On September 8th, there was a theatre performance which featured two white actors in yellowface in the Strathearn Building, COCo’s home for the last 16 years. Reactions to what happened, both among our staff and board members, and as articulated by community members and allies, have been visceral and have spurred calls for a wider public conversation about racial dynamics, systemic racism, and cultural appropriation in both the community and arts sectors. Although we have been in continual conversation with the organizers and many of the other tenants in our building, we wanted to release some of our own reflections on what has happened- particularly in advance of the November 16th panel, planned by the MAI (Montreal Arts Interculturels), to talk about the issue of cultural appropriation.
The performance involved two white performers, their faces painted white, with red lips, wearing ‘Geisha’ wigs, one wearing a faux-traditional East Asian robe (“yellowface”). One actor pretended to be mute and the other performer ‘interpreted’ the scenario in an invented language imitating Japanese. The piece finished with a suicide by hara-kiri after the mute woman was abandoned by her lover.
We felt confused, angry, hurt, and disappointed by the piece, which was originally scheduled to be performed in our offices. One criticism of the piece was that is was culturally appropriative- cultural appropriation involves people from a dominant group exploiting cultural elements of less privileged groups, typically distorting their meaning and importance. For us, this was only one aspect of why we found this performance troubling. It also played into a broader system of racial violence against East Asian people, and more specifically East Asian women, being denigrated and mocked. The trope of the jilted East-Asian woman killing herself is a particularly notorious form of this kind of misogyny, most notably with shows like Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon. The mockery of disability that was part of the piece is yet another troubling element.
Racialized people are marginalized in the arts world as in the community sector (in this case, overlapping). As our preliminary results from our own research on racism in community organizations has shown, in the last 3 years, over 25% of racialized respondents have either taken leave or resigned from a position in the sector due to an unwelcoming working environment for racialized workers. This is but one example of the barriers experienced by people of colour in the community sector, and the final aggregated report, slated for release by the end of the year, as well as our ongoing anti-oppression work, will certainly shed further insight on a topic both pervasive and current.
The fact of a harmful act of racism occuring in our own backyard, so to speak, only reinforces our conviction that there is still much work to be done, and reminds us that the issue is not an abstract one.
Conversations about racism are challenging, and can evoke strong emotions and reactions from both white and racialized people. COCo places an importance on raising conversations about oppressive dynamics specifically within the community sector, such as racism and sexism, both terms we used in a recent Facebook post to describe the incident. We heard from a number of people that they felt hurt by our use of that word, but for us, part of the process of sincere and authentic exchange is naming things as they are and as they are experienced. As difficult as it can be, we believe it is crucial to address the issues raised with openness and candour, and we stand by our use of these words. The performers have also released a statement regarding their performance and the subsequent response.
We have been far from alone in raising our concerns with the organizers and the artists, and ultimately, for us this has been a story of individuals and organizations stepping up to the plate to carefully, thoughtfully, and pro-actively fight racism in our milieu. We wish to applaud the courage of the individuals who have sent in letters, shared posts, and spoken out about this issue, and met with the involved parties. We’re grateful for their efforts. In addition, we want to acknowledge the important support and advocacy of the Black Theatre Workshop and Diversité Artistique Montréal. Last, but not least, we are very excited that the MAI has organized a panel on this topic, on November 16th. The sincere commitment to change and dialogue has been inspiring, and we are proud to be a part of a community that is taking a stand on this issue.
the COCo staff and Board