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.
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.
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.
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.