Thoroughly Racist ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

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.

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‘Jade Heart’

Can you say ‘Orientalism’?

So a Chicago playwright (white, male) gets “inspired” by a relative who adopts a baby from China.  And this is the result.  Another piece of ventriloquy:

All of us start life somewhere. The road we follow can be smooth or rough; it can lead to places that we might never have chosen. Jade McCullough’s road began on a pile of vegetables in a small village in southern China. Fate then took her to America where she grew up seeing herself as an outsider, rebelling against her differentness.  Like all of us, she struggles to find an identity that fits all sides of herself. She aches to know where she came from and why she had to leave. Her only clue is half of a jade heart found in her swaddling clothes. Its other half hangs around the neck of an anonymous woman in a distant land, a woman who is masked in her imagination, whose existence haunts her. Jade’s journey resembles our own. Ultimately, our existence is a mystery none of us can solve.

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Being ‘different’

A white adoptive parent once came up to me after I had given a talk about interracial and intercultural relations.  I had prefaced my speech by explaining that I could not provide suggestions about handling any given situation.  Rather, my goal was to challenge the audience to learn to think about how they would like to respond.

But this parent wasn’t satisfied.  (And I note a number of other audience members apparently weren’t either, as evidenced by comments left on the evaluation form.)  She complained that I did not give her one concrete suggestion for how she might go about creating relationships with people who shared her daughter’s ethnicity.  And then she begged me to tell her just one thing that she should do.

So I told her to move to a diverse neighborhood.  Continue reading

As seen by the census

The census bureau is making its big push for residents to be counted.  So it created a number of language- or target-specific advertising posters.  Shall we take a look?

A somewhat generic poster for the new portrait of America.  Available in German, Italian and Yiddish.  A few hints as to professions or status:  A firefighter, a healthcare worker, construction worker, two educators (shown in front of blackboards), a guy in a cap and gown.  One of the educators and the guy in the cap and gown appear to be black.  The other educator is a brownish sort.  But other than that, the people in professional wear appear to be white.  The only guy wearing a suit and tie is white.

APIs appear to be overrepresented.  Because we’re taking over.  That’s why you see such a fascination with us on the census:

What is Person 1’s race?

Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native – Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.
Asian Indian
Other Asian – Print race, for example, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on.
Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander – Print race, for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on.
Some other race – Print race.

(Yeah, we could go on and on about race and ethnicity.  But this is about the posters.)

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Short summary:  Christian publisher Zondervan released a book full of Asian stereotypes.  You know, the “Asian font,” the ninjas, the bamboo, Japanese gardens, kimono, random Chinese characters, etc.  Plus the website promoting the book used an old martial arts movie in which the speech was dubbed in the white people’s racist conception of how Asians talk.

You can read more about the book here.  It’s also still available on Amazon, bonus points for those of you who can read all the characters.

Now Zondervan has agreed to pull the book.  You can read its statement on Prof. Soong-Chan Rah’s blog.  Zondervan notes that Stan Gundry has been named editor-in-chief, and “will be responsible for making the necessary changes at Zondervan to prevent editorial mistakes like this going forward.”

So that  begs two questions:

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Orientalist much?

About Korean American violinist Hahn-Bin:

His eyes darting, not unlike a Balinese dancer, eyes opened in dramatic shock one moment, closed in meditation the next.

A plethora of emotions floated across his young face, from innocence to showing a knowledge transcending time and space.

Frequently, his slow-motion body movements evoked kabuki theater.  Bending over, leaning back, swaying side to side, he played with his entire body.   It is not often that a violin concert is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.  You could not take your gaze away from him …

Before each piece, he steadied himself with a half-minute, Zen-like pause, achieving an inner calm that he then abandoned with wild emotion.

No, I’m not linking.

The new status symbol

Along with the right type of adopted kid, that is.

For the past several years, Tibetan nannies have been all the rage in New York City. On message boards and playgrounds, some parents claimed Tibetan nannies were “very balanced and Zen” and aided in children’s “spiritual development,” whereas in areas such as Dallas, for example, Latino nannies have been more in demand for their Spanish-speaking abilities.

Same crap, different day

So Sam Yoon is running for mayor of Boston.  Undoubtedly people everywhere are yelling, “EEEK!  An Asian!  One of them furriners!”

Because here’s the illustration used by the Boston Phoenix about the mayoral race:


Thanks to Slant Eye for the Round Eye.

That’s incumbent Mayor Menino rising naked (!) out of a Chinese take-out box, chopsticks in hand.  Because of course whenever you see a name like Yoon, you think of naked white men and Chinese food.  Not to mention fortune cookies, dragons, the Oriental Font, the cone-shaped hat and all those other signifiers that indicate you lack imagination and just want to fall back on tired old stereotypes.

Yoon is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard (does this sound familiar to anyone?), is a member of the city council and belongs to the New Majority, a coalition of Boston people of color.  Impressive credentials, but …

‘Monkey business’

This is a scan of a page from Tricycle magazine, which bills itself as “the independent voice of Buddhism.” The drawings are by Lynda Barry, perhaps best known for Ernie Pook’s Comeek.

The article starts as follows:

I paint these monkeys with a brush and hand-ground Chinese ink. What began as a response to the death of a friend has become something I lean on, just as I depend on the alphabet to be there when I want to write.”

Some of the red seal images used in her drawings appear to be cartoon animals, a monkey, a teddy bear and a turtle. The one at the bottom corner is a stylized version of her surname.

But what are these images supposed to be? Monkeys as monks?