Know thyself. Harder than it seems.
Know thy place. Another order of magnitude.
As I write I check my place on the privilege spectrum,
so that we’re not guilty of what we accuse others.
Karen K. Ho is an Asian-Canadian writer who lives in New York. In a recent CBC article she spoke of “How the AGO should move forward in the wake of their racial sensitivity fiasco”.(1) Karen says that “they’ve apologized for an artist’s racist costumes. Now they need to back it up by making meaningful change”. Karen wrote how “seeing this choice of clothing — the most basic cliché example of casual racism and decades-old caricature of what East Asian people dress and look like…” made her feel depressed. Karen accused the designer of racism, insulting and demeaning Asian people.
However, not all is as it seems. At times victimhood is used as a moral currency, requiring a disclosure of vested interests that’s missing here.(2) Roger Scruton wrote “we have encountered a new type of predatory censorship, a desire to take offense that patrols the world for opportunities.” A senior liberal Canadian art administrator put this in a more sophisticated form:
“There’s…extensive and long-standing commentary on Yellowface and the need to consider the pain caused by stereotypical depictions of Asians in western culture and media given the historically racist roots of such depictions, regardless of genuine ignorance or absence of malignant intent. We have similar concerns around your understanding of cultural appropriation. Regardless of whether you are already aware of such commentary, it is my sincere hope that you will make the effort to look further into these discussions in good faith and with an open heart and mind, and that in retrospect, you will be able to say that we did, in fact, end up supporting you and provide good advice”.
As artists we disagree: we won’t reinforce this oppressor-oppressed binary through which the gatekeepers assume everyone else is uneducated or less intelligent. We’ve overthrown our oppressors and refuse to accept others. Here’s a new mindset; as artists we can + we need to change the world. As immigrants, of which I am one, we have all experienced dislike, prejudice, and racism, and most of us have rebounded as humans do. Often such events spur us to act better than those who see race as conflict.
But we do need to consider the pain caused by stereotypical depictions.
The guests at the AGO Massive Party consisted of woke people from the Toronto art world, like most people reading this, perhaps including yourself. One would think the Asians arts community would have walked out that night, followed by the other guests, had they seen or felt racism or stereotypical depictions. This Asian motif was haunting and beautiful, but of 2000 guests, one later complained. The AGO quickly apologized and Karen branded the fashion designer racist, but ignored the 1999 socially-conscious guests who did not object and danced till dawn.
The fashion designer was Pedram Karimi, a young golden-brown POC immigrant, born in Iran, raised in Austria, now living in Montreal, who chose Asian dress for it’s stylish beauty. The article shading Pedram was written by Karen K. Ho, an Asian-Canadian author living in New York, who at the time was wearing jeans for comfort… even though she’s not from “de Nimes”, France. There’s no excuse for such cultural insensitivity even if Karen’s unaware of the history of denim or the predation that French coastal people suffered for centuries at the hands of the British navy. Karen in New York was paid by the CBC… to write in English… of her feelings at seeing a photograph. The feet on the street, the Asian guests actually at the party in Toronto, later wrote on the AGO Facebook page that there was no racism, no offense.
I think about the feelings of that guest who complained. I’d like to meet them to say we don’t have to embed past hatred in today and tomorrow; we can see this show as it was meant, an appreciation of Asian style by an immigrant in a land of immigrants. We can create a positive space where there was pain before; we don’t have to see the world as racist at those times when it is not
And at the AGO it was not; some common sense is required, the AGO is not overrun by obtuse bigots, an argument Jamie Kirchick also used in a similar case at Yale, Reflections on the Revolution at Yale.(3) The Book of Changes, I CHING, one of the five books of Confucianism, writes that correcting injustice starts with self-criticism so that we’re not guilty of what we accuse others. And obviously if you stayed and danced all night then complained weeks later, it looks like you’re a survivor.
Photographs show surreal silk by a fashion Picasso; no one felt prejudice directed against someone of a different race, no discrimination or antagonism based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. Why seek bigotry where there is none? There’s real bigotry out there, we don’t need to make it up at home. We need to beware the fascist right, but we must also beware the fascist left, and the professional justice warrior fuelled by anger with benefits.
Pay attention! You’re hurting innocent artists like Pedram. You silence their song. We forget the harm done to the skinny Iranian kid with bronze skin, whose POC workmates would laugh at the idea he’s racist. Margaret Atwood writes of the Puritan Right in The Handmaid’s Tale; are we not also creating a Puritan Left lacking ethics… fuelled by a craving for power, status, and identity?
On the AGO apology page, some people shame the AGO for apologizing, including those Asians who wrote no racism, no insult.(4) First they came for the others… and someday it’s your turn, so when it’s your turn… let’s hope for a world where your voice is heard, where people seek to profit from culture instead of seeking to profit from conflict. There has to be a solution, so we propose this one:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another. This can be controversial when a dominant culture appropriates from minorities. But since cultures instinctively learn from each other, we should only call it wrong when it’s unethical, disrespectful, abusive; otherwise it’s civilization.
But the term’s already stuck, so we need a new word, call it appreciation. Without cultural exchange we would not be able to eat Italian food, listen to reggae, or go to Yoga, drink tea or use chopsticks or speak English or apply algebra, or listen to jazz, or write novels. Almost every cultural practice we engage in is the by-product of centuries of cross-cultural pollination.(5)
We invite the A.G.O. and the anonymous litigant to join us along with Ms. Karen K. Ho, we invite everyone to support the following much needed policy; #CulturalAppreciation is now a thing.
Our bespoke term sees artists respecting other cultures in their work. Available to all copyright free, this poster is a trigger warning notice. #Cultural Appreciation protects cultural freedom and allows complex civilization, says that an artist is using symbols with respect and without insult, – when that meme is posted it’s a sign that intentions make a difference.
In his book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” Francis Fukuyama writes that we must begin to shape identity in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy.(6)
Fukuyama’s lessons learned and applied, Iranian-born Pedram Karimi and Hungarian-born Miklos Legrady coined the term #CulturalAppreciation so we can ethically speak English although neither of us is Anglo, and so we can prevent triggering situations by noting the artist is using cultural symbols with care and respect.
3-The A.G.O. Facebook apology page
6-Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Volume 34 no.2 November/December 2019 pp 24-26