In my pastoral counseling class in seminary, the professor played a video of a counseling session of a black couple. He intended for us to learn some lessons on marriage counseling from it, but it turned out to be a laugh fest for the mostly white class. Repeatedly the husband and wife cut each other down with witty insults. My sense is that the couple reminded the students of George and Louise Jefferson from the TV show The Jeffersons. I sat next to an African American student that day and during the break I turned over to him and asked, “Do you find this funny?” He said, “I’m glad you asked,” and proceeded to tell me that he witnessed this kind of behavior firsthand in his own home since his parents are divorced. Needless to say he did not find the video amusing. I encouraged him to voice this to the class, which he courageously did when we returned from break. It seems while the professor intended to communicate one thing from showing the video, it communicated another because of the manner in which the students were racialized.
I share this story as an analogue to the recent controversy surrounding the production of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s The Mikado — a comic opera written in 1885 as a critique of British politics and institutions, set in distant, mysterious, and mostly made-up Japan. It began with Sharon Chan writing an editorial to the Seattle Times, calling the current production of it by an all-white cast as “yellowface” and “open[ing] old wounds and resurrect[ing] pejorative stereotypes.” Since then, Jeff Yang has also written an editorial for CNN.com entitled, “Yellowface staging of ‘The Mikado’ has to end.” I will not rehearse their arguments here; I write to address why this incident matters to North American evangelicals.
Not too long ago, Christianity Today published an open letter, signed by Asian American Christian leaders across the country, calling upon evangelicals to cease stereotyping Asians. The letter was written in response to Rick Warren defending his use of a Red Guard photo as a joke and a “Karate Kid” parody video at the Exponential conference. One might dismiss these as isolated incidents, but in 2007 Zondervan published Deadly Viper: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership, a book filled with inaccurate caricatures of Chinese culture. That same year Zondervan had to revise the youth ministry book Skits that Teach, because it contained a skit that mocked a “Chinese Delivery Man.” In 2004, Life Way went on to publish its VBS curriculum themed “Rickshaw Rally,” even after Asian American Christians leaders pleaded with them not to do so. Some may accuse me of possessing an unforgiving spirit, but my intention for recalling these events is to demonstrate that white evangelical culture continues to believe it is harmless to parody Asian culture. Even at the university where I teach, which claims an evangelical identity, a few faculty defended the recent Seattle production of The Mikado, believing the use of Asian stereotypes to be harmless.
I write not to embarrass any of my colleagues or criticize my beloved institution; I mention this to illustrate that evangelicals reflect the same sentiments as the producers of The Mikado. The same manner in which Gilbert and Sullivan parodied Japanese culture by creating the fictional names “Nanki Poo” and “Yum Yum,” Foster and Wilhite caricatured Chinese culture with the invention of the names “Zi Qi Qi Ren” and “Chicka Wah Wah” in Deadly Viper. For this reason evangelicals ought to learn from this current controversy if they care about reconciliation within the church. I would hope that white evangelicals, when approaching matters of race, will at least bother to ask their Asian American sisters and brothers, “Do you find this funny?”
People defend the production of The Mikado on the basis that the joke is on Brits and not Asians. Yet given my experiences, I cannot help but worry that there will be unintended consequences to the production. My 12-year-old son recently told me that his friend mocked him by giving him a squinty eyed look (by pulling back on his eyes with his hands) and asking him, “How do you see?” Sadly, this is not surprising to me; although, what is particularly annoying is that my son happens to have unusually large eyes. His friend assumed this to be innocent fun, but my son received the gesture as an insult. While some may dismiss such actions as adolescent behavior, in a 2010 video interview Mark Driscoll calls Francis Chan the “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” to his face. Given the repeated offenses within evangelicalism, I cannot help but wonder whether Driscoll’s views are extreme or mainstream.
I’m currently traveling across the country, and in one town I ate at a restaurant that has a caricature of an ancient Mongol as its logo. I assume that the management recognizes that the icon ought not to be taken seriously as a representation of Asians today. Yet I could not but feel uncomfortable eating there since and my family were its only non-white patrons. I wonder what the logo communicates to white children growing up in this town – will they all get the joke or will they turn it into one?
Bo Lim is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University.