Monday, November 07, 2016

The Mikado in the 21st Century

Last week I participated as a guest of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players in a forum discussion on racism in The Mikado. After cancelling their 2015 production over concerns about racism, they've hired some new staff and brought in an advisory panel to put together a new version of the show. Because of my background as a performer and consumer of Gilbert & Sullivan productions, my own Japanese-American identity, and some things I've written (though not publicly) on the subject before, I was invited to give a keynote address as part of that forum.

I thought it was a productive conversation—I had the sense that all participants (which included some NYGASP officials with significant responsibility about the new production) were well-motivated and sincere, and had some understanding of the issues. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to take audience questions, and lots of things didn't really get addressed. But I thought the forum was an encouraging step. I have found that these conversations are extremely difficult to have. But for at least a few hours last week, we were having a real one.

For anyone interested, here are some of the things I said, along with some other things I hoped to say but didn't have time for.

I speak for myself; I am no one’s representative. But I speak as a member of three relevant communities. First, I have been an aficionado of Gilbert & Sullivan since I was a young teenager. I’ve performed in about 30 G&S productions, including four Mikados. I founded Gilbert & Sullivan Societies at Rice University and Brown University. I’ve been a member of Savoynet—an email listserv dedicated to the discussion of Gilbert & Sullivan—for nearly 15 years. I have been a regular performer in England at the annual International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival. I’ve seen hundreds of G&S productions.

Second, I am a person of Japanese-American descent. My great-grandmother Masano Ichikawa came from Hiroshima to California in 1915. My grandparents were removed from their homes by the US government to internment camps during World War II. (Grandpa left the camps to fight for the US in Europe. He came home with a Purple Heart.) I am American Yonsei—fourth-generation Japanese-American. Like many Asian-Americans, especially those like me who are of mixed descent, my Asian-American identity becomes more and less salient from time to time; sometimes I can almost forget that I have a distinctive ethnic identity; other times it is unignorable, whether I want it to be or not.

Third, I am a professor of philosophy, specializing in epistemology—the branch of philosophy concerning the nature of knowledge: how is knowledge possible, how does one’s social position influence what one is in a position to know, and how can one person’s knowledge be shared with another? This third identity might be less obvious as a qualification for speaking about The Mikado, but I think it has an important role to play. I think that a difficulty in seeing others’ positions—especially positions rooted in somewhat deep differences in identity, is one of the biggest obstacles to productive conversations.

Let’s start with what I’d expect should be some relatively uncontroversial observations. Observation 1: The Mikado was not intended by Gilbert and Sullivan, and is not intended by contemporary companies that produce it, to be offensive. This is the first thing traditionalists usually say in defence of The Mikado, and they are right. The point of The Mikado is not to offend anybody. I think this should be common ground.

Observation 2: as performed, The Mikado sometimes involves racist Japanese stereotypes. These are offensive and harmful. The Mikado is itself a cultural phenomenon, and its representations contribute to the perception of Japanese and Japanese–American people. Common stereotypes include: Japanese as exotic and incomprehensible; infantilization; barbarism; dragon ladies; china dolls; excessive bows and shuffling of feet; yellow peril; caricatured accents; caricatured facial features. I was in a production once where our eyes were literally taped back. I have seen productions with buck teeth and violently shrill nasal singing. This is demeaning, insulting, objectifying, and harmful.

We can and should hold on to both observations at once. You don’t have to be motivated by racial hatred to produce something racist—it is possible to be racist accidentally. So, (a) a racist production of The Mikado doesn’t mean the people who made it hate Japanese people, and (b) the fact that you don’t hate Japanese people doesn’t guarantee that you’re not going to put on a racist production of The Mikado. I think it’s more useful to focus on the adjective ‘racist’—racist ideas, racist caricatures, racist jokes—than on the noun ‘racist’ as applied to a kind of person.

It’s also important to separate out the question of racism in particular productions of the show, and that of whether it is intrinsic to the work itself. The most egregious displays of racism I have seen have been relatively incidental. There’s nothing in the work as written that forces companies to pull back their white actors’ eyes. One can easily produce a Mikado that is free of ninja poses. Other potentially problematic elements are baked in somewhat more deeply. The Mikado’s gleeful joy in the painful execution of his subjects for trivial slights evokes racist ideas about Eastern barbarism and Western civilization. But a production doesn’t have to be perfectly free of every offensive stereotype. (Show me the production of any show that is!) I think 95% of the racism I’ve ever seen in productions of The Mikado, and 100% of the really blatant racism, can be avoided with minimal or no violence to the work itself.

Here’s an argument I hear all the time: The Mikado is a satire of British culture, so it’s just a fundamental misunderstanding to suppose it has anything to do with Japan. Since it’s not about Japan or Japanese people, it couldn’t possibly perpetuate racist stereotypes about them. It is certainly true that the central targets of Gilbert’s satire are his own English contemporaries. But it’s just fallacious to suppose this means the work doesn’t or can’t engage in racist caricatures of Japanese people.

This point is more obvious in slightly different contexts. Imagine, for example, if you’ll indulge me in a thought experiment, a possible theatrical production satirising the US Presidential race, given by performers offering caricatured versions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in blackface. A white man and a white woman ‘black up’ with burnt cork or shoe polish, leaving big, exaggerated lips and white eyeliner. Then, using the kind of crude caricatures of English that used to be popular in twentieth-century minstrel shows, they act out thinly veiled versions of the 2016 Presidential election. I think we can all see that this would be super racist. We know better than to dress up and make up in exaggerated racist caricatures of black people. If we were doing it to make fun of our white Presidential candidates, that wouldn’t make it any better. In exactly the same way, the fact that The Mikado is intended as a satire of people who are not Japanese does not exempt it from possible worries about racist caricatures. Appearing in exaggerated and distorted dress and make-up, performing crude caricatures of Japanese stereotypes is no less racist than the blackface traditions that we’ve largely left behind.

(I don’t have time to get into it today, but the historical relationship between The Mikado and blackface itself is interesting. I recommend Part II of Josephine Lee’s book, The Japan of Pure Invention, on this topic.)

Perceiving racism is an epistemic skill. People can be better or worse at it. People of Asian descent are likelier than others to recognise racism that affects Asians. To some, this can sound threatening—it makes it sound like they have to leave their brains outside and think just as minority groups tell ‘em to. But I don’t think it’s like that. In all sorts of areas, some people have perceptual abilities that others lack. Trained musicians can recognise particular chords. Experienced bird-watchers can recognise particular birds. If you want to know whether something is a diminished seventh, or a martial eagle, if you’re not the kind of person who’s good at recognising the difference, you don’t have to stop thinking for yourself, but it’s a good idea to rely on those who are.

Most people don’t get super worked up about controversies about whether something is a diminished seventh or a martial eagle. This, I think, is a big difference between music theory and racism. Lots of people—including people who aren’t great at recognizing racism—care a lot about whether things are racist. Decent people don’t want to do racist things—in part because they’re decent people who want to treat people with respect. That’s good. But one potential drawback—one epistemic challenge—is that people who benefit from a racist set of practices will have, at a subconscious level, an incentive not to recognize them. If you unwittingly do or say something racist, and I point that out to you, it’s very natural for you to become defensive—to question my sincerity or judgment. You might refuse to take my concerns seriously unless and until I can explain exactly why and how what you said was racist or harmful, and you won’t consider my explanation good enough unless it convinces you.

Because we are situated differently in the world, we can all see different things. I know more about my life than you do; you know more about yours. To speak a bit generally, people who are members of racial minorities tend to know more than white people about racism. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for white people to disagree with worries about racism, but I think it would be a mistake to ignore the risk of dismissing concerns too quickly. It’s important to be epistemically humble—to recognize that we don’t know everything, and to be open-minded and ready to learn.

Coming back to The Mikado, these epistemic differences can create misunderstandings. The obvious one is that some people won’t recognize racism that is obvious to other people. A slightly less obvious challenge happens a level up: when racism is so obvious to a member of the Asian community, and a member of the G&S community says they don’t see it, there’s a temptation to interpret that as disingenuous. But it might not be. Sometimes even very well-intentioned people won’t be able to see the problem—especially if the stereotypes have taken on the role of tradition. We must resist the temptation to attribute ill motives to all traditionalists who can’t see it.

We must also resist the temptation, on the other side, to suppose that activists who raise complaints we don’t understand are just making up excuses to be offended. Being offended isn’t fun. I think that many people dramatically underestimate the emotional labor that goes into giving voice to marginalized perspectives. Talking about how something is hurtful or harmful, to an audience that has a hard time seeing it, is exhausting. It doesn’t feel good to have to speak up for one’s dignity.

One source of resistance I have heard to taking concerns about The Mikado seriously is a kind of ‘slippery slope’ argument. If you stop using tape to make oriental eyes, what else will you have to change? I think it’s worth thinking a bit more explicitly about what this ‘have to’ means. Because the answer to the question: “how much do you have to do”, depends on what your aim is. What bar do you want to clear? Do you want to put on a production that is respectful, or is your aim merely to avoid being picketed? Or are you looking for a production that some individual would be happy with? In any case, there’s not going to be a list of simple rules you just need to make sure to follow. Racism is too subtle, and too pervasive, and too dynamic, to work like that. The thing to do, I think, is to take concerns seriously, to keep the conversation open, to be receptive to feedback, even when you don’t totally understand it, and to be willing to make changes accordingly.

I know only a little about what NYGASP has been doing over the past year, but judging by the conversations I’ve had, and by the fact that we are here today, it seems to me like these are the right steps.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Jonathan. I agree that you are particularly well positioned to comment on this subject because of your membership in the three relevant communities that you mention above. I hope that everyone interested in how to produce The Mikado in the future will consider your words. All the best, Sam Silvers, NYC

  2. Jefferson Osborn11/08/2016 06:36:00 AM

    Very well presented. Thank you, Jonathan.

  3. Persuasive, thoughtful and well written. What changes do you think ought to be made to the production?