by Claire Zhuang
6 June 2017
This letter was read to the faculty at my MFA program on May 4, 2017 during my portfolio review after I withdrew from the program.
Last week, I shared a story with my film and TV discussion section about my high school’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which featured three actors in yellowface playing the supporting roles of Mrs. Meers, Ching Ho, and Bun Foo. Mrs. Meers, the head of a sex-trafficking ring in the ‘Orient’, was outfitted with a ‘geisha’ look – complete with paper-white makeup, bright red lips, and chopsticks in her hair. Ching Ho and Bun Foo, Mrs. Meer’s laundry-washing Chinese henchmen, wore yellow makeup that looked more orange than yellow. I played a white character in which my obviously not-white features went unacknowledged. I was complicit in that show and I had no vocabulary to explain why I felt uncomfortable.
I still don’t have the vocabulary to explain what it feels like to watch a version of myself twisted into a sign that was unrecognizable to me. Perhaps the worst part wasn’t passively watching it happen or participating in the creation of that sign, but that no one admitted that that was supposed to be a representation of me. As though I could somehow be removed, exempted, from the implications of that representation. I, embodying the one signifier that I can never change with clothes, hair dye, plastic surgery, performance – anything – was erased. Ignored. Yet, my peers could carry on making jokes about my “Asian-ness,” exoticizing it by asking me to speak Chinese. They were never willing to engage or understand my culture beyond those measures, which would have challenged them and forced them to see the ways in which I am different from them. Now, every time I hear that Hollywood is whitewashing another Asian story, the pain gets compounded. The fear of not being seen as a complex human being grows. But this is nothing new.
At the beginning of our theatre history and culture course, I wanted to know where Asians showed up in canonical American theatre. As I was doing research for my play, Juliet, I found that the first instance of “Asians” appearing onstage in western theatre was as white people in yellowface for Voltaire’s Orphan in China, which opened in 1767. Then with the development of chinoiserie (literally“China stuff” in French, a term art historians use to refer to the consumer movement in mid-to-late 18th century Europe, when the entire continent was set ablaze with the craze over China-themed goods), I see that the phenomenon of “Chinese-ness” or “Asian-ness” as background objects, and the exclusion of Asians from their own stories and experiences, is a 250-year-old ideology.
Last month, I heard that the directors who ran my high school’s theatre program will be retiring at the end of this school year. Many displayed their affections publicly and expressed gratitude towards these directors for giving them shelter, a sense of safety, and license to explore art in their adolescence. But all I can associate them with is pain. It’s been seven or eight years since that show, but I can’t move past the compounding of negative associations regarding my identity that has haunted me year after year and has immobilized me in almost every aspect of my life. I had to ask myself: isn’t this exactly how institutional racism works? Isn’t this precisely how domination works?
We spent all semester talking about race, class, gender, and sexuality as though it existed on a parallel plane above us. But it doesn’t. We all live those issues every day, whether we acknowledge it or not. We often recite the mantra that education is power, knowledge is power. But education is also colonialism, and education is the primary way that systems of domination perpetuate themselves. Academia, especially, is a site of colonization and US imperialism. As Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in his op-ed for the New York Times, its “model of pedagogy is an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself.” Academia tends to situate us deeply within the processes of naturalization, which is the process through which something comes to not require explanation (Ekert and McConnell-Ginet 2003). The way things are is the way things have always been.
I understand that I have a different reaction to and experience with the two directors, not because they were intentionally racist, but because the institutions that educated them and taught them how to interpret, behave, and act in the world was not built to include someone like me. In these institutions of knowledge production and dissemination (which include but aren’t limited to academia), Asian Americans are largely nonexistent. The history of Asian Americans, our cultural heritage, does not belong in the American canon or even in American history.
I have found that theatre, film and other forms of representation have continually believed it to be acceptable to appropriate my identity and culture, all the while ignoring the history of that appropriation. I tried pitching an article about this phenomenon to Howlround, only to receive links to two articles about whitewashing and yellowface from the year before. It seemed to imply that the Asian American problem has already been sufficiently dealt with. If so, why does it continue to happen? I don’t get to compartmentalize my identity to last year or a unit in a class. My identity is all the time and I am reminded of it constantly, in little ways that are often invisible to everyone because that is how the institution and systems of dominance have taught us to see.
This program has failed me. This past school year was like reliving my high school adolescence; only this time, I can articulate myself and my experiences slightly better. However, the capacity to articulate doesn’t mean that what needs to be said is said out loud, or that it gets heard. I wrote on our anonymous feedback survey that I felt tokenized in this program. I’m not sure why this sentiment was ignored when the program answered our request for more built-in creative space and time. If we don’t know how to meaningfully engage and manage the imperatives that come with racial differences, can we at least acknowledge them and ask each other how to move forward and how to diminish the possibility of alienation and erasure? This burden continually falls on marginalized students, as we are expected to speak up about problems we have, but often the culture of the program and institution doesn’t make it safe for those conversations to take place.
I’m asking the program to think about what they really mean when ‘diversity’ is used. To me, diversity has become a neoliberal concept and a handy concealer to excuse the lack of any real engagement with identity differences (Urciuoli 2009). It promotes tokenization at the expense of students with marginalized identities because it asks us to participate in a structure and environment that does not care about us. We are asked to participate because it makes the institution look good, while the institution continues to perpetuate systems of domination and erasure.
Theatre has never been a safe place for me. I have spent many sleepless nights wondering how many “good” or “right” things need to happen to me in theatre before I start believing I have a place within it. Arts education institutions that seek to produce artists, like the one I attended, are rarely able to see what it is they are perpetuating. Interests become caught up in the mechanics, the microcosms of artistic creation, the unmoving belief that X is the thing we have to know. But why and for whom is this true? Craft and techniques are placed in positions of primacy and held up as universals when in reality, they become ways to erase and hide the reproductive machinery of ideology. If institutions across the nation are teaching students unexamined sets of assumptions about what American theatre has been, is, and can be, I have little hope that the realities of the field will be any different. I see no place for myself in theatre because theatre as an institution (which I think it often forgets it is one) has not identified a way to properly engage and understand itself as a locus of domination; as a location that also perpetuates and upholds white supremacist values.
Here is the point where I have to ask myself, what does it mean for me to learn how to make art in an environment that unquestioningly perpetuates and reinforces systems of dominance? Why do I continually subscribe to and seek validation within a system that doesn’t care about me? Will the art I make end up unquestioningly reproducing institutions and ideas that have historically and presently erased me? I understand there is no graduate program that doesn’t operate under these unspoken and unacknowledged assumptions of how to create, whom to read when creating, and whom the creation is for. The work of interrogation is work that must be done constantly because we are so entrenched in these ideologies that there never is a moment when we don’t have to question where our reactions and responses stem from.
In Revolution and Resistance: Ending Domination, bell hooks asks us where we enter into the system of domination because regardless of identity, we are all in it and we all reinforce these systems. More importantly, though, is how do we hold ourselves accountable for the roles we play within it? I was once told by a professor in undergrad that I should continue to share my experiences because that was “good for people.” I was “good for people.” Throughout the years, I have seen this played out over and over again. Most recently, a student came up to me after class and thanked me for sharing my experience with our discussion section, stating that they couldn’t stop thinking about it. In our last class, they said what they learned from the course was the importance of social justice within the arts. I was so incredibly moved and happy to hear that. But acknowledgement is not change. Acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily translate into action.
I made the choice to share. I made the choice to be vulnerable with a room full of strangers whom I had significant power over. I made a choice to not fear conflict and to speak with integrity to young filmmakers going into the industry and pleaded to them, at least those who would listen, to think more consciously about what it is that they’re creating. But what is the cost? What is the price I have to pay to be “good for people”? How do I resist and challenge systems while protecting myself and my art? This is where I struggle.
Claire Zhuang hails from the Midwest and is a proud VONA alumni.
Eckert, Penelope, McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2003). Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schulman, Sarah. (2016). Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Urciuoli, Bonnie. (2009). Talking/Not Talking about Race: The Enregisterments of “Culture” in Higher Education Discourses. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19(1), 21-39.