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Yellowface, Whitewashing, and the Colors of Historical Oppression in Film

Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh in the pursuit of social justice by our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow, Amanda Ong. Read her first piece on identity, second on Tam v. USPTO, third on power, fourth on feminism, and fifth on Columbia’s xenophobic vandalism, sixth on activism, seventh on voting access, eigth on fearing microaggressions, ninth on fearing microaggressions, and tenth on firgetting Chinatowns.

​This last week, the film adaptation of acclaimed Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell came to theaters, and was immediately met with immense criticism over the casting of Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, as the Japanese female lead Motoko Kusanagi. According to Paramount, the film faced difficulty in the box office as a result of this.

Ghost in the Shell (Manga / Anchor Bay)Before I begin this discussion I first must disclaim that I have watched neither the original anime of Ghost in the Shell nor the movie, and am by no means an expert on the story itself. However, I am fairly well versed in the history of race and casting in media. To this day, nothing itches at my skin, grinds against my bones, or shakes my soul the way whitewashing does.

For a seemingly small act, it riles and perturbs many, and many others have difficulty understanding why. Many say the message of Ghost and the Shell conveys that the body doesn’t matter, that race and the physical construct of self is irrelevant, and therefore the changing of race supports the story. Others, even Japanese people who have loved the original anime, say it’s an American production and the race should not matter.

But the truth of the matter is that race does matter, and there is a much greater history of whitewashing at play. The Good Earth, The Dragon Seed, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charlie Chan: yellow face has been in practice since film began. In those times, laws in Hollywood actively kept people of color from seeing the silver screen. The origins of yellow face were marked by active exclusion and segregation within the film industry, not only keeping Asian Americans from representation, but from jobs.

The acts of whitewashing and yellow face are politicized because they are rooted in historical oppression, and today they still reflect this act of white people claiming Asian narratives as their own while simultaneously excluding actual Asian people. We are taken out of the equation even in telling our own stories—no representation belongs for us anywhere.
And what that tells us as Asian Americans, is that our stories, the one that are truly ours, don’t matter. That perhaps we don’t matter. The evidence for this in media is staggering.
In a study among children, self esteemed dropped in response to exposure to television among all groups except for white boys.

In a study of top grossing films worldwide, 1.2% of leads were Asian, and all of them were male, compared to the 60% of the world population that is Asian.

The only Asian woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Actress was Merle Oberon who was ¼ Indian, ¾ white, and at the time of her win hid her half Indian mother from the public eye, lied about her birthplace, and presented herself as white to the world in order to avoid discrimination. The only Asian woman ever to win Best Actress was thought to be white.

And still, in media as recent as Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, and Doctor Strange, Hollywood continues to refuse to let Asian Americans tell their own stories and instead grossly excludes Asian Americans while co-opting their bodies.

Even now every new instance of whitewashing, of yellow face, reminds me of these facts, and still often feels like someone telling me that I do not matter to Hollywood, so maybe I do not matter to the public, and so why should I matter to anyone.

Lupita Nyong’o once said, “Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t so sure it was a possibility. When I was a little girl, the first time I thought I could be an actor was when I watched The Color Purple.” Representation is important. Hearing stories we identify with makes the world of difference in what we believe we can accomplish, and therefore what we can accomplish.
At our very core, it is true—race does not matter and all people are equal, and ideally changing a character’s race should not matter. But we must acknowledge that race is not treated as equal, and has not been treated as equal in film for a long time. Change comes slowly, but we have a responsibility to actively change the narrative of the film industry, to push for diversity in film. For a better society, for one in which every person can, and furthermore believes they can, do anything, representation is of the greatest necessity.

Ghost in the Shell, your box office flop was not for naught.

French Colonialism and Racism Lived

Paris France

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in the pursuit of social justice by our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow, Amanda Ong. Read her first piece on identity, second on Tam v. USPTO, third on power, fourth on feminism, and fifth on Columbia’s xenophobic vandalism, sixth on activism, seventh on voting access, and eigth on fearing microaggressions.

This past week, I was in France with my family visiting my best friend for spring break. There were so many things that I loved about France; it is bright, and cavalier, and beautiful in every crevice of its earth, it breathes bread and butter, and exhales art and all fine things. I’m already so incredibly privileged to have experienced going there in my lifetime, and infinitely more so to get to with my family over spring break as just a college student.Of course, there were moments still that tore me away from my romantic view of the country, that made the bliss of a vacation feel null. They were the same kind of moments that tend to tear me out of mid-day reveries in my every day life. Namely, microaggressions and the “otherizing” of Asians I experienced.

Of course, this kind of experience is not wholly specific to France in any way. If you read my last blog post or some of the one’s before that, you will have read about many of my prior experiences with the otherizing of Asian Americans in my own home country. In fact, in the United States we sometimes think of racism as pertaining only to our country and its history.

​But racism is larger than just America. It is a part of the world, of histories of imperialism, colonialism, of immigration and following xenophobia, in cities, and countries, and every which place.

​When I was in France, vendors on the street would try to get my family’s attention by saying, “Ni hao!” or more crassly, “Ching chong ching chong!” I’m not sure whether or not they genuinely thought they were speaking Mandarin in the latter, or if they even knew that their actions were offensive at all. I suppose it doesn’t really matter much what they thought in the end. While their words were not violent, they reminded me of two things: that people like my family do not look like they belong in a country like France, and that while many people aren’t explicitly violent in their racism, they do not care about being respectful to people of color, because we don’t merit respect to them.

​Waitresses and waiters would offhandedly call me a word that my friend told me meant something like “Chinese princess”. It was meant to be a compliment, but it still left me caught off guard and frazzled.

​When I met my friend’s French teacher for the first time, she asked me, “Are you Chinese?” I told her yes. Then she turned to my friend and said, “Your Chinese girl is very beautiful,” as if my friend owned me. It was something we thought laughed off—in many ways, I still think it was funny, the ridiculousness of her statement laughable—but it also left me feeling more exoticized than beautiful, more owned than self-possessed, too othered to be flattered.

​The kind of casual racism I experienced in France was by no means intensely painful for me, or and was nothing I am not already used to. But it did remind me that racism is not solely an American vice. It exists internationally, across countries and miles. It knows no borders.

​As an Asian American in France, I felt more aware of the history of European imperialism that has existed and effected people of color worldwide—and how that history has been the most important in the construction of racism. The microaggressions I experienced there were distinctly rooted in xenophobia and exoticism, in the distinction of Asians as “different” and inherently foreign.

​While I will always, from the depth of my soul, be most concerned with and involved in the ongoing plague of American racism, it is also important to me that if we want to change racism in our country we also must have some understanding of its history and function in the world. And we must be ready and willing to look to people of other nationalities and listen to their stories, learn from them, and when needed, lend them a helping hand.

​America tends to have a reputation as isolated. Our people speak only English, only are knowledgeable on the customs and affairs of the American people, and sometimes not even those. Whether that’s true or not, I would like to think that as Americans we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to try and improve our country, and to me, part of that comes in understanding the world as a whole. So may we learn from each other, may we learn from the world, and in the end, may we all come back and use it to make our country the best place it can be.

The Micro and the Macro

So what are you?

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in the pursuit of social justice by our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow, Amanda Ong. Read her first piece on identity, second on Tam v. USPTO, third on power, fourth on feminism, and fifth on Columbia’s xenophobic vandalism, sixth on activism, and seventh on voting access.

Every time a teacher called me by the name of another East Asian girl in my class, the same sharpness would always pinch me in my underbelly. It was something that happened again and again over teachers and classes and years. “Sorry,” the teacher would always say to me hastily. “Amanda, not Sophia.” “Amanda, not Jane.” “Amanda, not Michelle.” They would always try and cover quickly as if it was really just about the name. Of course, it was never just about the name.

But there was always the moment right after they said the wrong name, and right before their apology, that held all of the tension of centuries of erasure. And even when I would hear their apology and the collective breath being held by my class would be released; there would still be something that lingered in me. There was still the knowledge that my teacher’s apology wanted to be an apology for all of the racism they had internalized, but knew not how to or cared not to change. There was the knowledge that my teacher’s apology wanted to be an apology for the history that has existed, a history that lives deep within them and they have not been able to unlearn. That is the sharpness that pinched me in my underbelly, and it is not one that has ever entirely left me over teachers and classes and years.

For most of my life my experiences with racism, and even my experience with my Asian American identity, have come in the form of microagressions like these. If you have not heard of microagressions before, they are the kind of statements that happen often in casual conversation: but they veil indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination toward marginalized groups.

When I think of microagressions I think of the way people have always asked me, “Where are you from? China? Japan?” I think of bringing dumplings to school and being asked by children with crinkled noses, “What is that?” I think of the time in elementary school when I confided to a white friend about my insecurities around wanting to look white, and she said, “At least your eyes aren’t too small for an Asian girl. Small eyes are the ugliest.”

It took years of microagression upon microagression until I began to become aware of the way in which I was being “otherized” for my race. As I got older, I learned that these small instances of alienating comment reflected a larger history of oppression that has come to paint the way we view race today, even on an implicit level.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the modern world as we know it has been built on and around a history of racism, of the exploitation and exclusion of people of color. And whether or not we want to acknowledge it, that history is embedded in the way we think. In many ways, I am lucky that in childhood I only had to face this truth through the hidden prejudice of microagressions and not through overt hatred and violence.

But even as I say this, a recently released study, one that was the first of its kind, revealed that hate crimes against Asian Americans tripled from 2014 to 2015. And with news of the assault of an elderly Korean woman by a white supremacist in Los Angeles earlier this month, I feel that the Asian American community is at risk for becoming victims of more vehement acts of hate than the microagressions I faced in my youth.

I don’t want to dismiss the hurt that microagressions cause—as I have said, I have more than known the deep-seeded kind of pain they leave. But right now I fear that Asian Americans bodies and lives are more threatened than they have been in years. In the months since Trump’s election and then inauguration, many white supremacists have been afoot, and there has correspondingly been a rise in hate crimes, many done in Trump’s name. And as the President has not condemned any of these crimes, it feels as if hate crimes now happen almost flagrantly and are dismissed with equal indifference.

However as these crimes come to affect the Asian American community, I ask us not to hide in fear. I realize that the threat to our lives right now is daunting. But in the years I have spent facing microagressions, I have learned that the only thing one can do to stop such actions is to speak out against them. We must address these issues at their and educate each other first, and we can do that by talking about our experiences with hate. If we can I believe it is imperative that we must not retreat into our homes or even inside of ourselves. We must go forth and fight, it is the only thing we can do if we want others to learn our names and respect our bodies.

Amanda Ong – 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow

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