Last month, a production of “Top Girls” at Columbia drew controversy when a white actress played the role of an Asian woman, donning a kimono, white makeup, and a black wig—an ensemble that many felt constituted yellowface.
I’ve been talking to a lot of people who have been telling me the incident “wasn’t really racist” because the people involved didn’t intend any harm—or that it’s unfair to call them racist when they weren’t actively trying to offend.
It’s such a tired argument, but these people have such a hard time understanding that being racist has little to do with what you meant to do or whether you think of yourself as a good person. It’s about whether or not your actions are playing into larger patterns of discrimination. I’m talking about complex, ongoing patterns we internalize so deeply that we hardly even realize them.
I’ve been racist for most of my life, and I think I still am. After all, we’ve been marinated in racism since childhood. And for that reason it is actually very hard not to be racist. It takes more than just being nice or having general goodwill. Because so many of the systems of thought we take for granted have racist constitutions, you have to spend time to understand these systems and then consciously undo them. You have to listen to people. And you have to work.
Racism is fundamentally about a power dynamic. In a racist world, certain people have power—that is, they have advantages in certain spaces based on their skin color, while other people are excluded from those same spaces for the same reason. This strange and unfair balance of power has been enforced throughout history by an intricate system of rules and norms that maintain certain ethnicities’ power positions while keeping other ethnicities down. This system is an ideology called racism. Because these rules have been around for so long and because they pervade almost every type of human interaction, they can become invisible, especially to their beneficiaries. That’s why our job is to sensitize ourselves to these systems, so that our actions dismantle rather than perpetuate them.
Which brings me to this: I am almost sure that the people who decided to cast a white Barnard actress in yellowface are nice people. I’m sure that actress was a talented actress. But if they understood that her casting fed into a centuries-old pattern in which Asians and Asian Americans have been excluded from mainstream white spaces (such as performing arts, but I can think of so many more), they might have reconsidered their actions. If they understood the way Asian Americans have struggled for generations to speak authentically for themselves, if they understood how we are tired of being defined by other people’s ideas or fantasies about who we are, and if they recognized how their casting decision continued to reinforce a historical power dynamic in which white voices are foregrounded while Asian-American voices are either seen as “too foreign” or are assumed to be silent, then they might’ve understood that putting yellowface on a white actress would’ve perpetuated all of these problems.
I don’t think they thought about this. I think they assumed they weren’t hurting anyone and just went ahead with their good intentions. But it did hurt people, and, more crucially, it hurt people in a way that was consistent with the larger, ongoing patterns of discrimination that have long disadvantaged Asians and Asian Americans. By doing so, it continued to perpetuate norms that create unequal power between people of different colors. What they did was, by definition, racist.
Let me close with this: Racism is not something that only belongs to evil, cone-hatted villains or horrible monsters. Hopefully, if I’ve been able to articulate anything in this piece, it’s that racism is often very mundane, often casual, often “well-intentioned,” and being a generally good person isn’t enough to stop it. What we really need is a heightened critical sensitivity to the ways people perpetuate division and a willingness to recognize when we are complicit in that.
So if someone suggests that something you did or said is racist, here’s some advice: Try not to flinch as if they just accused you of being a terrible person. Listen to them. Realize we’re all culpable. And then—if you care enough—try to improve.
The author is a Columbia College senior. He is the deputy multimedia editor for The Eye.
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