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Roundtable: The Past And Present Of 'Yellowface'

Every few months, there's a renewed discussion about "yellowface" — when people wear makeup or clothes in an attempt to look more Asian. In just the past year, the subject has come up in conversations about How I Met Your Mother, The Mikado, Magic in the Moonlight and a performance by Katy Perry. (And now, HBO's show Jonah from Tonga is sparking a similar discussion on "brownface.")

I picked the brains of three people who've focused on depictions of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AA/PI) in the media. We wanted to dig into why it seems like we're seeing so much of this phenomenon lately, the differences between "yellowface" and "colorblind casting," and about how the phenomenon of yellowface relates to the ugly history of blackface.

LeiLani Nishime, a professor at the University of Washington, focuses on representations of Asian-Americans in the media. Her book, Undercover Asian: Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture, came out this past year.

Jack Tchen, a professor and historian at New York University, created NYU's A/P/A (Asian/Pacific/American) Studies program, co-founded the Museum of Chinese America and recently co-authored the book, Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, with Dylan Yates.

Erin Quill, an actress and screenwriter, was part of the original Broadway cast of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q. She has also appeared in the 50th anniversary production of Flower Drum Song and in The King and I. She blogs about diversity in casting at "The Fairy Princess Diaries." She is the co-screenwriter of the indie film The Mikado Project, based on the play of the same name. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University.

(You can read our full conversation here. The text below is the TL;DR version, edited for length and clarity.)

Chat Highlights

KAT CHOW: Is it that there's been more yellowface, or are we just more aware of it?

QUILL: Well, if you have been on the actor side, which I have, you have seen this throughout your career — even before you decide to have a career in this business, because those are the examples that we have been shown growing up.

So I would not say there is "more" per se, but before we had the Internet and the ability to get righteously indignant over these blatant and repeated portrayals, we just all individually had hurt feelings. I suppose, in a way, there is "less," but what there is makes a bigger impact — because we can all see it.

TCHEN: There has always been a great deal of yellowface in the commercial, public, and private cultural realms but it wasn't contested until more recently, or until it had become more embarrassing. Yet the practice is less politically sensitive for various reasons. Protests have been smaller in number, not as militant and not as visible. Asian-American/Pacific Islander critique has also gained a critical mass more recently, less in the traditional and mainstream venues of the older cultural forms (newspapers, theater, film, television, etc.) and more via online cultures.

NISHIME: I'd agree that this is nothing new. And I think that it may not have been contested in a way that reached the mainstream press, but it's certainly been something talked about (or maybe railed against) within Asian-American communities. I asked my students my first year teaching here what they wished I [would] spend more time discussing, and many wanted to talk about yellowface.

When we talk about yellowface, folks almost always bring up colorblind casting. Those are pretty different things, but what makes them different, exactly?

QUILL: Colorblind casting is, for example, saying, "We have, say, Laurey in Oklahoma!, and Laurey is played by a soprano. Traditionally, Laurey is white. But we have heard this amazing soprano who is not — but she can do a heck of a job as Laurey, so that is who we are going to cast."

AA/PI critique has also gained a critical mass more recently, less in the traditional and mainstream venues of the older cultural forms (newspapers, theater, film, television, etc.) and more via online cultures.

Colorblind casting is not using race as an excuse not to hire people. It is taking an aspect of the show that has always been accepted. That, for example, Laurey is a blond Caucasian, and saying, "We all know this story well enough that we can make an adjustment that the audience will likely go with, which will not derail the story, and which will ultimately add to the audience's enjoyment of it — because we have a diverse audience." ...

Colorblind casting was enacted as a phrase and as a practice to help minority actors and actresses get seen for parts that they were "right" for at a talent level, but that they may not have been the right "color" for.

And we see now, with, say, Norm Lewis as the first African-American Phantom of the Opera, or Ann Harada as the evil step-sister in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, or John Cho as the romantic lead in the new show Selfie — these are examples of colorblind casting where talent came in and won at the expense of "what was expected." It is what open-mindedness and progress can bring. Now, kids can go to Broadway and see much more racial diversity. (Asian-Americans are, of course, at the way bottom of representation on Broadway in terms of leads — but that too, will change.)

TCHEN: Sadly, part of what it means to "become" American is to enact these racist traditions, or in the very least to learn [from] them, to "get" much of what passes as American cultural expression and humor. No group is exempt. ...

The logic of colorblind casting seems to be that the casting director 'don't see race.' But given existing power relations, that ends up favoring white actors and actresses.

A rather ironic — if not perverse — way colorblind casting can operate without prior critical understanding is the equal-opportunity re-performance of racialized roles and conventions. The Asian frats donning blackface is a classic way of "identifying up" while "slumming below."

NISHIME: Jack, that's a great way of phrasing it. Even when those in the fraternity were saying that they were dressing up in blackface because those sensitivities around race were over, they were using race to reinforce their own social position.

I think Cloud Atlas is a good example of how "colorblind casting" still seems to follow racial rules. White actors could dress up as Asian but not as African-American, for instance. And when they had people of color dress up as white, they did not use the kinds of prosthetics that you see in the portrayal of Asians. The makeup in that movie was pretty bad. ...

The logic of colorblind casting seems to be that the casting director "don't see race." But given existing power relations, that ends up favoring white actors and actresses.

TCHEN: Agreed, the default still and always will favor those most powerful in any industry and institution. Getting more Asians and Asian-Americans in U.S. and European academia is a start but still doesn't challenge and shift the foundational Eurocentric assumptions of historical framings, for example.

One of the things we've touched on throughout this discussion is the idea that AA/PIs have been so frequently treated as the ultimate "other." When we consider demographics — the rising populations of AA/PIs — does the dynamic around yellowface change at all?

QUILL: In my speech for LA Stage Day, I did touch on that AA/PIs have the largest disposable income of any group, and yet they do not attend the theater in numbers enough to make artistic directors program for them — and why would they if they cannot go to the theater and see "themselves" on stage?

I think if AA/PIs keep stating, vocally, that yellowface is not acceptable, that they will withdraw support, that they will publicly state their opinion, then it will, eventually, go the way of blackface and be culturally unacceptable. However, in saying that, you have to acknowledge that some Gilbert and Sullivan "purists" will always don yellowface to do The Mikado, which of course is unacceptable but that they feel they can get away with under the guise of "history."

NISHIME: I think, as Erin said, the participation of Asian-Americans online, as much as their larger numbers demographically, has really changed the tenor of the conversation around yellowface. However, I'd hesitate to draw a direct line between larger numbers and less stereotyping as "the Other." The majority of Asian-Americans are now foreign-born, which reverses the trend for Asian-Americans for most of the last century. Given the increasing hostility toward foreigners in the U.S. and the continued xenophobia of many in this country, I'm not sure greater numbers is going to equal better awareness or even interest in the concerns of Asian-Americans. In my own experience, the kind of anger I see directed toward people who have English as their second language is appalling. It seems like making fun of people's accents and language ability (which, of course, is linked to race) is still socially acceptable.

TCHEN: I've been working on an exhibit at the New York Historical Society about the history and legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act. One potential donor, a wealthy Chinese-American, got up at an early fundraising breakfast and boldly said, "This is not my experience. Why focus on this? Why not an exhibit about the 120 students from China who were supported by missionaries to study in U.S. schools?" ... The changing demographics within the U.S. only mean so much as long as the class issues are not also addressed.

Robert Teranishi and I did a College Board-supported study on AA/PIs in higher education. The profile of our demographics is like a dumbbell, with many low-income, less formally educated and many high-income, very highly degreed. Those on the top want to promote their agendas without necessarily wanting nor being willing to identify with the historic working-class communities that were first encouraged to migrate or recruited for manual labor. Now it's the intellectual labor being recruited.

Any concluding remarks?

LN: I think that protests against yellowface and other kinds of stereotypical performances are important, but I'd also like to see that energy invested in alternative or "outsider" performances (both as creators and audience) that I'm seeing more and more often. Both Erin and Jack talked about the persistence of yellowface, but also how there are Asian-American artists that speak back to those portrayals. It gives me hope to see how many young Asian-American artists are creating their own representations. I'm hoping that people are outraged by yellowface, then search for other kinds of more affirming, complicated and multidimensional images.

QUILL: Yes, with The Mikado Project — both the play and the film — we tried to change what we had been taught, and bring it into a realm that spoke to Asian-Americans of now. I think that there are several older AA/PI and younger AA/PI theater companies that are continuing the work that Lodestone Theater Ensemble started in that piece; I am eager to see what is next in the artistic process. That East West Players is still going strong is a testament to the need to see AA/PIs on stage and hear their stories. They had a diverse company for Chess last year that had everyone talking, and that kind of thing is the future — at least in theater.

TCHEN: I believe we are now in sufficient critical mass to intervene on a number of levels at the same time, and we need to understand these efforts as interrelated. We need to continue breaking glass ceilings but also becoming critics and critics of critics. We need more writers, playwrights, actors, producers, editors, performers, etc., while also continuing to dissect and critique American traditions and frameworks premised on colonial and Eurocentric assumptions. We need to build on what's good and liberating but also take to task on a variety of levels the crude crap and the more refined crap that is still omnipresent.

But I've also seen things shift and get "better" in some ways where the racism has become more subtle and nuanced, and the stakes are taken more seriously. But its a long haul. ... I believe we have to continue to open up what being "Asian" means and link our understanding to deeper and larger frameworks. What's happened in the "Middle East" and the new Western awareness of Central Asia now must become part of our critical concern and cultural/historical work. We need to develop archives and repertoires that create infrastructures for this long-term work.

Again, read the full conversation here. Thanks to all our participants.

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