I love opera. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen “Madame Butterfly.” Puccini incorporated Japanese musical themes throughout the score. This heart-wrenching love story never fails to leave its audience in tears.
The opera takes place in Nagasaki in the late 1800s. Cio-Cio-San, Butterfly, is a young Geisha who loves Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer. For him, however, she was his plaything. He left to the United States and promised to return “when the robins nest.” During his absence, Cio-Cio-San gave birth to their son. When Pinkerton returned three years later, he brought his American wife, Kate. Crushed, Cio-Cio-San lets Pinkerton take their son as she takes her own life.
“Madame Butterfly” seems far removed from the recent shooting in Atlanta, which claimed eight lives, including six Asian women. Yet it poses a question: How do we tell the story?
Authorities are not clear if this was a hate crime directed at Asians or a crime committed in response to the shooter’s sexual addiction. Why must authorities choose?
Anti-Asian racism has had a long history in the United States. North Adams has a curious footnote in Chinese immigration. In 1870, Calvin Sampson brought 75 Chinese men as strikebreakers to make shoes. Other companies in the United States followed suit.
The United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
During World War II, the United States forcibly moved people of Japanese descent to concentration camps.
I remember anti-Asian sentiments during the 1980s when American auto companies began to lose market share to Japanese companies.
A particularly significant event was the beating death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, by two white men. Though found guilty, the men were fined $3,000 and got no prison time because the judge thought it was nothing more than a barroom brawl.
Most recently, we had a president who called COVID-19 the “kung flu.”
I have had my share of people pulling their eyes into slants. I have had many people try to impress me with the one phrase they know in Chinese. I have had people call me “chink.” I have heard the Chinese jokes delivered in pidgin English. I have had people compliment me on my English.
Asian women struggle with anti-Asian racism, too. However, they also must confront fetishistic, sexualized misogyny. Just like Pinkerton, media — including mainstream art forms like opera — have objectified them as exotic, sexualized playthings to satisfy a man’s sexual fantasies and desires.
We separate the cause of the women’s deaths as racism or sexuality. It is both, because for Asian women they are tightly intertwined.
However, the authorities will try. The media will comply. White privilege controls the narrative and, thus, our collective impression of the story.
Anti-Asian racism gets lost. When we engage in conversations about race, the Asian experience often gets overlooked. Black experiences typically predominate the conversation. When we have been included, we sometimes get pitted against Black people when we’re cited as a “model minority.”
Last summer, I led my congregation through an anti-racism course published by my denomination, the United Church of Christ.
The participants responded well and became more attuned to their white privilege. It was a good course to awaken people to the Black experience. At the same time, it was limited because it was only the Black experience.
The history of Asians in America differs from country to country. South Asians from India and Pakistan have a different experience than people from Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia, for example. Those experiences differ from the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino experiences, and even among them their experiences differ. Consequently, we each have our own stories. Nevertheless, we all share a common status of outsider, no matter how long we have been in this country.
White privilege should not gloss over the narrative. Rather, white privilege has a responsibility to tell the narrative honestly, even if it exposes painful aspects of that privilege. The narrative for the women shot dead on Tuesday is not an either-or, but a both-and. It acknowledges the fetishistic exoticism of Asian women and the potential for harm. It can help us to unpack and expose the racist tropes embedded in our culture, even in beloved works like “Madame Butterfly.”
It will not be easy, but then, undoing decades of deeply embedded racism will be hard work. It will also be rewarding work when we can honestly and fully address racism.