friends who can pass as white would avoid an event like this because they are worried about being challenged at the door.
I think if AARW and NAPAWF feel the need to have a POC only discussion then perhaps that's something that should only be open to their members. It doesn't seem right to have an event that is theoretically open to the public and to exclude some people because of their race.
Thoughts on the Panel
This has taken much longer to write than I was anticipating so I'm going to write up my thoughts about the panel and things I've heard from others who attended in a follow-up post at a later date. For now I'll just say that I haven't spoken with anyone who wasn't disappointed or frustrated with the lack of balance on the panel and that certain topics were barely touched upon or not addressed at all. I will say that the lack of balance was not for lack of trying on the part of the four organizers. There were a number of Japanese and Japanese Americans who were invited to be on the panel or to moderate, including myself, who declined for a variety of reasons. I appreciate all the hard work the organizers put into the event. Unfortunately, I think their efforts were hampered by the fact that all of the organizers were also protesters. I invited many people to attend and most questioned the organizers' motives and told me that they weren’t willing to participate in a panel organized by protesters.
The next Kimono Wednesdays related panel is being hosted by art website, Hyperallergic, tonight, Wednesday, October 7th in Brooklyn, NY. Hyperallergic ArtTalk discussing Kimono Wednesdays and the Decolonialization of Museums will also livestreamed. RSVPs are requested on Eventbrite and there is some heated discussion happening on the Facebook event page if you want to chime in. I didn't see much Japanese or Japanese American participation in the conversation. (Update 9:15pm: The talk is archived here.)
Some of the comments on the Facebook event page seem to imply that AARW and NAPAWF own the concept of having a panel about Kimono Wednesdays and that Hyperallergic is stealing their ideas. As far as I'm aware, both NAPAWF (AARW partnered with them later) and Hyperallergic came up with their panel ideas independently and the first organization to announce they would be planning a symposium was actually the MFA.
I was invited to be on the NAPAWF panel in July at the final protest by one of the protesters who it seemed invited me at Christina's direction. I received the Hyperallergic invite in mid-August. I believe the AARW/NAPAWF panel wasn't announced until sometime in late August when AARW sent it to their members in their calendar. It was not posted to Facebook until September 10th. Since the panels have very different focus, I don't see why Hyperallergic needed to invite one of the protesters or acknowledge the AARW/NAPAWF panel. They may have some overlapping discussion but no one from Hyperallergic attended the AARW/NAPAWF panel and since the organizers haven't released the audio recording, and the media didn't cover it (the event was not open to media – something they did not announce in advance), it was not possible for Hyperallergic to comment on what was said there.
The protesters also complained about Hyperallergic stealing their language. They didn't specify what they felt Hyperallergic had plagiarized but I would like to note that the idea of decolonizing museums predates the Stand Against Yellow-Face/Decolonize Our Museums protest of the MFA. I did not see any language that appeared to be lifted from SAYF/DOM's materials. However, their demand to be included on the panel was met.
The Tufts Japanese Culture Club is in the early planning stages to host an academic panel during the 2015-2016 academic year on a topic related to issues brought up by the Kimono Wednesdays protest. This was an idea I pitched to them and I'm very glad they have decided to move forward with it. I will post about the MFA symposium and the Tufts JCC* panel when I have more details. If anyone knows of any other upcoming panels or talks addressing issues related to Kimono Wednesdays, please let me know.
Many thanks to Izumi Noguchi, 毛利さん, and Jean-Noël Lafargue for translation assistance. Thank you also to Ellen Carr, Johanna Daniel, Barbara Martin, and Katie Getchell. Thanks to my friends for helping me think through the POC only issues.
It has been my policy not to name any protesters, post photos of their faces, or link directly to their personal social media accounts or specific posts they made on Facebook. In this case I have identified Christina by her full name and included a photo because she was a panelist. None of the other organizers of the panel used their last names when they were introduced at the event so I have omitted them. I don't support any harassment or threats being directed at any of the protesters. Anyone who disagrees with with them should be capable of doing so without resorting to ad hominem attacks or threats.
- Japanese American Incarceration During WWII
- Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA
- Protests continue at the MFA
- Japanese people talk about whether it's okay for foreigners to wear kimono
- Counterprotest this Wednesday @ the MFA
- Japanese American and Japanese reaction to Kimono Wednesdays
- Part 1: La Japonaise replica uchikake @ Kimono Wednesdays
- Part 2: Protest and counterprotest @ July 15th Kimono Wednesday
- Myths and facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the protests
- Center for Art Law and NCAC critical of the MFA's decision to modify Kimono Wednesdays
- List of Kimono Wednesdays protest issues, concepts, and related history
- Part 1: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: media, public, critics
- Part 2: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: protesters
- Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading
- Panel: Kimono Wednesdays: A Conversation @ MFA
- 10/9/15: Added link to Koikishu "Stylish Master" Tumblr post about how the author deduced Monet's uchikake was at theatrical one. Also added Wikipedia link to The Hiroshima Panels.
- 10/10/15: Added link to photo of sign stating that the event was "closed to media".
- 10/15/15: An earlier version of this post stated that Odaiko New England is "New England's first taiko group". I have since been informed that this is not correct and have confirmed with Odaiko New England. I apologize for the error.
- 1/9/16: Added that Christina Wang is also known as Xtina. I used "Christina" in this post because that's how her name was written on the AARW Facebook event. There may be confusion because the MFA panel's event description has her name written as "Xtina".
- 2/13/16: Corrected a timeline error. This post originally stated that "I first saw details for the panel on September 30th in the New England Japanese American Citizen League October newsletter." I was off by a month. It was August 30th in the September newsletter.