Yellowface in Edinburgh: racist party culture in UK universities

Content warning: use of racialised terms

In the last week, it has come to the attention of the BAME community at the University of Edinburgh that a Chinese New Year party hosted by a group of white students featured yellowface, cultural appropriation, and (poorly translated) signs that read ‘吮吸我的筷子’(“suck on my chopsticks”). Such parties that mock BAME cultures are, however, not uncommon within British university culture. This party occurs as just one incident in a long-standing tradition of minority exploitation for white entertainment; and is indicative of the widespread failure among white students to acknowledge why racial and cultural mockery are not just ‘a bit of fun.’

This pseudo-Chinese New Year party is emblematic of the intensifying discrimination that East Asian students have faced on campus this year. It follows a string of anti-Asian posts on the Facebook page ‘Edifess’, a page that focuses predominantly on social life at the University of Edinburgh. 

In this particular incident, yellowface was used to caricature Chinese culture. Yellowface is commonly defined as theatrical makeup used by a non-East Asian performer playing an East Asian role. However, yellowface refers also to the way that non-East Asian people attempt to put on a display of their perception of East Asian culture, informed by stereotypes. According to Vats and Nishime, yellowface is an attempt to emphasise “the alien and unassimilable cultural practices of foreigners from the East” through stereotypes, which has historically been used to “justify discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration policies.” The use of yellowface at the party represents a mockery and dehumanisation of East Asian students at this university, that portrays their race as a joke. 

What is more, dressing up to appear East Asian or to portray East Asian stereotypes is an exploitation of white privilege – using Orientalist imagery as a costume dismisses the baggage inherent in actually being a racialised, East Asian person in reality. East Asian students do not have the privilege of being able to simply ‘take off’ their East Asianness when faced with racial harassment.

Party-goers also painted tiger skin, cherry blossoms and orientalist tattoos onto their bodies, essentialising Chinese culture by reducing it to a set of Western tropes on China. Although used as a source of entertainment, such cultural mockery disregards the ways in which it is harmful to BAME students, particularly Chinese students, at the University of Edinburgh. To reproduce stereotypes, and to appropriate cultural symbols that BAME groups continue to be harassed for, is to perpetuate the stigmatisation of minority communities across the UK. We must recognise that making ‘jokes’ out of BAME races or cultures acts to reproduce imperial imaginations of racial inferiority, and contributes to the trauma that minority students suffer daily through micro-aggressions.

This Chinese New Year party must also be viewed in relation to the wider context of racism within university parties across the UK. In 2015, for example, white students from the Reading University’s Agriculture Society wore blackface, dressed up as North Korean soldiers, and wore turbans to a ‘holiday’ themed party.

In 2016, students at the University of Bristol dressed up in jumpsuits, with heavily applied fake tan, and cornrows in order to resemble black television characters on Orange is the New Black. In 2018, the Men’s Rugby Club at University College London held a Chinese New Year party, calling for attendees to dress up in ‘oriental attire,’ making jokes about Chairman Mao and the One Child Policy. 

The recurrent nature of these incidents demonstrates the way in which individual disciplinary action is not enough. There needs to be a change in British university culture which currently allows for racism to be consumed as fun or banter. We need to stop prioritising white students’ entertainment over the safety and well-being of BAME students.

Furthermore, the notion that racist behaviour is mere ‘banter’ or ‘fun’ is insidiously used to obscure the oppression that underlies racial/cultural mockery. To make fun of BAME cultures is to participate in and further the asymmetrical power relations between white and BAME communities: although jokes can be made about all peoples, the power dynamic when ridiculing white culture, versus BAME culture, is disproportionate. Indeed, mockeries of BAME cultures are inextricably tied to histories of oppression and exploitation. It is important to highlight the way in which such racist forms of entertainment affect the BAME community, which is dismissed by white students when they host such parties. The end of this article is dedicated to the responses of BAME students at the University of Edinburgh, regarding the racist Chinese New Year party held earlier this semester:

Isabella Neergaard Petersen, 2nd year Scandinavian Studies and Classics, 2018/2019 BME Liberation Officer: “The conduct of the students at this party is disgusting and just one example of the racism faced every day by Black and Minority Ethnic students at universities across the UK. It is clear that we still have a long way to go in creating an institution which is welcoming to and inclusive of students of colour, and more must be done to challenge the attitudes and beliefs which normalise this type of behaviour.

I am particularly concerned about the message this sends to our Chinese student community, and the impact it has had on their sense of safety and wellbeing on campus. I will continue to support students who have been affected by this and other incidents of racism on campus, and would encourage students to contact the Students’ Association’s Advice Place where they can access further information on reporting and support.”

Meyra Çoban, 3rd Year Philosophy Student: “Yellowface incidents at our university are just one aspect of how comfortable non-East Asian students at our university are to invisibilise East Asian students and behave as if they weren’t part of the university community. East Asian students face particular racisms that not all BME student groups face. In the past, East Asian students at UK universities have been accused of forming parallel communities, have been mistrusted for the authenticity of their university entrance qualifications, and have been assumed to be naturally less familiar with academic integrity standards as a recent incident at the University of Liverpool demonstrated.”

Click here to see an article written by Meyra about the racism of Edifess. 

Maryam Helmi, 3rd year Geology: “My eyes are angular and relative to my other facial features, small. Like many East Asians and South East Asians, we have bright, dark brown irises that feature a depth of untold wisdom. Our eyes are not to be called ‘exotic’ or relegated to ‘slits’ for you to mimic as if we’re walking caricatures; I will not be dehumanised on the basis of my facial features in comparison to anyone.”

Allie YH, 4th year Chinese: “These people should be held responsible for their actions and society should acknowledge the severity of the inherent racism that is still present in our day to day lives. It’s 2019, we should be better than this.”

Emma Nance, 4th year English Literature: “Every policy that is tacitly or overtly complicit in the marginalisation of any group needs to be addressed, loudly. Arguments of ‘it was just a joke!’ or ‘we weren’t hurting anyone,’ fail to recognise that, by normalising this behaviour, you believe that the culture I come from is simply a mask, a caricature, something that can be easily consumed and just as thoughtlessly discarded. Race, existence and identity are not simply rotating costumes which you get to wear at your leisure. I have broken down some possible arguments I foresee against this piece and my responses:

Q: ‘It was one party, how does this mean that I am dehumanising anyone?’

A: To deem only ‘extreme’ forms of racism worthy of action is to deny the authenticity of the spectrum of experience. This is a subtle yet powerful way of incorporating everyday micro-aggressions into the dominant culture. This becomes an impossible sliding baseline of permissibility against which my experiences as a woman of colour at this university subsequently do not and cannot measure up against, thus reinforcing the validity of the dominant model.

Q: ‘There were a lot of people at the party, surely not everyone involved could be a racist?’

A: The definition of a racist needs to be expanded to include all instances of discriminatory and Othering action. If your definition of what a racist acts like and against whom only addresses some out of the many marginalised communities, then it is simply not wide enough.

Q: ‘The party was just a symptom of an overarching diagnosis of institutionalised racism – aren’t the students themselves unfortunately simply a manifestation of this history?’

A: While I agree with the first part of this argument, this is a circular argument which fails to recognise that the resources to educate and break the cycle are widely available. The fact that they had hand painted Chinese characters proves there is at least a base level understanding of the culture they were mocking, which demonstrates that they have the agency and wherewithal to understand subsequent reactions. Ignorance is not an excuse, not does this excuse stand up to cursory scrutiny.

In conclusion, in the words of artist Alex Ruth Bertuli-Fernandes, I will not be ‘complicit in my own dehumanisation,’ nor will I tolerate any policy which attempts to separate my heritage from my humanity.

 

Please note that Isabella’s response differs from that which appears in print.

Image credit withheld.

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