Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Woke Is Whiteface

"I am human; I consider nothing human is alien to me."

In July of 2015, in what was in retrospect one of the first camel-nose-in-the-tent moments for wokeness, a Twitter mob got the Museum of Fine Arts Boston to shut down “Kimono Wednesdays.” On “Kimono Wednesdays,” museumgoers got to dress up in a japonisme-inspired uchikake robe and pose in front of a Japan-themed Monet canvas in which the artist’s wife poses in similar attire. Holding a sensu folding fan open and splaying the uchikake out to show off the remarkable patterns on the fabric, art devotees got to have their picture taken and have a little fun imagining themselves in fin-de-siècle France—or in romantic Old Japan, either one. Great promotion for the museum’s exhibition, great social media shot for patrons, and a good time was had by all.

Except, “Orientalism!”

In less time than it used to take Zatoichi to dispatch a gang of dishonorable henchmen, the Twitter mob had descended on the New England aesthetes. They were “Orientalist,” of course, echoing the by-now de rigueur charge leveled at anyone who takes an interest in a foreign country besides pretty much Canada, Belgium, or Denmark. They were “culturally appropriating” and not sufficiently problematizing the “racist discourse” surrounding the “fetishization” of Asian culture. The obligatory crybully brigade showed up with signs and stood in front of the Monet canvas, photobombing anyone who tried to get a snap with the painting au japonaise. Anyone who still insisted on committing the heinous crime of donning a Japanese robe was accused of practicing “Yellow Face” and condemned.

I was in Japan when this idiotic fracas hit the news. The hyperventilating over a kimono was not surprising given the circumstances. Back in 2015, before everyone was a white supremacist, everyone was an Orientalist. But what really struck me about the uproar was how very white it was. As I look back on the episode now, across the woke wasteland which stands between that moment and today, I begin to think that the entire phenomenon of wokeness has been a function of crazy white liberals. Woke moves from race to race, from hypoxia about culturally appropriating this, to blue-faced screaming about Orientalizing that. But in the end, woke is just white liberals going off the reservation.

Woke is whiteface. The way to defeat wokeness is to turn the focus back where it belongs—on white liberals in high dudgeon, using minorities as human shields for ranting about things white liberals themselves continue to do. Namely, making a huge deal about culture and race, when these things are not impediments to human interaction, but invitations to it.

Since 2015, I have asked many Japanese friends and many of my students here about the Boston kimono brouhaha. There are two sets of reactions. Some people are puzzled. Why would Americans be so angry about this? What’s the big deal? Other people are elated. “I am in a kimono club at school,” some of my students have said. “It is wonderful that people in foreign countries are learning about kimono!” Those are the two reactions. “Wha…?” and “Wow!” But I have yet to meet anyone here who feels “Orientalized” by the fact that some people in Boston tried on an uchikake. Wokeness is an American hang-up, and a very specifically white liberal American hang-up at that.

In Japan, cultural appropriation is the norm. It’s everywhere. Folks here are not shy about it. In fact, it’s kind of a mark of cosmopolitanism to know a thing or two about other cultures. A friend once shared with me a video of a bluegrass band playing at a bar in Tokyo. The Japanese men strumming banjos on stage are so clearly filled with joy that it brought tears to my eyes. I spent many years in the foothills of Appalachia as a youth, and I love bluegrass, too. It made my heart swell to see people in another country taking up a fiddle and sawing out a tune.

Truth be told, dear reader, I, too, am a profligate cultural appropriator. It’s not just the Japanese. I use chopsticks. I use folding fans in summer to beat the heat. I—can you believe it—speak Japanese. I eat sushi and miso soup. When I go to a Japanese inn, I wear the yukata cotton robes and tabi socks laid out for guests. I participated in a Japanese “naked festival” (hadaka matsuri) once and wore nothing (I am sorry for the image) but a fundoshi loincloth. When I go to the hot springs, I disport in my birthday suit, just like the locals. I have even gone so far as to bow to people when greeting them. Call the Orientalist Police! Someone stop me!

Except, nobody here cares. Nobody tells me to quit bowing, to quit speaking in Japanese. They are, conversely, happy that someone is taking an interest in Japan. People take me to museums to show me Japanese art. They take me to tea ceremonies, to exhibits about the imperial household, to the inner sancta of Shinto shrines. I have gone to Japanese castles and tried on samurai outfits and warrior helmets, getting my picture taken with a fake sword. I have never seen anyone—not a single person—object to any of this.

One New Year’s Eve, long ago in rural Gifu Prefecture, the saintly mother of my homestay family took me with her to ring one of the one hundred and eight bells at the nearby Buddhist temple, one bell-ringing to dispel one of the one hundred and eight sins of the world. When we got there after midnight, the monk overseeing the bell-ringing had just announced that the person in front of us in line had rung the bell for the one-hundred-and-eighth time. Sorry, folks. Park closed.

“This young man came all the way from America,” my homestay mom leaned over and told the monk. “Isn’t there something that can be done?” With bodhisattvic compassion, the good bonze smiled at me and gave me the rope to pull the wooden beam to ring the bell. He signaled to me to ring it loud, cleared his throat, and intoned, for the second time that evening, “One hundred and eight!” He bent the rules a little bit for the foreigner. He was thrilled to share with me what he loved. I was deeply honored, overwhelmed.

Orientalism, or just human beings equally adrift in the cosmos? I like the latter interpretation much better. It’s much more humane. The business of separating people into groups and insisting on keeping a cordon sanitaire around culture is something which, in my experience, only white liberals do.

Cultural appropriation is not “homage,” as some schmaltzy apologists claim. It’s human nature. When I use chopsticks, it is not to incense the idol of Japanese culture. It is because chopsticks work, and because people whom I know and love use chopsticks, and so I want to use chopsticks, too. I’m just a bower bird. We all are. Screaming at people for trying on kimono at an art museum is just unnatural. Only white liberals would think to do such a thing. Culture is not a disease. You don’t have to quarantine people to keep them from catching it.

One of my favorite restaurants in Japan is in Azabu-Juban, run by a black couple from the American South. They serve up the best Southern comfort food outside of Mother’s in New Orleans. And the Japanese diners can’t get enough. Sweet tea, corn bread, and collard greens is just a good combination. How sad if folks here were barred from enjoying what I did growing up.

But stovepiping culture and putting people into sealed-off categories is just what the woke want to do. At the University of Pyongyang, I mean Wisconsin, I once took part in a “diversity training” seminar required for graduate teaching assistants. The “facilitator” was an uber-liberal provincial American the color of Elmer’s glue. She had “Left of the Dial” tattooed on her forearm and drank filtered water out of a Mason jar. Yes, she was trying that hard. But then she tried harder. She handed out worksheets informing us that “All white people are racist.” Thus the “diversity training” began. Not looking good for actual diversity.

My friend from Uganda who was sitting next to me leaned over and asked, “Why is she doing this?” I didn’t know how to explain. I had spent many years in Asia. Others in the room had lived in Africa or Latin America. Many people, like my Ugandan friend, had been in the United States for just a few years. The only person, apparently, who had never been outside the Midwest was our “facilitator.” She was clueless, and to hide her cultural illiteracy she attacked those of us who actually had a culture. These “diversity training facilitators” want the whole world to be as blinded and unimaginative as they are. They want the rest of us to share the anxieties of WASPs. Woke is whiteface. It is white liberals co-opting non-white, non-crazy people to parrot the lines that white liberals say.

Yes. In the end, it’s all about the white liberals. That is woke. No matter what happens, whitey is front and center. White liberals brought you eugenics and Planned Parenthood. Fragile white people authored apartheid. On the plantations, guess where the WASPs were, at the head of the table or in the cotton fields? William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll. My hero Louis Armstrong declared once, “I ain’t never going back to New Orleans.” Why? White people wanted him to stay on his side of the color line. Along the way this kind of overt racism became passé, so white liberals changed tack. After all, they won at Brown v. Board! Voila, they weren’t racist anymore.

“Karen” is Jim Crow’s very white, very nagging wife. The same people who once obsessed about water fountains and bus seating now throw pronoun tantrums and insist on “jazz hands.” (How I would love to see Satchmo’s reaction to the inanity of jazz hands.) Woke is whiteface, the endless nervous breakdown of oldline Puritans who still—still!—cannot accept that we are all mongrelized and all hungry for a lot more mongrelization coming down the pike.

I know I am, at least. Give me a Maasai wrap, maybe an Ottoman turban. Give me a zoot suit and a French horn. Deck me out in silk from China, or a saffron sarong. A cowboy hat, a toga, perhaps some straw sandals to complete the oeuvre. Boom. Looking good. Feeling like a human being, y’all, and humani nihil a me alienum puto. We are called to love people and to love the myriad interesting things that people do. A human being is an invitation, not a citadel. We do not have to treat people like they are going to fall apart if we show interest in their beliefs and ways.

To be an American is to be unwoke like this, to be open and catholic, to take in the humanity of all things. We’re a Herodotean people, after all. We like tall tales, and we love stories about foreign lands. We go out and see for ourselves. Flannery O’Connor would sit on the porch and talk with anyone. That’s the human way, and the American way, too.

What we don’t do is yell at people for exploring the humanity that belongs to us all. Only white liberals do that. I “culturally appropriate” like gangbusters. I hope you will join me. Get out there and Orientalize like your life depended on it. I guarantee you, people who live in the Orient are going to love it. It drives the woke crazy, of course, but that’s OK. Because the woke already are. Woke is whiteface. I reject that unnatural segregation and declare myself unwoke, from where the sun now stands. A proud American mongrel and loving every minute of it.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan