Screenshot of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” from another high school production on youtube.
Thanks to Mia Wenjen for covering this topic so thoroughly on her blog, I Love Newton.
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” was a musical film from 1967. It included a subplot about a hotel proprietor who dresses in yellowface and two nefarious Chinese henchmen. It was developed into a musical 33 years later, and the racist subplot remained intact.
I was somewhat surprised that anybody would consider a remake of a dated movie to be a good idea, especially given the racism. Of course, we’re only too familiar that white people find a great deal of entertainment in racism. The entertainment value is often used as a defense of racism: “But it was only meant in good fun!”
If you do a brief web search, you’ll find that “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a popular choice for high school theatrical groups. Undoubtedly because it’s so much fun. Newton North High School chose it for its spring production. Newton (MA) is predominately (82%) white, with an 11% Asian American population. And although concerns were voiced before the musical was staged, it proceeded as planned. Although a note about the “stereotypes” was listed in the program guide, apparently. On page 49.
It’s been my general experience that when white people are confronted with their racism, they rarely will completely abandon the racist endeavor. This is because they have too much invested in both the endeavor and the racism.
A friend of mine once said that white people won’t admit to racist actions because they don’t like being wrong. I think that’s right, but I think it’s more than that. Part of it is that they have been conditioned to believe that their viewpoint is always right, and this is regularly reinforced until it completely supplants any type of critical thinking. Part of it is because the racist viewpoint is the infrastructure that supports institutionalized racism.
One of the most common responses in discussions of racism is minimization. “Oh, it’s not a big deal.” Because we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Yet if you turn it around, it suddenly becomes a big deal. If it isn’t such a big deal to perpetuate racist stereotypes, then it shouldn’t be such a big deal not to do it.
But it is a big deal. And this is privilege.
Because we’ve found again and again that white people will fight for their right to maintain racist structures.
“It’s just a silly musical.” However, this selection of a musical served to make it quite clear who should and should not be engaging in the theater production. People who knew this was all in good fun? In! People who are whiners and who see racism in everything? Out!
So basically what Newton North High School did was create a whites-only musical without ever having to call it such.
Oh, but when white people want to show you how open and inclusive they are, they’ll include that little note on page 49. Although that note will go largely unnoticed by the audience. Although that note rings completely false when you have a character in yellowface and two Oriental buffoons for laughs. Because white people want to eat their cake and have it too.
And then they will congratulate themselves. Here’s the principal, Jennifer Price, quoted in the Boston Globe:
Newton North principal Jennifer Price said Monday that administrators have learned through the experience and stressed that the school in no way condones racism.
“We can say very clearly, it is not what Newton North believes in,” she said. “We very much at this school are so proud of the diversity. It defines us.”
Because if you say you are not racist, it must be true! Because anti-racism is all about thinking warm fuzzy thoughts and singing kumbaya. It doesn’t have anything to do with confronting established systems of power or being made to feel uncomfortable or about having to cancel a stupid musical because it is racist. It’s just about what you believe.
Here’s a novel thought: If you don’t want to be thought of as racist, don’t do racist things.
The harm goes beyond preventing certain people from participating in the theater group. It perpetuates the image of the “Chinaman” as somebody subhuman and fair game for ridicule. And dehumanizing others makes it easier to treat them as less than.
This is especially toxic and alarming in a school environment. Asian Americans suffer significant amounts of bullying in the classroom (.pdf link) and Asian American teenaged girls suffer from the highest rate of depressive symptoms of any racial or ethnic group. Suicide is the fifth leading cause of death among Asian Americans (source). And racism is a significant stressor for all people of color and has negative ramifications on health and well-being.
So when white people ask “what’s the harm?” you can point to actual statistics.
After the school and the theater group chose to perform this racist musical, the principal, the theater director and the FPA chair then wrote a long self-aggrandizing letter talking about everything that had been done (none of which, of course, included cancelling the performance). They talked to the kids, they put a program note on page 49, and they tried to find out if there was a “high school edition,” which they claim does not exist. (Note: MTI does in fact offer a “Jr.” version of this musical, but it doesn’t seem to omit racism. So no idea what is being kept from high school students here.)
They also talked about the opportunities they have to “learn and grow.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Why does the white version of anti-racism rely on committing racist acts and then using them as “teachable moments”? If I want to teach students about violence, I don’t punch them and then tell them it’s wrong. If I teach trauma surgery, I don’t first run over somebody with a car.
So you can talk all you want about your awareness of stereotypes and your anti-racism. But if you go ahead and produce a racist musical, you’ve already shown me what you really believe.
There are about a million teachable moments about racism every day, and I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed any of my white teachers using them to teach. Rather, I think it’s fair to say that many, many racist events happen in the school settings where teachers and administrators minimize or deny or ignore. It’s the same shit over and over again, and partly because it is continually re-taught and re-enacted. High schools around the country perform “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and elementary schools everywhere still have kids dress up like Indians for Thanksgiving.
So performing “Thoroughly Modern Millie” isn’t just about excluding a significant portion of the population, but additionally is about recreating and repopularizing racist entertainment. IT WAS A 1967 MOVIE, FOR FUCK’S SAKE! LET THE FUCKER DIE ALREADY!
I’d note that this is a clear argument against that false belief that “racism will die out as old people die out.” Because obviously racism is being taught to the new generations.
Another faulty argument that often arises in defense of racism is the “history” one. You know, because you can’t erase the past. Another Boston Globe writer sums it up thusly:
Adults should remember that art reflects reality at a given moment in time. And while the past can be uncomfortable to recall, it’s better for the next generation to learn from it rather than forget about it.
This is frankly an idiotic argument, and one that points to a gross lack of critical thinking. Because we aren’t talking about removing all copies of the movie “Thoroughly Modern Millie” from existence. We’re talking about not performing racism. I don’t think the next generation is going to forget about racism. Because it’s being carefully taught on a daily basis.
There’s also the Free speech! argument, which I’ve covered plenty. But people of color, don’t forget that the free speech argument doesn’t apply to you. Because the institution supported by racism will always seek to silence you in whatever way possible.
Mia Wenjen posted a transcription of much of the Asian American testimony at the Talk Back, which was held after the musical concluded. While there are a fair number of comments thanking her for raising the issue, there are a number that took issue with what she said. Particularly what she said about two unnamed persons whom she referred to as “white privilege husband” and “white privilege wife.”
This is “white privilege husband”:
His point was that there were racist stereotypes in a lot of musicals and works of literature and that this was ok. When Michele Leong responded, she waited for him to reply. There was a long pause.
Why? He had been texting on his phone the entire time, not listening and not realizing that, in fact, this Michele was speaking to him.
“White privilege wife” said, “We are not here to support you [the Asian Americans]” when Wenjen greeted her.
One of the commenters claims to be the daughter of “white privilege wife” and uses 400+ words to talk about how great her mother is and how she has dedicated her life to helping small children or crack users or something. She demands an apology, all because Wenjen reported her mother said “We are not here to support you [the Asian Americans].”
Another claims to be the son of “white privilege husband” and an actor in the musical. He must have written a thousand words or so, part of them supporting the goodness of “white privilege wife” and part talking about what a wonderful human being he is.
And then he goes to the “tone” argument.
Yeah, we have heard it all before.
But I’m not sure we have “valuable allies” when our “allies” are busily writing more about how great they are. Because anti-racism with a white center will never work. Because trying to dictate how we proceed in social justice work is an attempt to control and often to silence. You can read it in the high school students’ comments. They are attempting to silence and to shame. Because white teens undoubtedly know more about racism than an adult Asian American woman who has lived the Asian American experience.
Because they are being carefully taught. Because that is one of the costs of racism.