Opinion | Op-eds

Why yellowface is racist

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.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Comments

Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Your username will not be displayed if checked
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Anonymous posted on

I completely agree with all you say in this article about the problems of racism, how intentions don't factor in, yada yada yada.
What doesn't add up is why you think the casting of this girl is somehow racist. Either you are saying (a) everyone should only be cast in roles with identical races (preposterous and racist), (b) the white playwright was offensive for having characters with races other than his own (equally preposterous), (c) Asians should have preferential treatment for Asian roles, but not whites for white ones (racist), or (d) the producers should have bent backwards and gone out of their way to find an Asian actress to play the role. I assume the last one is what you believe, and this is equally racist. How offensive that you don't think a white actress can play an Asian part. And by the way, have you seen the performance or do you think she did a bad job just because she's white and whites can't play Asians well?

+1
+3
-1
BC '14 posted on

Where is he saying that white people shouldn't be picked for white roles? The issue here is that, if a race or ethnic origin is specified for a character, the director should respect that and not perpetuate a cultural assumption that white people are better at playing Asians than Asians. If there is no race assigned to a character, by all means cast whoever. But do not edge out actresses who would actually fit the part as it is written. You say that it's racist to assume a white actress cannot fill an Asian role. However, would you react positively if that same actress was picked to play a character specified in the script as African or African-American?

I also really doubt they would be bending over backwards to find an actress of Asian descent. Theater groups send out casting call emails on specific listservs that reach many on-campus actors. Most specify the intended race of each character in these emails, so that actors know which role they could fill. If they truly had difficulty finding an actress of Asian descent, I would bet that their casting call didn't mention that the character was Asian. Saying that a director would have to struggle to find a good actress of Asian descent is implying that there are no such actresses on campus, which is patently untrue, especially in light of the size and scope of the CU theater community.

He explained why the casting of this girl is racist. Did you read the article?

+1
-3
-1
Anonymous posted on

so women cannot play men?

+1
-5
-1
Anonymous posted on

strawman.gif

+1
+10
-1
Anonymous posted on

Maleness is a status of privilege. Not oppression. Women playing men is one thing. Men playing women is a slap in the face to all those centuries that women were simply not allowed in theater.

+1
-3
-1
it's time to stop posting posted on

"The only way to combat inequality is to create a counter-inequality!"

Nah

+1
-12
-1
Anonymous posted on

We're comparing apples to oranges here. We're talking about racial minorities here, gender comes with a different kettle of worms.

+1
+13
-1
Anonymous posted on

"(d) the producers should have bent backwards and gone out of their way to find an Asian actress to play the role. I assume the last one is what you believe, and this is equally racist. How offensive that you don't think a white actress can play an Asian part."

Someone did not catch the memo that racism (reverse-racism, whatever you wanna cal it) against white people does not exist: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/12/04/reverse_racism_defined_by_aamer_rahman_from_fear_of_a_brown_planet_watch.html

+1
+5
-1
Anonymous posted on

Oh, the whole color-blind casting argument. Awesome. Yeah, I wonder if the director considered any African Americans for the part. Or Latinas/Hispanic ones.

Yeah, probably not, because the implicit assumption in all of these ridiculous "color-blind" claims is that whiteness is malleable and it is okay for white people to play people of color.

But it's never true the other way around. Ever.

+1
+6
-1
Anonymous posted on

Oh, the whole color-blind casting argument. Awesome. Yeah, I wonder if the director considered any African Americans for the part. Or Latinas/Hispanic ones.

Yeah, probably not, because the implicit assumption in all of these ridiculous "color-blind" claims is that whiteness is malleable and it is okay for white people to play people of color.

But it's never true the other way around. Ever.

+1
+3
-1
Anonymous posted on

This is a ridiculous piece from one of Columbia's most self obsessed people. Wilfred, just stop lecturing people. If anything is tired, that is.

+1
-22
-1
Anonymous posted on

Don't call anyone self-obsessed because of your insecurity issues. You can criticize this op-ed all you want. Break down its ideas. Come up with counterarguments. Use your own intellectual power to expose the flaws you might see in this, and don't feel compelled to share your name if you decide to go down this path.

But if you want to hark on Wilfred's op-ed because you're accusing him of being self-obsessed, don't do it here. Facebook message him directly. Get the damn courage to say that to his face without the guise of anonymity, coward.

+1
+20
-1
Anonymous posted on

WELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESSWELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESSWELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESSWELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESSWELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESSWELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESSWELLNESS WELLNESS WELLNESS

+1
-7
-1
Anonymous posted on

That joke stopped being funny two minutes after it began. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what beating a dead horse looks like.

+1
-7
-1
CONTEXT posted on

Let's keep this conversation in context. Everyone agrees yellowface is racist. But if you haven't seen the play, don't talk about it. Participate in a productive conversation. Read about Caryl Churchill, watch the video recording of the play and then address it. Think about embodiment, think about theatricality, think about performativity. Consider the dramaturgy of this production. That's all I've got to say about this.

+1
+3
-1
Anonymous posted on

"If you see something problematic, don't talk about it. Also, be productive."

In serious sincerity: wh..aaat?

+1
+10
-1
Anonymous posted on

You are going too deeply into this. Columbia has a more fundamental problem. Columbia's leaders sit the fence on everything. They show neither conviction nor accountability in anything they do (or omit). Even on things that call for far less analysis than yours, they fail miserably. It is not possible to shame them. It is possible only to fire them.

+1
-4
-1
Did you seriously posted on

Just try to turn this into a conversation about football, Mangurian and Murphy?

+1
+7
-1
Anonymous posted on

Dude, you said it. I didn't.

+1
-3
-1
Van posted on

How would the white people like it if Asians write a play called 'Milkface'?

+1
+1
-1