COMMUNITY VOICES | The Miss Saigon discussion | A case study in institutionalized racism


On Tuesday, October 29th, the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition and other community members met with leaders of local and national institutions and The Ordway Center for Performing Arts for what the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, having received a $10,000 grant from the Saint Paul Foundation for this issue, presented as a case study on building allies and the musical Miss Saigon.

I have great respect for the Wilder Foundation and I’d been tentatively optimistic about the evening even after a series of failed meetings so far this year – I was looking forward to engaging in discussion with arts funders on concrete solutions to the currently existing situation. (I call it a situation with the hope that our work together will resolve the issues and prevent future generations from referring to it as a fiasco.) I assume that these institutions want to fall on the right side of history, and as a member of the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition I showed up that night to talk about what that could mean.

Instead, I was compelled to participate in an exercise which physically demonstrated the extra hurdles that various marginalized communities face on their way to The American Dream. Our surprise anti-racism training involved a series of questions that, when asked, prompted listeners standing in a horizontal line together to either step forward or backward depending on their respective responses. Out of respect for the agreed-upon event parameters I won’t name anyone or share any private information, but I should note that we hadn’t done any personal introductions at this point. Typical questions in the privilege walk are:

“Take one step forward if you ever attended private school before college.”

“Take one step backward if English is not your or your parents’ native language.”

“Take one step forward if you can speak in front of a powerful male group without putting your race on trial.”

“Take one step backward if you had fewer than 20 books in your house growing up.”

“Take one step forward if you can be pretty sure that if you ask to speak to ‘someone in charge,’ you will be facing a person of your own race.”

“Take one step backward if your ancestors were brought to this country against their will.”

By the time the last question was asked, the room had split into people of color in the back, and White attendees in the front. All of the artists were in the rear. As a transnational transracial adoptee I found myself in the middle; I’d spent the training stepping back and forth, self-consciously trying to navigate my White family’s privilege and my own racialized experience as an Asian American woman.

The White attendees were asked to turn around and look at who was behind them. We stared at each other, absorbing the physical manifestation of our struggle/success. We felt shame/ashamed. I realized that I stood as a placeholder for all of the brown bodies who couldn’t or wouldn’t be in the room. Even though I stood well behind all of the White attendees, the very fact that I was physically, mentally, and economically able to be there still put me miles ahead of all of my brothers and sisters who the folks in front of me never see.

I say “ahead” with some consternation. Aside from my annoyance at participating in an exercise glorifying a White-defined American dream, aside from simultaneously remembering the privileges that are always forgotten (physical ability, sexual orientation, and cis-gender privileges are not as trendy here yet) while feeling that it was unproductive to self-flagellate for my own privilege when the whole exercise was framed so poorly, my overwhelming response was trauma. I was traumatized by my communities’ very engagement in the activity. We were asked to put ourselves on display with no explanation, prior trust built, or acknowledgment of how difficult and exhausting it was to even force ourselves to show up to these things over and over again. Who was in the room? How did they get there?

I was incensed when institutional leaders formally introduced themselves as “just a human,” as if they weren’t carrying the power of millions of dollars and policy decisions behind their pens. As if they were there as the result of a random lottery. As if the lower ranked employees of color at their institutions were even invited. It’s incredibly disingenuous and a giant accountability cop-out to show up as Mr. H. Sapiens when your very job is to wield power and you wouldn’t be in the room if it weren’t, and when (nameless – we had to request introductions later) brown bodies are literally used as tools in a teaching exercise so that you can learn about yourself in the hope that you’ll use your power wisely.

No one needs to tell us we have to run a marathon in order to show up to the starting line. We’re so tired when we get there that only the very strongest and sometimes just plain luckiest even survive the ensuing race, and we certainly don’t win it. Every day is a struggle, and every day we are reminded through large and small interactions that we’re less [human/important/successful]. Less. We’re damned if we sit there waiting for confirmation of our less-ness, and we’re damned if we try to forget and it knocks us down unawares.

For some of us, Miss Saigon‘s return and the Ordway’s response to our cries confirmed our less-ness; for others it knocked us down unawares.

While I appreciate the willingness of foundation leaders to attend the event, I didn’t show up to deposit my psychological health in their sandbox so they could use it to practice playing nicely. I went to discuss concrete changes based on what’s happened in Minnesota this year and in the last 20 years that these institutions have repeatedly brought Miss Saigon to town in the face of community cries. I went to demand accountability from well-meaning institutions who are currently paying lip service to their mission statements (or are inconsistently applying them), and who want to step it up.

But Minnesota happened. The Wilder Foundation planned a “nice” event for nice people. All the White people were nice, and I felt the very familiar, particular pressure to be a nice person of color so as to encourage them to continue being nice. At the beginning of the meeting,the facilitators from the Wilder Foundation framed the event as a catalyst to move the community forward. They spoke of moving beyond blame, of the difficulty of admitting one’s mistakes. Attendees participated in a 10 minute activity whereby vague suggestions were written on large post-its.

In our own very special regional way, our anti-institutionalized-racism event managed to exhibit and exacerbate an incredible amount of institutionalized racism. And while as a Minnesotan I am nice (most of the time), when clarity and purpose are lost I feel the need to speak out:

This event was productive for the White people in the room. But the people of color left traumatized; those in my cadre then immediately drowned their sorrows at the local pub. All that trauma and no concrete discussion of solutions to show for it. We wept, we bared our souls, and the most that the other attendees could contribute at the end of the night was to say that they had learned something and intended to do something with that something, with no real actions discussed. (And, really, what else could they say? They were brought to attend an anti-racism training, not to work with us on a solution to an existing conflict.)

It is not the job of unsuspecting leaders and advocates of color in the community to, with each and every encounter, have to educate White people in power how not to be racist in the application of that power. It is incumbent upon White leaders to educate themselves on how not to be racist before they take on the reins of power, as is the case with ethics, anti-sexism, finance, common decency, etc. We should not have our tears torn from us, appraised, and sold on our behalf “for our benefit.” While over the years our tears’ value has steadily grown in the marketplace for White compassion, should that marketplace even exist? How and why does it?

The next morning I went to work. And still shook with anguish and rage. Yes – rage – that emotion which, when actually expressed, threatens the stability of Minnesotan respect and acknowledgment. And dear residents of Lake Wobegon, it’s here.

This isn’t about all of the things inherently wrong with the musical Miss Saigon itself, which many have expressed in great op-ed after great op-ed (and some entertaining arts reviews). It’s not about the anemic “I’m sorry that you finally managed to convince some individuals in power that we were harming you” verbal apology we received from Ordway CEO Patricia Mitchell, while the eyes of her board and funders in the room were upon her, and only after a funder suggested that it didn’t seem hard at all to offer a simple apology and a promise not to bring the musical back (The former of which was weak and unqualified; the latter of which was not promised.)

It’s the Minnesotan community’s firm belief that the institutions in power are doing their best, that they may run a training without consulting the community which they’re using to educate another community, and that we should be grateful anyone is even listening to us. It’s this community’s conclusion that we should then show up, time and time again, to let them use our physical bodies of color for their own enlightenment.

It’s the intra-community oppression we visit upon ourselves in our scramble for resources and survival in the greater context of systemic oppression. It’s the fact that I’m one of the few who can write this op-ed piece because others who share my sentiments must remain in the good graces of these institutions for their livelihoods and professional careers, because that’s how the system is set up.

Funders, the Coalition is available for consultation. We’re a collective of API Minnesotan artists, activists, and academics with years of experience working for justice and a stake in the health of our Minnesotan community.

Humans, please sign the petition. We’re asking for two things: A genuine and written apology from Patricia Mitchell and the Ordway, and a public promise not to bring the musical back a fourth time, in the face of three prior protests by the Minnesotan API community and supporting communities of color.

When I think of all of the struggle and trauma we’ve endured while seeking just those two simple things – which at this writing still have not been granted – I am just appalled. This, along with the circumstances surrounding the recent showing of 12 Years A Slave at The Walker Art Museum and a number of recent administrative decisions silencing faculty of color at local academic institutions, has been a terrifying litmus test regarding the state and structure of our Minnesotan community.