(Article based on a presentation at the 2016 National Asian American Theatre Conference/Festival…ALWAYS in beta mode…ALWAYS open to revision and updating!)
(Also, need some RECENT history on yellowface in modern theatre? Go here!)
Feel like you’re drowning under a flood of whitewashing and yellowface lately? You aren’t paranoid if you do. From a Tilda Swinton impersonating a Tibetan Ancient One to a theatre company performing The Mikado with all white casts to Scarlet Johannsen playing a literally whitewashed Japanese cyborg,
The community can and does win victories against stereotyping. And it’s just not slapping hashtags like @whitewashedOUT and #starringJohnCho on social media. Activists have made some real change by meeting these stereotypes aggressively. Check out the history section on yellowface on some real victories against misrepresentation of Asians in the media.
But what if it happens, there are some definite steps you can take to combat it!
1) Report it!
The Beyond Orientalism co-hort of Theatre Communications Group (the national association of professional non-profit theatres) have established a hotline to report instances of yellow face: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2) Next, stop and think. What is your position?
Anchor your publicity with a blog post or web page statement. Tweets can spread the word, but they should refer to an easily found web page. There, you can lay out the argument succinctly and forcefully, and put your best foot forward. Alternately, you can write an open letter to the organization…but you should post it as a blog entry or web page
Sharon Chan had the advantage of a Seattle Times editorial page,
but a simple blog post like this one will do:
Talk to group involved. Sometimes they weren’t thinking (after all, it takes both effort and practice to get out of the old habits and boxes society puts us in). A frank discussion often can make changes.
4) Consider if you have to take action
On the other hand, some folks are stubborn and won’t move an inch. Others SHOULD have known better (like large organizations with large budgets). Still others will palm you off with ineffective words that aren’t backed up by action. You may have to take action to make a point–and have it stick in people’s memory. Consider it carefully, and know what the potential reactions will be.
Hashtag activism alone may not be enough to induce change, but it can be a great addition when thousands of posts flood email boxes and Facebook home pages. And, Asian Americans are wired in with respect to social media and smart phones.
6) You have allies
Numerous allies. Some of them have loud voices (publicity!) some are powerful ($$$!), some with both. Find them!
Here’s some advice
Avoid silos—Artists should intersect and work with academics and activists! Contact them, interact with them and stay involved with them. Each of them have a unique role to play
- BFAs and MFAs know the instances. They know the artistic stakes and can combat bad arguments based on artistry.
- Academics often know the legal and ideology; they can help articulate language and arguments
- Activists have the energy and bomb throwing to keep it going
The Social Justice groups in the community (the JACLs, the OCAs, 18millionrising, the Race and Social Justice Community Roundtables, both locally and nationally) are often glad to help. For example, in the case of The Mikado in Seattle, the local Japanese American Citizens’ League was involved in the discussion. In St. Louis, and the case of yellowface at the MUNY, the OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates of Saint Louis was vocal in community criticism. And please! Don’t forget to ally yourself with your counterparts in other communities of color, the black, the Latinx, the Native American community—they’ll scratch your back as long as you scratch theirs.
7) Use Media
Contact local media, both mainstream and community papers. But remember. Any press you get should be for the right reasons. Don’t talk about how “you shut it down”
These are names of national figures in theatre equity and representation who might be interested in your case
- Asian American Performers Action Coalition
- Jacqueline Lawton
- Howard Sherman
- Erin Quill
- Angry Asian Man (Phil Yu)
- ReAppropriate (Jenn Fang)
- Racebending.com (Marissa Lee)
Remember to build bridges to these communities and with white allies in between crises. You don’t want to be always reacting, you want to be ready.
Also…a resource! The Asian American Journalists Association has a guide on how to cover Asian American topics…it’s also a handy guide on common traps on stereotyping and history behind the efforts fighting yellowface.
Does this mean everything is hunky dory and yellowface and whitewashing will soon be a relic of the past? Alas, there will always be a few not-so-swift folks who think it’s perfectly fine to whitewash a part or dress up in yellowface (and against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain…). But the lesson here is that community pushback is effective in moving the ball forward for representation, and that the work is often overlooked in the heat of the first news about whitewashing and yellowface.
Two of the groups driving the push nationally on stage are the Beyond Orientalism forums (a co-hort of Theatre Communications Group, the national groups for professional non-profit theatres) and the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA).
Beyond Orientalism is on a national tour taking the temperature of the
country on the fight against misrepresentation of Asian Americans on stage. It kicked off in New York this past May and hit Philadelphia on September 26; five additional cities are on tap after that.
Good luck! And keep fighting! In the words of Kwame Dawes, “Racist writing is a craft issue. A racist stereotype is a cliché. It’s been done. Quite a bit. It’s a craft failure.”