Cultural Approbation vs. Cultural Appreciation & MFA’s Kimono Wednesday

I recently was asked on Instagram about the Kimono Wedensdays that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was holding earlier this summer. Museum attendees could try on a kimono similar to the one in Claude Monet’s La Japonaise . On the Instagram post there was a question of “is this fun or racist”. I immediately replied sounds like fun! Turns out a lot of people thought the event was “yellow face” and extremely offensive. As I explored the controversy I was kept up late night exploring my feelings about race, cultural appropriation and the Internet as a extremely unfriendly place for race discussions.

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Claude Monet’s La Japonaise

Here’s a little background on the event. In Japan a similar event took place earlier where an actual kimono or uchikake similar to one in Monet’s painting  was  recreated  and visitors were allowed to try it on.   The kimono used in the Museum Fine Arts event  was created in Kyoto where kimono culture is probably at its richest. The initial exhibit traveled extensively through Japan and people were encouraged to try it on. Some places had makeup sessions as well.  This event was held in Japan and anyone could try it one.

The Japanese broadcast company NHK sponsored the events and commissioned the travelling events.  The exhibit was packaged to be used abroad in the United States with the idea and absolute certainty that non-Japanese people would be trying on wearing kimono. The Museum of Fine Arts holds one of the largest collections of Japanese and Asian art collections outside of Japan and is renowned for it’s collections and exhibits.

Flash forward to earlier this month where a group of self described “Social Justice Warriors” took to blogs, Facebook and public protests about the event claiming it was racist, yellow face and culturally insensitive.

From BFAM TImeline - Click image to go to timeline photo.

Click image to go the MFAB timeline photo.

Protesters stood near by the painting and anyone trying on the kimono that was non-Japanese. They held up placards and signs with  various words stating that this was  cultural racism in action. Many used the #whitesupremacykills.

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I read their placards and their Facebook posts and grew more and more uncomfortable with my “sounds like fun!” comment which led me to feel more discomfort at my  ‘privileged’ identity.

During my sleepless night I examined this privileged status as it relates to my past education. Face it, all the history lessons (during my era) especially K-12 has been from a white male view. It wasn’t until college that I broke free from this view of a white male dominated history. In college I honored in Women’s Studies but frankly most of the women in Women’s Studies were white! Which at the time I didn’t really question too much. (Anyone notice the growing schism between White Feminists, Black Feminists and Lesbian Feminists? Plus, check out Rihanna’s newest Bitch Better Have My Money vid speaking of feminism)

Back to the MFA. One can go to the MFA Facebook page and look at the commentators who viewed the event as racist vs. those that did not. (There is also a Facebook page called Stand Against Yellowface which was created out of the controversy. There is an event for July 15 for more protests. ) It appears that most of the protesters were not Japanese. Which could bring up the issue of, if the Japanese people were not offended why should Americans regardless of color be offended.  Was this a knee jerk reaction, did it ultimately close those doors to a wonderful cultural exchange? Is this another case of the loud, squeaky wheel gets the oil?

I cannot even begin to put myself in another person of color’s shoes. All I can be is respectful, honest and compassionate.  That being said after reading and knowing more about the backstory of this particular event, working through my own thoughts I came to these conclusions:

  • I believe the BMFA Kimono Wednesdays as it initially stood was not a racist event and did not condone ‘yellow face’.
  • I stand by my initial “sounds like fun!” And, if I were to ever have the chance to try on kimono especially one made by actual Japanese artisans I would do it in a heartbeat.
  • I fear that the reaction from MFA’s event other museums will no longer attempt this sort of exchange.
  • I think people should do more research before starting protests.

I will leave you with this video from Katy Perry which seems to be far more about cultural approbation than appreciation than the original Kimono Wednesday.

Plus, more food for thought.

Ready Set Kimono

Japan Today Announces Kimono Wednesday Cancelled 

Big Red Shiny – Demonstrators Protest Cultural Appropriation in MFA Galleries

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13 thoughts on “Cultural Approbation vs. Cultural Appreciation & MFA’s Kimono Wednesday

  1. Ha ha, next time, forward the easily-offended to my daughter’s school where last week the children were asked to dress up in the ‘national costume’ of their choice country. Cue an infestation of dodgy national stereotypes: poncho or striped towel/straw hat for Mexico/ a Hat with corks dangling from the rim and flip-flops for Australia/Chopsticks in the hair for China or Japan.. A politically incorrect nightmare 🙂 Daughter wore denim and a T-shirt = USA.

    I didn’t know that Monet paining before. It’s not a theme I’d associate with this painter.

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  2. I respect the fact that you have given this issue a lot of thought. I think the questions about cultural appropriation or appreciation are highly relevant to sewing and fashion. However, although I agree with some of your overall conclusions, I respectfully disagree with many of the resulting comments. This is a complicated issue that can’t simply be explained because of oversensitivity or too much political correctness.

    As a Navajo woman I see cultural appropriation of Native American culture on a regular basis. Most of it is due to appreciation but sometimes it is disrespectful and evidences some level of ignorance on the part of the appropriator. Based on what you have described, the MFA Kimono event sounded like it was intended as cultural appreciation…but then again, I am not Japanese or Japanese American. There are probably layers of issues related to history, gender, and politics that motivated the protestors that I have never thought about.

    Here is a link to one opinion piece on the controversy written by a young Japanese American woman. I think she does a great job of showing how complicated this issue can be. https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/07/10/mfa-kimono-controversy-should-spark-deeper-conversation/lZeb3uxDpGBeP2t6Q7IzuL/story.html#

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting post. Some Japanese – Americans are offended others were not. There is no way to please everyone, I don’t know what the solution would be or how this event could have been ‘formulated’ to make everyone at the least, marginally okay.

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  3. Good heavens! Where will this PC craziness end? I’m Slovak…would I be offended if someone of another ethnicity wore a babushka? Of course not! Admiring and trying on the clothing of various ethnic groups promotes understanding and appreciation, not “racism”. “Racist” is the word the uninformed and biased use when they have no good argument, and lots of time on their hands!

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  4. Is there a new college course out there where people learn to hunt things that might offend 10 people in the world and then carry on about it? This nonsense is ruining so many things today. Good for you for having an intelligent understanding of what’s going on here. The others should be out helping the sick, poor, and needy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What’s there to be offended about? My origins are South Asian – Pakistan, to be specific. I am always thrilled when someone of another ethnicity wants to wear the shalwar/kameez. I wish there was an event where everyone could try it on. Like the kimono, everyone looks great in a shalwar/kameez outfit. As you said, if the Japanese are not offended, what’s the problem??
    The caftan as the American fashionista knows it, is really a derivative of the middle eastern caftan, and the South Asian kurta.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hmm. This shalwar/kameez sounds intriguing. Have you ever made one? I think we should win the lottery and travel around the world and try on native garments and then blog about the craftsmanship. First thing we need to do is get that winning lotto ticket. I’ll get on it!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s such a shame that some people’s readiness to be offended (and dare I say some actively seek to be) stifles cultural exchange and understanding. So many people can learn from these kind of events and have a greater richness in their relationships with other cultures. Spoiled by those who pretend to be standing up for something they clearly don’t understand or care about.

    Liked by 2 people

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